What the Pandemic Can Teach Us About the Important Goals of Student Agency

First article in our series on “Student Agency”

We’re only just beginning to comprehend the implications and lessons of the pandemic’s impact on education–among them, the advantages and limits of online education. For all its challenges, however, the quick shift to a remote–and thus more independent–learning model came with a pedagogical (or perhaps, heutagogical)–silver lining. After all, educators have long advocated for and pursued initiatives that emphasize the importance of cultivating greater student autonomy in the learning process. Of the many lessons to be taken from the pandemic, the move to remote learning has a lot to teach us about how to better cultivate more independent learners.

Agentic Learning

Encouraging more independent learning has long meant providing students with more agency in the learning process. “Agency” is the “capability of individual human beings to make choices and act on these choices in a way that makes a difference in their lives.” The role of agency in cognitive processes involved in learning comes primarily from the learning theory known as constructivism. Constructivist learning theory holds that people “construct” knowledge through a process of taking actions in their environment and making adjustments to existing knowledge structures based on the outcome of those actions. Against the idea that learners are passive vessels to be “filled” with the knowledge by instructors, constructivists see learners as active agents who construct new knowledge by drawing on and revising existing beliefs through their own “schemas” or frameworks of understanding.

In the context of education, the importance of student agency has led to what some call “agentic learning”: Instructional methods that emphasize the importance of active student choice and ownership in what and how they learn. Agentic learning has inspired “Student Voice and Choice” initiatives aimed at increasing opportunities for students to “showcase their learning by solving challenges they are most passionate about and selecting the medium through which they present their solutions.” Because agentic learning provides students more freedom to pursue their own interests, it can increase motivation and make learning more relevant to a student’s individual experiences, needs, interests, and endeavors. And because agentic learning gives students more power over how they learn, it fundamentally respects the dignity of student autonomy, their ability to effectively make decisions that impact their personal and academic growth.

4 Forms of Student Agency: Curricular, Instructional, Practical, and Participatory

The following is not an exhaustive list of “methods,” but a place to begin:

Curricular Agency

In my experience, the project of increasing student agency commonly focuses on increasing student choice at the curricular level. In an English class, for example, facilitating student agency often means giving students more choices in course content–for instance, more freedom to choose their own texts. Instead of having everyone in class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, students choose their own titles (with perhaps some guidelines around length and reading level). It’s also common practice to provide students with greater choice regarding the products of learning: Allowing students to choose between, say, a visual presentation or a written essay as a final project. As long as the resulting product/project demonstrates evidence of required learning outcomes, the specifics of the what and how can be left to each student’s own interests, strengths, and aspirations.

Instructional Agency

In class, promoting student agency also means providing students more ownership over class instruction. Instead of occupying a place at the head of class as the lecturer or proverbial “sage on the stage,” I gave the class over to students. In my class–or I should say, in my students’ class–student-led instruction typically involves allowing students to independently work in groups to discuss topics in a text, or giving them opportunities to prepare and deliver class presentations. As with curricular agency, greater instructional agency also enabled students to direct their learning in ways that were more relevant to their own interests. Placing students in charge of instruction requires but also inspires more active participation. More fundamentally, instructional agency means avoiding the “dogmatic” model of instruction: Instead of telling students what they should know and learn, instructional agency means allowing students to independently discuss, debate, interrogate, evaluate, agree or disagree with course content on their own terms.

Participatory Agency

What I call “participatory agency” refers to instructional strategies that provide students more choice and voice as co-partners in course planning and managerial tasks. For example, I often did not even “start” a course until I co-developed and drafted the syllabus with students themselves. I also regularly invited feedback that gave students a voice in how I developed or revised instruction–everything from how I worded unit goals, to how I designed activities to support those goals. Basically, I considered ways to involve students as participants/partners in any aspect of course planning and development.

Practical Agency

As a teacher, I also began to think about ways to provide students with more choice and agency in what I call the practical aspects of learning: The choices and self-regulatory behaviors–such as goal setting, planning, and time management–involved in completing tasks. Instead of micromanaging students’ activities in class, I provided them progressively more independent free time, allowing students to confront the challenge of how to plan and organize their work on their own.

