What Is Student Agency And How Can You Facilitate It?

What Is Student Agency And How Can You Facilitate It?

Facilitating student agency is critical to their long-term success, both in and out of the classroom. 

When a captain decides to sail to a destination, they don’t just hoist the anchor and sail aimlessly across the water. They spend time thinking about how to best reach the destination before even setting foot on the ship. After leaving the port, they constantly check the navigational systems and communicate with people on land to ensure they’re following the correct route. They continually make adjustments to ensure they’re staying on the right track towards their destination.


The captain is practicing agency or taking actions to produce a particular outcome or effect. This same concept of agency applies to students and their learning.


Student agency, also called learning agency, is associated with various definitions and interpretations, including personalized learning, voice and choice, ownership of learning, and more. Those concepts, however, don’t paint a clear picture of student agency. 


Student agency can be broken down into four distinct parts:

  1. Setting goals
  2. Taking action towards those goals
  3. Assessing and reflecting on progress to guide how to move forward
  4. A belief in self-efficacy, or an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute necessary behaviors.

Agency helps students take ownership and develop an active role in their learning, thereby becoming more invested in their education and motivated to continue.


This methodology is not just limited to a specific grade level of students. It’s a mindset that applies to any learning stage, including post-graduation. Student agency is how we learn as adults without the institutional framework to guide us. We must set clear goals, understand how to achieve them, and assess our progress along the way, making necessary adjustments as we move forward. Agency serves to create lifelong learners by blurring the lines between schools and the real world.

Why Student Agency Is Important, Especially Now

Many students who haven’t developed agency place the responsibility for their learning on their instructors and institution. They may feel dependent and restricted by their circumstances, which can hinder overall success. 


But students who have practiced and developed agency feel greater investment, motivation, and responsibility for their learning. These students understand that they might learn differently from their peers and that the methods instructors use can resonate differently with each student. When students take ownership of their learning, they will proactively seek additional learning materials and resources to grasp a difficult concept. 


Unfortunately, the pandemic is still impacting students, who may be forced to transition online temporarily should they fall ill or have to quarantine. Because of the nature of online courses, students have less contact with their instructors and peers, leading to a loss of face-to-face accountability. Students must work harder in online learning to hold themselves accountable for participation and time management. Even if they are only online temporarily, it becomes difficult to catch up if a student falls behind. 


To overcome difficult circumstances and achieve their dreams, students need to take ownership of their learning. Student agency can help them navigate difficult circumstances like the pandemic, family troubles, and anything else threatening their success.

How To Foster Student Agency

Because student agency takes time to develop, educators should help students practice it by focusing on the four individual components.

Goal Setting

Educators and students can work together to set goals with intention at the beginning of a program. By setting goals early on in learning, students make the connection that they aren’t just there to absorb information and recall it when asked. Instead, they’re there to learn information and understand how to apply it to achieve their greater goals.


For example, a nursing school student should set the goal of becoming an excellent nurse instead of earning a nursing degree. That way, they understand that what they’re learning will help them become an excellent nurse instead of just using the information to complete an assignment.

Initiating Action Towards Goals

Educators help enable students to take action towards their goals through choice. Letting students select how they want to work through multiple assignment options sparks freedom and self-initiation in their learning. 


Outside of mandatory assignments, educators can provide supplemental learning materials for students to study on their own time or encourage them to seek information themselves. Offering to review optional write-ups from students who do outside research gives students an extra incentive to explore their course topic. 


In online courses especially, where students get less facetime with instructors than in on-ground courses, encouraging students to look into other resources and expand their learning benefit their success.


By taking the time to look back and examine recent assignments or performance, students can review their progress toward their goals, what they did well, and what may need improvement. Educators can support habits of reflection by incorporating mandatory reflection into the course through self-evaluation rubrics or weekly journal entries.


In addition to asking students to evaluate their progress, instructors should provide students with regular written and verbal feedback. Students can use this feedback to understand where they’re excelling and where they need to make adjustments moving forward.  


With consistent reflection through self-evaluation and instructor feedback, students can become more independent about their learning.


Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific outcomes. It reflects confidence to control one’s behavior and motivation.


Self-efficacy creates the belief in one’s ability to succeed and persist when facing challenges, a key part of student agency. Educators can help students develop their self-efficacy through consistent reflection, sharing success stories from former students in similar positions, promoting the growth mindset, and providing opportunities for students to share and explain their work. When students take time to evaluate their performance, they can give themselves credit for their hard work and develop confidence and belief in themselves.

Empowering Students

Instilling and reinforcing the four components of student agency helps students develop agency and empowers them to take ownership of their learning. Students will no longer just be along for the ride — they will captain the ship and take action to achieve their learning goals, successfully steering through whatever storm may come their way. 

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