young female student in front of a chalk board with a light bulb drawing
Inside the Classroom

Why Student Agency Matters

Light bulb

Student agency—what is it? Surprisingly, there is no one definition for this term, but we can liken student agency to students having the “it factor”: they have “it,” they know how to be successful, and they go after “it.” In essence, student agency requires students to take responsibility for their learning. Although not a new concept, the term is evolving simply because students and the learning process are also always evolving. Students with agency know how to work hard and focus. They take an interest in learning, work through any difficulties along the way, and in the end, do not give up.

As educators, we often measure our success by watching our students leave school with the ability to accomplish their goals and be successful in life. We aspire for all our students to be successful, but we also know that some students are easier to work with than others. These particular students often have an ingrained sense of agency and can work through difficulties on their own. Sometimes we even see ourselves in these students. They can mimic our feelings (as teachers) about learning and achievement. But what about meeting the needs of our struggling students?

stylized text that reads "All I need is someone who won't give up on me."

Research suggests that agency is such a fundamental human desire that people only lose agency when they’re unable to make relevant connections to the activity, task, person, etc. In other words, agency, in the most literal sense, is about relationships with others. We already know the importance of making connections in the classroom to pique student interest, but isn’t it more than that? An in-depth study of the psychology of coping researched stress and resilience during adolescence and children’s ability to self-regulate. This study discovered that a child’s ways of dealing with challenges fit into one of the following categories: problem-solving, support seeking, distraction, escape, opposition, or withdrawal.

In simple terms, this means that some students handle their issues better than others. As educators, we need to remember that students who lack agency can doubt themselves and their abilities, and that behavioral responses such as withdrawing, appearing apathetic, and even acting out are coping mechanisms to regulate emotions. In school, these students are often slumped over in the back of the classroom, refusing to participate and unable to concentrate. Sadly, they often also participate in self-talk in which they reinforce their feelings of incompetence.

How Can I Help Increase Student Agency?

There is hope for students like this. As teachers, we can build agency through our interactions and relationships with our students. One way to do this is with conversation. A few well-placed words can work wonders on a student’s self-esteem, and lead to increased agency. For tips on how to do this with ease, check out this list of 101 ways to say good job.

Another way to build agency is to teach students how to reflect using metacognition. 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.

Additionally, there are lots of questions you can ask your students to help in building agency, including the following:

  • How did you figure that out?
  • What problems did you come across today?
  • How are you planning to go about this?
  • Which part are you sure about? Which part are you not sure about?

Agency is both a skill and a mindset that involves goal setting and self-reflection. By understanding our students better, we can help them build a growth mindset and, in turn, build their confidence. When students believe they can succeed, they are less likely to feel helpless in times of struggle. As educators, we can help our students develop these lifelong skills that will propel them into successful futures

Sources

101 ways to say “good job.” Cornell Cooperative Extension Putnam County. Retrieved from http://putnam.cce.cornell.edu/resources/101-ways-to-say-good-job

Brookman-Byrne, A. (2018, June 22). Thinking about thinking: What is metacognition and how can it help students learn? BOLD. Retrieved from https://bold.expert/thinking-about-thinking/

Darling-Hammond, L., Austin, K., Cheung, M., & Martin, D (n.d.). Activities for metacognition. DePaul Teaching Commons. Retrieved from https://resources.depaul.edu/teaching-commons/teaching-guides/learning-activities/Pages/activities-for-metacognition.aspx

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Retrieved from https://www.stenhouse.com/content/choice-words

Skinner, E. A., & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2007). The development of coping (pp. 120–144). Portland, OR: Portland State University Department of Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085705

About the Author

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Amy Schmidt

A Michigan native and a University of Michigan graduate, Amy has over 18 years of combined experience as an educator in public schools, online, and in college. She holds a BA in Art Education and English as well as a master’s degree in writing. Currently, she is working on a master’s certificate in Instructional Design. A lifelong learner and tech enthusiast, Amy is interested in student-centered learning and the integration of technology into the classroom. She resides in Michigan with her husband, a local superintendent of schools, their three sons, and their wonder mutt, Lucy.