The Gift of Student Agency

Professional Development
Contributing Writer, Dr. Hope Dugan, Zia Learning

 Personalized Learning (PL), although a phrase in frequent use, still does not have a universally understood definition. I prefer to define it as an environment where strong relationships between students and teachers are formed and students are empowered to take control of their own learning. Additionally, PL places emphasis on understanding diverse learner needs and including individual interests, passions, and aspirations as a regular part of learning.

At the core of these ideas is the concept of student agency. Agency refers to the ability of the student to take purposeful, intentional action to direct their learning and by extension, their life. Students who have been nurtured to a high level of agency are not helpless bystanders waiting for someone to tell them what to do; they are empowered leaders, seeking out ideas that support their passions and creating the conditions they want for themselves and others.

Agency shapes both the process and the outcomes of student learning. The core features of agency enable students to play a significant role in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. Through the process of understanding how to direct their own learning, students begin to believe their actions can influence desired outcomes; that they are the creators of their destiny. Building agency allows them to gain intrinsic motivation and persistence, both of which are necessary for life-long success.

In order to create the conditions for agency to occur, there must be a shift in how teachers engage students. The role of the teacher should no longer be confined to ‘keeper of the knowledge.’ The new classroom demands an environment where teachers and students co-create and learn together. Below is a continuum, based on the work of McClaskey and Bray, representing the gradual release of control from teacher-led to student-created learning.





  • Traditional teaching role.
  • Teacher creates plans, and sets assignments, due dates and assessments.
  • Students have little voice or choice in their learning.
  • Students are assigned activities based on current unit of study.
  • Assessments may be standard rubric, tests, quizzes and compliance.
  • Students demonstrate mastery as a class (Same time; same assessment).


  • Traditional teaching role.
  • Teacher still creates the majority of the experience.
  • Students may have some voice or choice in their learning.
  • There may be some variance in assignment or some flexibility over time, path, pace or place.
  • Students demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways.


  • The role of the teacher moves to co-designer and co-creator.
  • The teacher facilitates, and guides students based on individual needs.
  • The teacher is no longer the prime creator of plans and assessments
  • Students manage their learning at their own pace through choice, voice, and data.


  • The student has significant input and control over their learning.
  • The teacher serves to enable the learner to take an active role in their learning. The teacher is an active coach of students based on their needs.
  • The student is empowered to design learning experiences to meet their goals.
  • Students seek needed supports.


Teachers must be willing to share ownership of the classroom and allow students to develop the skills necessary to become agents of their own learning. To support learners on their journey to ownership, teachers create the conditions for students as they grow their confidence, character, grit, and habits of mind. The new classroom becomes a lab for exploration and allows for failure in a safe space. Getting it right the first time is no longer the goal; the process of learning, unlearning, and relearning is now the primary focus. The shift from a teacher-led environment to a student-created environment takes time and patience but it is worth it. Because of the richness these opportunities and experiences provide, teacher-led, direct-instruction pales in comparison.

When we are courageous in our leadership and provide for the gradual release of control that supports learner agency, we are ensuring that our students have the needed skills to address the problems and challenges of the rapidly evolving world in which they live. As teachers, there is no greater gift that we can give.




Recent Articles


Broadband leadership at the state level barely existed ten years ago

Nathan Smith

Without using a test as a significant marker for admission, colleges will be able to admit students who may not be good test takers

Margot Machol Bisnow