What is student agency? In modern education, we often associate student agency with the phrase “voice and choice,” but we’ve been talking about student agency as far back as John Dewey. Dewey made the case that choice and deliberation characterize human agency and are essential to human nature itself; humans interact with the world and make choices that shape their destinies; we’re not automatons doomed to carry out our programming.

Why does fostering student agency matter?

Fostering student agency matters not only because agency matters from a Dewey-esk philosophical standpoint but also because it matters from a career and life success standpoint. If you can ace a standardized math test but are flummoxed when you show up at work and are asked to think critically and creatively about data presented to you on a spreadsheet – if you have content knowledge but feel no agency around application of that content knowledge – then how much good is that content knowledge doing you? Students need to exercise voice and choice because doing so is a vital part of day-to-day life. 

How can we as educators foster student agency? 

There’s a whole menu of strategies to foster student agency; which item makes sense for you and your learners will vary based on your learners’ ages and profiles as well as course content and delivery method. For example, a strategy like student self-reflection might make sense in the context of a graduate seminar. Teacher-led approaches such as scaffolding might be a good fit for online or hybrid courses. Strategies focused on student-teacher collaboration and personal relationship development may lend themselves well to classes with a lower student-teacher ratio. 

Once you’ve selected your strategy, how do you know if it’s working?

That’s where things get a little tricky. How do you objectively measure if a student feels a sense of purpose or sees acquiring and applying knowledge as within their locus of control? One option is to dive into the realm of student agency analytics and administer a survey through your Learning Management System (LMS) such as the Agency of University Students (AUS) scale questionnaire.

Even if that’s not in the cards for you, you can still use reports and analytics to get actionable data around this issue. If you’ve opted to employ student reflection, are your students completing their journal entries? Are you noticing any trends when you review them? If you’ve decided to go with scaffolding, what student feedback are you getting about its utility? If you’ve committed to connecting with students to develop a personal relationship, have you been reaching out? How often?

Student agency is something educators have been wrestling with from a conceptual and practical standpoint for eons; it’s not a surprise that fostering student agency in instructional design and delivery is neither cut and dried nor a small undertaking. But ultimately, without voice and choice, we’re not addressing who our students are as humans and thus failing to meet their needs. 

Are you interested in fostering student agency in your courses? Schedule a chat with us, take advantage of our webinars. We’d love to help you harness the power of your data so you can empower your students to exercise voice and choice.