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Why student agency already exists

By Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer

A familiar definition

In previous blog posts, I have advanced the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of personalized learning, which asserts that the approach is made up of the following three elements:

  • Differentiation

  • Individualization (which involves competency or mastery-based learning)

  • Student agency


Exploring student agency

Differentiation has been an area of ongoing focus for many, and we previously explored individualization, so our attention now turns to student agency. Renaissance’s EdWords offers the following definition:

Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers. To put it simply, student agency gives students voice and often, choice, in how they learn.

While student agency is a relatively new term within our professional discussions, does this mean that we have never sought to make students agents of their own learning? Certainly not! To varying degrees, teachers have often sought to give students voice and choice within their learning. However, when many other dynamics of the educational setting were fixed (e.g. required pace of learning), only so much choice was possible.

So how do we begin making students agents of their own learning in meaningful ways? I have seen numerous articles in which teachers are discussing this and developing their own strategies from scratch. Is this the best approach?

True empowerment

A common mistake in school improvement is to view a newly framed construct, like student agency, as something that never existed before. While the term “student agency” is relatively new, the concept is not, and well-documented and highly effective strategies already exist, if you know where to look.

I contend that elements of student agency exist within the field of formative assessment, particularly in the work of Dr. Rick Stiggins and his colleagues at the Assessment Training Institute. While numerous authors and researchers have suggested specific strategies for formative classroom assessment, Stiggins and his colleagues have had a unique focus on the impacts of assessment on students, noting formative assessment’s potential to provide feedback that motivates students.

Stiggins (2014) notes effective engagement through assessment as critical because “powerful roadblocks to learning can arise from the very process of assessing and evaluating depending on how the learner interprets what is happening to him or her” (Stiggins, 2014). “Traditional testing practices in the United States … cause many students to give up in hopelessness and accept failure rather than driving them enthusiastically toward academic success” (Stiggins, 2014).

As Fogarty and Kerns (2009) note, “empowering students with understanding and insight about their ability to learn and to retain and to apply is … true empowerment [that] dictates the skillful and robust use of formative assessments as part and parcel of the teaching/learning equation.” This empowerment is synonymous with agency.

Wiliam (2011) advances student agency under the heading of “activating students as owners of their own learning,” and his book Embedded Formative Assessment contains strategies. Elements supporting student agency can also be found in the discussions of metacognitive strategies, goal-setting, self-regulated learning, and having students track their own progress.

In all of this, there is excellent news! First, we don’t have to create all new strategies for student agency. Second, these highlighted areas that advance agency (e.g. formative assessment, metacognition) have been thoroughly researched and proved to have strong positive impacts on student performance (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2009; Stiggins, 2014).

As Stiggins (2014) notes, “Our aspiration must be to give each student a strong sense of control over her or his own academic well-being.” This becomes powerfully motivating and is true agency. It can be accomplished in many ways.

We want to hear from you

When did you feel that you had a significant measure of control over how students were learning? How was that achieved? How did that affect your motivation? Let us know in the comments below!


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–148.
Fogarty, R., & Kerns, G. (2009). inFormative assessment: When it’s not about a grade. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Stiggins, R., Arter, J., Chappius, J., & Chappuis, S. (2004). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right – using it well. Portland, OR: Assessment Training Institute.
Stiggins, R. J. (2014). Revolutionize assessment: Empower students, inspire learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Delaware. He is the co-author of three books: inFormative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade; Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise; and Literacy Reframed: How a Focus on Decoding, Vocabulary, and Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension.


  1. carolina says:

    Great Article

  2. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    It takes a very confident teacher to allow the students to have more freedom and choice, but ultimately it results in better critical thinkers.

  3. Connie Boyd says:

    Like the explanation on student agency. Sounds fancy, but it is what we’ve been doing.

  4. Alecia Walkuski says:

    At the secondary level, students often have choices about what they research or write about for English class. We have assigned class texts, but the AR program allows for a lot of student choice for independent reading practice. As a teacher, it is much more enjoyable to work with students when they are excited about what they are doing!

  5. Laura Quiroz says:

    Im in the Elementary there is more guidance over the way students are learning. Students working in collaborative groups and presenting showed me what they had learned. It was great watching the students grow in knowledge.

  6. P R says:

    This article has interesting information within it. It actually depends on the age, ability level, and social adaptability of the students as to if they are ready to “take charge” of their learning. I would think that it could be achieved by gradually introducing, modeling, and scaffolding to build student based learning expectations. Students who can have choice will enjoy learning more. But, there needs to be a balance of teacher led and student led learning.

  7. Carly says:

    I have tried offering 3rd grade students choice through stations with a varying degree of success. Ultimately, I have to manage stations through data where I then direct students to the stations they need to complete. While they may have choice over which station they do first, they are not given the freedom to choose any station. The reason is that many students will choose stations that are too easy to do, which isn’t necessarily because they are lazy. They just want to get done and be successful. 9 year olds don’t have the maturity to see the benefit of challenging oneself.

  8. Melissa Thomasson says:

    One of the greatest things about Accelerated Reader is that the students have assigned individualized goals. I have explained to other teachers many times that this is one of the easiest areas to control and yet give students options. My students and I each meet individually to look at their suggested goal. We have a conference and discuss where the goal should be set, but a great deal of student input is included here. If a student had an assigned ZPD range of 2.7-3.8 and a point goal of 18 for the first grading period and was able to keep a 99% accuracy and make 26 points, then that student may have requested to raise their ZPD range just a bit as well as their point goal. I try to help my students see that setting goals are important, but setting good goals is even more so. If a student has met his or her goal by the middle of the grading period, then we often times will talk about why we need to adjust the goal the next time to “challenge” him/her the next time. It is so important that students “own” their goals! A majority of students will begin each conference by telling me that they want to “challenge” themselves for the next grading period. Knowing that they are invested motivates me to help them find books they will enjoy!

  9. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Interesting article!

    • Cindy Soape says:

      Though it’s been quite a number of years since I taught reading, I totally agree on the goal setting meetings and close monitoring of this program. That is how you get true academic growth through Accelerated Reading. I wish more teachers would implement your strategies.

  10. sarina bellomo says:

    What I love is when students make goals for themselves, even lofty ones, make a plan to achieve it and then do it!!

  11. Ruth Edge says:

    Excellent points! This is a new spin on what great teachers have always tried to do. If you can engage the learner by capturing their interests, half the battle is won. When students go to college, they chose what they want to study.

  12. Dvawn Maza says:

    Interesting article.

  13. Candice says:

    Student input is very important. It helps them feel included in their learning.

  14. Great way to get parents and students on board to make decisions about how they can work together to advance their educational goals.

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