Promoting Student Agency in Learning

By Rachelle Dené Poth,

Over the past two school years, educators, students, and their families have experienced learning and living in new ways. There have been many challenges that we have all faced in education. For some educators, it was a necessary push to take risks, try new ideas or bring different technologies into their classrooms. Although those school years may not have gone as we had planned and we may not have covered as much of the content as we had hoped or had opportunities that we wanted for our students, learning still happened. 

In many conversations, teachers are starting to shift from what has been a focus on “learning loss” and instead focus on reflecting on the skills that students gained by learning in different yet challenging ways. Some skills such as digital citizenship, how to collaborate and build relationships when not in the classroom together, and essential technology skills. Teachers learned a lot about themselves and the importance of reflecting on their practice. We learned in new ways and now, we have to continue to provide more authentic and meaningful learning experiences for all students. 

Learning in New Ways

If we want to bring about changes for our students, we have to take some risks in our classroom and be open to new ideas, especially from students. It is important for our own professional growth that we continue to stretch ourselves and embrace new, and perhaps non-traditional methods of instruction. We need to foster student agency by promoting student choice and voice in learning. 

It took some time for me to make changes in my classroom, but once I did, I noticed an increase in student engagement, the development of SEL skills, and a shift from students as consumers, to being creators and innovators. Students should have learning experiences that push them to drive their learning, problem-solve, create and reflect on the learning process itself. And just like for educators, this can be a risk for students and it can feel uncomfortable. Having the power to decide one’s learning journey provides many benefits, but it can be an adjustment to shift from having a specific end product to being the one to decide what the end product will be.

Promoting Student Agency

There are many ways to promote student agency in the classroom. Whether we try different teaching methods or bring in digital tools, we can amplify student learning potential. Leveraging a digital tool that connects students with real-world learning opportunities and expands their global awareness, for example, can transform the student learning experience. Using methods in our classrooms that foster social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, benefit students now and in the future, as these are the skills in demand.  When students experience learning that is meaningful, purposeful, and relevant to their lives, it boosts student engagement and amplifies their learning potential, to better prepare students for their future careers.

Strategies and Tools

Because technology can and will change, it’s important that we focus on strategies first, and then find tools that help to facilitate these strategies whether in or outside of the classroom space. And when considering strategies, having goals in mind as to the skills we hope to help students develop. When thinking about the 21st-century skills or the skills in demand based on the Job Skills Outlook from the World Economic Forum, we know that the skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving are a few of the skills our students need. What are some activities and methods that will help students to develop these skills? Here are three ideas to get started:

1. Stations:

My first risk was making a shift to using station rotations in my classroom. Without any experience, I decided to dive right in and make my classroom a more student-centered and even student-led space. Using the activities and some digital tools that we commonly used in class and working together at the same pace, I divided these into 4 or 5 stations in my classroom. Students worked together and it enabled me to interact with each student more. Rather than being the sole provider of content, I was the facilitator of learning. Although at first, it was a big change, felt uncomfortable not being fully in control for the whole class, the impact was quickly noticed. Students developed SEL skills, became leaders in the classroom, and developed confidence in learning and it fostered a supportive learning community. Students felt connected to their peers and enjoyed the different ways they were engaging with the content.

2. Project-based learning (PBL):

PBL is a method that I thought I was using however I was just assigning projects, which were a finite learning experience for students. When doing authentic PBL, students decide on their focus and it also gives students a chance to work at their own pace through learning that can happen anywhere. With PBL, my students built their skills of collaboration and communication by working with classmates and connecting globally with a class in Argentina. Beyond building their Spanish language skills, students explored topics of interest and developed social awareness about global issues, which led to a much more powerful learning experience. By leveraging tools like Microsoft Teams, FlipBunceeWakelet, and others, students were engaged in a more meaningful and personalized learning experience which promoted student agency in learning. In addition to these benefits, students built their skills using technology by being able to collaborate, communicate, create, problem-solve, and connect during this experience. Engaging in PBL connects students with more authentic and real-world learning experiences. 

3. Student-led lessons:

A few years ago, as part of the review at the beginning of the school year, I decided to have students become the teachers. Working in pairs, students had a topic and then had to come up with a way to teach it to their partner. After the first lesson, the roles would switch and the other student would teach the lesson. It was open for students to select a topic or two and they could use anything to create their review lesson.  Students came up with great ideas which used some traditional activities such as creating a worksheet or making flashcards and others relied on the many digital tools available. Some students used BunceeFormativeNearpod, and Padlet to design their lessons. There are methods that I am using in my classroom today because of what I learned from students. This “teacher for a day” activity was a risk but with many benefits for learning the content and developing essential SEL skills as well as fostering student agency in learning.

Rewards for Learning

Trying new methods or digital tools, or taking a different role in the classroom may be uncomfortable at first, however, there are so many benefits for students and for teachers. Taking risks and facing challenges along the way is a great model to set for students. In using these three methods, teachers can shift to being the facilitator and enjoy opportunities to collaborate and co-learn with students. 

As we prepare our students, we need to provide opportunities for students to work at their own pace and explore ideas based on their specific interests and needs.


About the Author:

Rachelle Dené is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. She was named one of 30 K-12 IT Influencers to follow in 2021.

She is the author of seven books including ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU”, “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World, “True Story: Lessons That One Kid Taught Us” and her newest book “Things I Wish […] Knew” is now available at bit.ly/thingsiwishedu.

Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at https://anchor.fm/rdene915

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