Five Ways To: Foster Student Agency

It’s common to come across situations where the idea of independent learning is being promoted. However, this can be quite a nebulous concept unless we break it down into actions that teachers and students can take. We want students to develop the attitudes and skills that, together, mean they can and will engage in learning processes in their own time, with effort and persistence in a generally self-motivated manner. Ideally students will feel that the are doing this for themselves to meet personal goals, but, realistically, it can take time for them to build the habits needed so this needs to be supported by structures within the flow of lessons that provide some motivational drive.

I’ve had a lot of experience with students who, once encouraged to develop agency, driving their own learning – have seized the opportunity. The examples here include the gem of ‘Taran’s Plan’..

The challenge is that to foster student agency involving all students, you need to provide opportunities for them to make decisions for themselves without over-controlling everything. The key is to make this part of the norms of the class culture alongside making it relatively straightforward through specific tasks. Here are Five Ways…

Foster norms around effortful independent work / homework.

When setting my regular stack of homework, one of my teacher-cliché mantras always used to be: You’re not doing it for me; you’re doing it for yourself. It’s important to aim for a situation where you can set very high expectations about homework or independent task completion without reinforcing the idea that they are doing it to please use or out of fear of a sanction; they are doing it because it matters, because it needs to be done, because it will help them learn more and, very simply, because it’s just part of the normal everyday flow of how learning/school work. And, crucially, everyone does it. It’s part of the group norms.

In practice this means creating routines so that all this becomes built-in:

  • Set very explicit homework goals with very clear success criteria and deadlines, discussing how and when students will do the work, exploring any potential challenges.
  • Make tasks and task completion public; shared … to reinforce the sense that everyone is expected to do it and, in the main, everyone does do it. It’s normal to work hard; it’s unusual and problematic not to do the work.
  • Apply the ‘dot in the square’ approach to completed homework – affirm students who have completed tasks, bigging them up and showcasing efforts from a range of students. Obviously, avoid creating any sense that it’s only nerdy swots who do their homework! (In my view sanctions should only kick in for very persistent issues but their very existence can provide that extra bit of ‘stick motivation’, nudging behaviours in the long run.)
  • Religiously set homework so that it becomes utterly normal and always check that it has been done – including simply by getting work out on desks and walking around checking for completion, taking an interest. Make it all positive – but absolutely expected.
  • Where possible in lessons, build on the work done independently – so that it has immediate value. Tell students in advance that their independent work will need to be done as a basis for the next lesson.

Share the Big Picture of Curriculum and Assessment

Start every course and every unit within it with an exploration of the whole thing. Look at the contents page of the book, the specification overview, the knowledge organiser – whatever it is that gives students a broad sense of the material they about to learn. Give them the resources to allow this to be done. This is analogous to looking at a map before starting out on a group journey, charting the course ahead. You want everyone to see it – not just follow you blindly. It’s important because students not only get the big schema map that helps the learning itself, they can then gauge their progress along that journey:

  • Where do I need to get to?
  • Where am I now?
  • So.. what steps do I now need to take to get to where I need to be?

At multiple points, use class time to take stock of the class progress through the unit. What have we done so far? How much more is there to do? Making all this explicit helps students to regulate their effort and teaches them how to do the stock-taking on their own – which is the ultimate goal. I’ll always remember when one of my Y11s, Soo-Min, came to class concerned that we hadn’t yet covered Colloids and Gels, asking when we’d be doing that section. She, alongside everyone else, had access to the syllabus and, keen to succeed, was always checking in with me to make sure we were on track. That’s the kind of attitude you want – students as drivers, not merely passengers. Another mantra of mine: If I push you and you push me, we’ll all do really well.

The same applies to assessment modes: students should know exactly how and when they will be assessed and have access to all the material needed to get ready: questions, answers, knowledge resources, exemplars, mark schemes, even examiners’ reports – the whole lot, as appropriate for their age and stage. Teach them how to access them and how to use them.

Develop Habits Around Reading for Study

A key element of independent work and student agency is empowering students to read about and around the subject so that they can and do explore learning on their own whenever they are motivated to do so. In order to make this work you need to make it part of the normal diet of independent learning tasks, starting in class and then extending into homework. Making this happen includes:

  • Routinely, using text-based resources to drive learning, so reading happens regularly in lessons
  • Using accountable reading techniques so students have to show their understanding of what they read
  • Teaching note-making techniques so students and read and summarise
  • Setting reading tasks as part of a diet of homework, with extended reading suggested beyond the core task, supporting the idea that there is always more…

Establish Self Study-Self Test loops 

Make it explicit that students learn to self-evaluate the extent of their knowledge through routine self-study and self-test loops. Imagine, for example, that you need to learn a set of quotes that line-up with a set of specific themes in a play. Or, you need to learn the name and function of each component of blood. That kind of material it totally learnable in an independent manner given the right resources and some simple test-check routines. To support students, model the learning process in class, first exploring the content in detail, reading, discussing, answering questions – and then engaging in a range of retrieval practice tasks – quiz style or more open – eg tell the story, summarise, elaborate. Importantly, make them into loops: study – test.. then explore the gaps.. then re-test. It’s so important that students learn to identify what they don’t know and then learn how to address their own gaps through more thinking and practice.

Beyond lessons, set tight study tasks for homework with related low stakes retrieval tests in the next lesson so now students learn to study by themselves. Make it very clear what exactly to learn and what exactly will be tested so students make the connection. Later, expand the range and make it less predictable but keep the success rate high. Motivation is fuelled by effort rewarded by success.

Focus on them identifying their own errors rather than relying on the teacher to provide the corrective feedback. “How well did you do? Which ones did you get wrong?”

Set Open Research and Report Tasks

Finally, a key element of student agency is in making choices about the learning itself: details of what is learned and how that knowledge is shared. It’s vital for students to learn that they have agency in shaping their learning.. they can find things out; they can go off into any corners of the world of knowledge that they wish; they can pursue all kinds of interests and lines of enquiry and choose how to represent ideas.

These choices need to be structured at first – heavily scaffolded so that all can succeed – but students can then learn to use their study skills more an more independently. To kick things off, make it a routine element of the curriculum flow that, at various points in the year, students can choose an area of study within the topic at hand – for example:

  • Select the river to write their case study about
  • Select the specific pair of poems from the anthology to compare
  • Select the artist or composer to represent the period or genre as stimulus for a composition
  • Select the specific ecology story or adaption case study to report on.

Then invite students to select ways to report back on what they’ve found in a variety of formats – an open-response task. They might write a traditional report on paper or make a slidedeck or a video or a website or give a verbal presentation. Mix things up a bit.

Taken together these elements of a whole curriculum sequence combine to foster student agency – creating the mindsets and study skills needed for genuine independent learning.

Here’s the brilliant one-pager by David Goodwin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s