Developing Student Agency During Online Learning
Posted On December 21, 2020
Our team at WestEd, Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, has been working with teachers in formative assessment to increase student agency for the last 10 years. Recently, we’ve had our ears to the ground to learn with and from teachers about how formative assessment and student agency translates to, and enhances, online learning. This blog post shares some ideas to strengthen online learning based on what we’ve learned from these formative assessment teachers. It is one of a three-part series. The other two are Using Conversations to Cultivate a Collaborative Learning Culture and Students use the Formative Assessment Feedback Loop.
Why student agency now?
When our team considered what our best hopes are for online learning, we landed on all students receiving the tools and structured opportunities they need to develop agency over their own learning, both individually and collectively. In fact, we believe that online learning provides a unique opportunity for this work to occur. While student agency has always, in fact, been necessary for students to achieve deep and sustained learning, many schools have not been able to make the shift in brick and mortar settings. Yet with a high percentage of teachers now thrust into online teaching, some schools and districts are seeing this is an opportunity to hand over the heavier lift of learning to students, to foster and provide students with the tools and opportunities they need to grow and express their learner agency.
What do we mean by agency?
When we talk about agency, we mean students holding a vision for their own learning (the what and the how of it), determining where they are on the path towards that vision, and then carrying out sequential steps to get there. This is not to say that they do this all on their own. They need their community of peers to support them, to share their knowledge and experience, and to be thought partners. They need their teacher to provide a framework to guide their vision, to teach them the skills to advance their own and other’s learning, and to give them feedback informed by deep content knowledge. When students act with agency, it is more than just showing up and completing assignments without being monitored. It goes beyond this to include students holding a mental model of the learning aligned with their teacher. It involves students taking initiative to move their learning forward, independently and collectively.
Our formative assessment team at WestEd works with educators to support students to develop agency during learning through the use of formative assessment practices. These promote daily routines in which students learn to assess where they are in the learning and independently move their learning forward. In this approach, teachers plan structured opportunities for students to build their capacity, so that students themselves are able to take initiative to move their learning forward.
But is this possible in online learning? And if so, how can we seize this opportunity to lean into this right now? Educators from our network have three ways in which online learning provides an entree into creating opportunities to advance agency.
Show yourself as a learner
Online learning is a new landscape for everyone and as such positions teachers and students as novices and learners. It levels the playing field and provides a natural opportunity to share power with students, giving them the room they need to act with agency. When teachers are seen by students as learning with them, it opens the door for new kinds of student participation, allowing for exploration of what teachers and students can learn together to create the best possible online learning environment.
When teachers share with students that they themselves are learning, it makes the process of asking and receiving feedback from students about their online learning experiences much smoother. Students are more likely to share their thoughts and be understanding of the ups and downs of online learning if they see their teacher learning alongside them. Teachers can take on the dual roles of leader and learner as needed. This is also great modeling for students as they develop their own learner and leadership capacities.
Provide students with choice about how they learn
Giving students opportunities to act with agency means providing substantive choice for students about what and how they learn and the path to get there. This is beyond simple procedural and topic choices. Substantive choices about how to move learning forward include those that engage students’ critical and creative thinking. They involve engaging in discourse with peers to problem solve where to go next, brainstorm, reason from evidence, and hone their decision making skills. Online learning provides different kinds of opportunities for student learning, and when students can be part of that choice process, this supports their use of strategies and tools to manage their own learning.
For example, when teachers lesson plan for online learning, they can ask themselves, Is this aspect of the lesson something I need to design on my own or should I engage students in how they’d want to conduct their learning here? Is my task structure for students clear yet open ended enough so that students are required to make many of the substantive choices themselves about how to move their learning forward? Because students have more independent work time in online learning, this can be leveraged to provide students with the experiences they need to work through challenging choices about their own learning, on their own or with peers. This is something that isn’t always possible in traditional settings.
Ensure structures for ongoing reflection
Given the pressures of online learning – less time with students, more complex participation structures – teachers tell us it is very easy to lose opportunities for ongoing student reflection. And yet, to establish agency, this is more important than ever. The process of reflection is how students make meaning. And when they are able to connect their self-reflection to a conception of how learning progresses, they can navigate their way forward to the next stage. Providing students with ongoing opportunities for self-reflection of learning is key to enabling this process.
Some teachers have taken advantage of the significant amount of “non-face-time” in online learning, where students are expected to complete independent work, to strengthen students’ opportunities for reflection. Students need time to learn from the successes and challenges of the choices they’ve made through developing expertise in such practices as self-correcting, revision, and course-correction.
Like all new practices, this will require ongoing teacher review and refinement so that new student reflection techniques are most effective. Things we’ve heard from teachers include students developing daily observation logs, a structure they’ve found to work better in online learning. In one middle school social studies class, for example, students collect media stories about essential topics and use video or audio to record and post their reflections weekly. These are then shared within the class and applied to their exploration of landmark cases and legislation that are required elements of the curriculum. In additional rounds of reflection, students return to their original posts and add new ideas from the in-class lessons and readings. We are hearing from many teachers that the affordances of online learning support this type of iterative reflection process.
These three key constructs – showing yourself as a learner, offering student choices about how to learn, and deepening opportunities and structures for ongoing student reflection – are not unique to online learning. But educators who have shared their stories with us have found that the process of re-thinking how to support student agency in online learning has helped them deepen their understanding of, and appreciation of, how this helps students. These are lessons that they believe will ultimately make their in-person efforts to support student agency more effective.