Did I know whether they spent this newfound free time actually working? Of course not–and that was the point. Did some spend their time hanging out with friends on the campus lawn? Often. Did some go to the library, only to start flirting, goofing around, and shenaniganizing? Yes–according to the school librarian–yes, some did. Did they spend their time watching Family Guy on their Iphones? Yep, I saw that too. (And, yes, I watched along.) But, actually, most of them spent their free time working. Sometimes they worked on projects for my class, and sometimes they focused on work for other classes. Often, many took advantage of that time to get extra help from me. But again, that’s all the point: Increased practical agency means allowing students to self-manage all the choices (distractions and challenges) involved in planning and completing learning tasks–including where, when and when not to focus on their school work.

In sum, it was helpful for me to think of student agency on 4 levels: Curricular, Instructional, Participatory and Practical:

  • Curricular agency means giving students greater choice over the content and products of learning (i.e., which books they read, the kinds of projects they produce). Curricular agency can also mean including students as partners in planning curricula.

  • Instructional agency: Instead of a “dogmatic” or “teacher-centered” approach to instruction, instructional agency means “teaching from the sidelines” by facilitating student-led presentations and discussions, where students have the freedom to independently debate, interrogate, evaluate, agree or disagree with class content.

  • Participatory agency means granting students agency as co-creators and planners in all aspects of course planning and management, as well as inviting student feedback on how best to improve instruction. On a broader, institutional level, participatory agency can involve including students and their input in school-wide decisions traditionally left to administrators and teachers.

  • Practical agency means giving students greater choice and freedom in how they execute the practical demands (such as time and project management, behavioral and emotional self-regulation) involved in completing tasks. Practical agency requires the ability to self-regulate one’s behavior in order to focus on and execute learning tasks.

Practical Agency and the Challenge of Self-Regulation

The skills required for practical agency are not explicitly academic. In fact, even the most academically accomplished students struggle in contexts that allow for greater practical agency and freedom. Educators know all too well how top performers in high school commonly find themselves overwhelmed in college–not because they lack the academic ability, but because they lack the experience and skills required to execute tasks on their own.

I remember my first semester in college, and my happy discovery that my professors didn’t take attendance, nor did they care whether or not I showed up to class at all, or–for that matter–how I spent any of my time on campus. This newfound freedom, however, soon caught up with me. The challenges were not simply about time-management. The challenges were also emotional–for one, developing the ability to manage the stress of my tumultuous love life (or so it seemed at the time) in order to avoid distracting thoughts and feelings. I eventually figured out how to turn the burden of all that unstructured time into a benefit, taking advantage of my newfound practical agency in ways that actually enhanced my ability to learn.

More recently, as a father, I saw firsthand how the pandemic forced my son to confront–prematurely–the challenges of independent learning online. I was 18 when I made the difficult transition to more independent learning in college, and that was hard enough. My son was only 13 when the pandemic hit. For him, the greatest challenges had little to do with what I have here called “curricular agency.” Even by 7th grade, he was very familiar and comfortable with how to take more ownership over the kinds of texts and projects that shaped his learning experiences in class. And he had plenty of experience independently presenting his ideas to class. He had, however, considerably less experience with the self-regulatory demands of what I have called practical agency. Remote instruction meant that he was suddenly left on his own to confront and negotiate new stores of empty time–time that, during traditional on-campus instruction, was typically structured by the rules and routines of the classroom.

By imposing a cram course in the challenges of independent learning, the pandemic has also taught us the importance of gradually preparing students to become more independent learners. We can begin by broadening our understanding of student agency. Student agency is about more than giving students more choices in their curriculum or allowing them to lead class discussions. Effective independent learners are “self-regulating”: “Analyzing task requirements, setting productive goals, often adapting or inventing strategies to achieve their objectives” in ways that fit their needs. Self-regulation also requires the ability to manage emotions and behavior, to persevere in the face of setbacks, avoid distractions and maintain the focus required to follow through on tasks.

Developing these abilities means more than giving students extra free time. It means designing learning opportunities that provide a language for identifying and targeting relevant skills, followed by opportunities for individual self-reflection and evaluation. It also means providing students with the necessary safety nets and tools they need to reach out for support. After all, “independent learning” is not the same as learning alone. Truly independent learners also know how to identify and communicate their needs, request help, and self-advocate. These skills come in handy, in pandemics and beyond. After all, while the need to develop new knowledge and skills persists throughout adult life, the support and structure of a traditional classroom does not.