As educators, we aspire that students will leave our classrooms fully equipped with the skills they need to be successful, independent, life-long learners. To achieve this goal, our instructional techniques, curriculum, and assessments should be built in ways that give our students freedom, choice, and ownership of their learning. We call this student agency.
Giving my students more freedom and authority was nerve-racking at first. I felt safest in a controlled teaching environment and tried everything possible to avoid anything that would deviate from my so-called structured lesson plans.
But one day, it hit me that my natural preference may lead to a cookie-cutter approach to education. Many of my instructional methods minimized student choice and freedom instead of empowering students to unleash their curiosity and embrace their differences. Having been too focused on baking perfectly shaped cookies, I decided to let go of control. I threw away my perfectly planned seating chart and let them choose their seats. Instead of aiming for a perfect grade, students set their own goals and track their progress. I created different ways for students to show their learning through multimodal projects instead of multiple-choice assessments.
As a result, my students’ level of creativity, ownership, and motivation skyrocketed. Here are some activity ideas I’ve found work well to promote student agency.
Pick Your Best Learning Spot
Flexible seating gives students ownership and control of their physical environments. It gives them autonomy and fosters internal motivation to stay engaged and focused. As a class, brainstorm where and how they learn best and encourage them to reflect on why certain environments benefit or distract them. You can then have students sign a flexible seating contract.
Make a copy of this Google Jamboard activity template.
Student Interest Survey
Students’ learning progress should not be only measured by taking benchmark tests. Give out surveys throughout the year to track students’ attitudes towards learning and elevate student voice and ownership in choosing what to read. Reading habits or interest surveys promote student agency and provide insight into students’ reading progress.
Make a copy of the Google Form reading interest survey.
My Independent Work Stamina Chart
To promote student agency and help students own their learning, they need to set goals and track their progress. A simple way to do this is to use a stamina chart. A stamina chart is a visualization tool to track the amount of time spent on independent work or reading. Students time themselves when they start working on a task independently and then stop when they find themselves distracted or lose focus. Then, they can record the number of minutes they were working. Students can set daily goals and color the chart to see their growth over time.
Make a copy of this Stamina Chart template.
Students need opportunities to self-monitor their thinking process and understanding of content. Feature number 13 of the SIOP model emphasizes the importance of providing ample opportunities for students to use these metacognitive, cognitive, and affective learning strategies (e.g. summarizing, evaluating, questioning, self-monitoring, etc). Daily self-assessment is a great and simple way to build these skills. I usually set aside time at the end of each day to help students reflect on the use of these learning strategies. Develop a scaffolded self and peer-assessment routine with sentence frames, stems, and rubrics. Here are a few example questions for end-of-the-day reflection:
- What is one thing I did well today?
- What is one thing I could do better tomorrow?
- What learning strategy did I use today when I got stuck? Describe what you did.
- What learning strategy would you like to try using tomorrow?
- On a scale of 1-10, how well did your group collaborate? How well did you show respect towards one another?
- Did I meet my learning goal today?
- What was the most important thing I learned today?
Not everyone learns in the same way, and not everyone shows their learning in the same way. You’ve probably heard of choice boards and the incredible benefits they bring to the level of motivation and creativity but many teachers find creating choice boards time-consuming. Here’s how I simplify the process. Consider your learning outcome and design 3-4 tasks that would allow students to show they’ve achieved the outcome using a variety of learning outputs. For example, consider assigning a video response for verbal and interpersonal learners, a comic strip or infographic for visual learners, and music or rap-writing for musical learners.
Make a copy of this Google Slide Choice Board template.
Remember, building learner agency isn’t only for our students. Taking time to read this blog post on top of your busy days of teaching and leading shows that you are in charge of your learning. I encourage you to continue learning, reflect on your practice, set new goals, take risks, and share your insights with the learning community around you!