February 15, 2022 8:00 am

Building Agency in the Student-Centered Classroom

Foster independence both inside and outside the classroom by encouraging students to take control of their own learning.

A classroom of students raising their hands

In an effort to increase engagement and promote student agency in their classrooms, teachers are encouraged to provide options, or “voice and choice,” to their students. A “choose your own adventure” learning model, if you will.  

This is all very exciting, but, as a former educator, I understand the sheer panic that comes with handing over the reins to your students. 

I know you know what I’m talking about. You’d been planning a unit for months, but nothing was clicking. Then, in the middle of the night (or while washing your hair in the shower), it hits you — the perfect culminating project. Equal parts engaging, rigorous, and (most importantly) student-centered, it will be the piece de resistance of your unit. With excitement, you create the project instructions, giving students just enough information that they know what is expected, but not so much that you stifle creativity. Perfect! 

Now I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this, but suffice to say, the roll-out and end results don’t go quite as planned. First, you’re peppered with questions like, “Is this for a grade?” and “What are we supposed to do?” Then, once you’ve answered those by reiterating the open-ended nature of the project, you look around at your students and see stares as blank as their Google docs. The project then becomes onerous, with you explaining and re-explaining the goals daily. And then when it’s time to review the projects, you think back to that initial spark of excitement when creating it and can’t help but wonder what you did wrong in the execution. Some students totally got it! But the majority did not. 

You conclude that the project was too open-ended. Student-centered is great in theory (and you absolutely want your students to be independent thinkers), but you need to give more thorough, step-by-step instructions with examples from now on.

For a classroom to be truly student-centered, for the projects and the choice boards to have their desired effects, students need to have self-regulatory skills — in other words, they need to have agency. Some students walk into your classroom with this already, but most don’t. The students who “have it” are the ones who make us believe this is an innate personality trait. While some people may be “born with it,” that doesn’t mean the rest of us are out of luck. Self-regulation and agency can be taught. 

Before we get to that, we need to examine what we’re asking students to do. Are we requiring agency from our students with the assignments we give them? Or are we providing them with step-by-step instructions and exact criteria for the final product? Dent and Koenka found in their 2016 study that “highly structured tasks provide more detailed requirements, have a clearer linear procedure, involve more identifiable answers, and often include more precise assessment criteria. Taken together, these features may require less self-regulation of learning because a strategic plan, subgoals, and way to monitor performance are already embedded within the task structure.” 

So, by reverting to painstakingly detailed instructions with step-by-step teacher support, we are not fostering autonomy. Instead, we are promoting the idea that students need us to tell them how and what to learn. But the whole point of agency is that students can thrive when we are not there to guide them. 

During the transition from in-person to virtual learning, teachers became acutely aware of the results of this handholding. No longer in the same physical space, it was nearly (or completely) impossible to cajole reluctant students into completing their work. Students you’d normally be able to win over with “cringy” teacher humor and help along could now turn off their cameras and walk away from their computers. 

It comes as no surprise that one of teachers’ chief complaints after a year of distance learning was the lack of accountability

“Students are not as honest or engaged remotely. Many cheat because they can. Some pretend to be in class and aren’t. There is less accountability now, which only hurts them.” 

But what do we mean when we talk about accountability?

Based on this quote, we can put together a working definition of accountability, or at least how this particular teacher sees it — present, engaged, and possessing academic integrity. But virtual instruction adds another layer to this. Students must motivate themselves to be all of those things. They need to self-regulate — accountability is just another term for agency.  

The initial transition to online learning was so sudden that teachers were forced to try to fit the lessons they had planned into a virtual model. What the Christensen Institute found in their study was that “online learning used only to support conventional instruction made teachers’ jobs more complicated.” 

Everyone had to pivot, but it seemed like the teachers who managed to truly embrace online learning for the personalization it offers students shifted out of panic mode more quickly. Implementing things like choice boards, playlists, and drop-in office hours, students were not always working on the same thing at the same time. When they let go of the need for all students to be on the same page and learning in the same way, they saw an increase in engagement. Students became invested in their learning when it was at their pace. 

So, it seems that giving students voice and choice in their learning does welcome a larger number of students into the group that has “it.” But there are still many students who need more than six different formative assessment options to regulate their own learning. 

How do we support student agency? 

Dent and Koenka note that “for students in elementary and secondary school, academic performance is significantly correlated with both the cognitive strategies and metacognitive processes of self-regulated learning.” 

Cognitive strategies are the skills we are already helping students to develop — setting goals, creating assignment plans and outlines. These are tools students can use to monitor their progress. But that is where the tough part comes in: they still need help with the monitoring piece. “While cognitive strategies help students learn, metacognitive processes ensure that they have done so” (Dent & Koenka). 

You might be thinking that you’re pretty sure your credential program didn’t cover how to teach metacognition. But actually, there are some strategies you are probably already using in your teaching that can help support students’ metacognitive skills. 

1. Model your thinking 

Now, not the kind of modeling where you plan it out ahead of time to be exactly what you want to show students. The kind of modeling that promotes metacognitive development is when you authentically demonstrate your thought process — the successes, struggles, and everything in between. Show students not only that you get stuck on a word or a problem, but the way in which you work yourself to an understanding. 

2. Reflect on learning 

“Reflecting on experiences (whether behavioral or academic) helps students move forward from a setback and furthers their growth toward student agency. Encourage students to reflect on their learning experience by simply asking the question, ‘What did I learn from this?’ after completing each lesson, unit, and project. Doing this will help students start to gain a sense of awareness so they can make appropriate changes in their lives and learning to achieve better outcomes.”

3. “I don’t know, let’s look that up” 

As teachers, we often feel self-imposed pressure to always have an answer when a student asks a question. Even if you tell yourself you are going to be forthcoming with what you don’t know, it’s hard to get past the impulse to have a response. But by showing your students that you know the gaps in your knowledge (and you have the tools to fill them), you are teaching them that they can do the same. 

The ability to monitor comprehension, or “self-check,” could be the key to student agency. Dent and Koenka observed that “students who are more vigilant for gaps in their knowledge of learning material should perform better on academic tasks requiring it.” 

So, if we want students to embrace the open-ended projects and move along on their self-paced checklists, let’s show them it’s okay to not understand. In fact, let’s celebrate that awareness as the first step on the path toward autonomous learning.  

About the Author — Ally Jones

Ally Jones is a California credentialed educator who specialized in teaching English language learners at the secondary level. Outside of education, she is passionate about fitness, literature, and taking care of the planet for her son’s generation.