Student agency

In an earlier post I discussed the distinction between “personalized” and “individualized” learning, and explored the extent to which student choice is involved. I also discussed how total student choice isn’t necessarily appropriate in many cases, and how the teacher provides important guiderails in a blended class. How should we describe these concepts succinctly? The appropriate term that suggests some level of student choice, tied to teacher involvement, appears to be “student agency,” with “agency” meaning the capacity to make choices and act.  (See for example this definition and this discussion for the meaning of “agency” outside of the education context.)  Agency is less about student control and more about student participation in learning.

According to one source, “Student Agency refers to a combination of academic mindsets and learning strategies that have been demonstrated to advance achievement. Academic mindsets are evident in students who feel a sense of belonging in school; believe they have the capacity to learn, and see value in their participation.”

A journal article from the High Tech High Graduate School of Education lays out four habits of mind that are essential to student agency:

  • A Growth Mindset: “I can change my intelligence and abilities through effort.”
  • Self-Efficacy: “I can succeed.”
  • Sense of Belonging: “I belong in this learning community.”
  • Relevance: “This work has value and purpose for me.”

Some readers may feel that this exercise in defining and exploring student agency is more theoretical than useful. But if educators, policymakers, and funders are increasingly  focusing on personalization, we need to understand what personalization is and why we expect that increasing it will result in improved student outcomes. Exploring and defining student agency is a key element of understanding personalization.