Jared Cooney Horvath is a globally recognized Science of Learning expert committed to helping teachers, students and parents achieve better outcomes through applied brain and behavioral science.

Defining Student Agency ...

What exactly is ‘student agency’?


Is it when students take ownership and responsibility for what they learn?


Or, is it when students embrace a more active role in their education -- as opposed to having school ‘done to them’?

We all know it’s important … but just like ‘the achievement gap’ and ‘21st century skills’, it’s one of those popular expressions of edu-jargon that’s been stripped of its rigor through aggressive overuse.


Side note: If you’re bored and/or working on an important school-related document, check out the Education Jargon Generator on sciencegeek.net to craft your own masterpiece of academic babble ;)


Anyway, despite the attendant ambiguity, I’m a BIG proponent of student agency.


I’m also a big proponent of defining our words/ideas in precise terms so we can communicate more effectively.


So, even though the above-mentioned definitions are at least partially right, here is a more precise description of ‘student agency’ courtesy of education-reimagined.org ...

There is no broad consensus on the definition of student agency. Many different words are used to describe the concept, and sometimes the same words are used to describe different concepts.


That said, by looking across researchers, practitioners, and other thought leaders, common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.


From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of ‘student agency’ that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:


  1. Setting advantageous goals (future);
  2. Initiating action toward those goals (present); and
  3. Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals (past).


Several sources also agree on a fourth dimension, that underpins the others -- a belief in self-efficacy.


That is, whether one believes they can (or cannot) act with agency actually impacts usefulness of that agency.

In my view, this definition demystifies what it means to seek agency as an outcome for students.


More importantly, it makes it clear that student agency is not a binary ‘you have it or you don’t’ quality … but instead, it’s something that can be intentionally developed and co-created.


In my latest 'From Theory to Practice' video, I examine a March 2020 research article that deals with the fourth (and arguably most nebulous) dimension of student agency:


Socioeconomic Status and Self-Other Processing (Sumeet Farwaha and Sukhvinder Obhi, March 2020).


Here are some of the questions I tackle in this installment:

  • What is ‘neural mirroring’ … and why is this phenomenon not observed symmetrically across all people?

  • How do high-status individuals typically behave compared to their low-status counterparts?

  • When it comes to the classroom, how can socioeconomic status affect student agency?

  • What three factors (according to research) contribute to increased feelings of student safety and confidence?

  • As teachers, what kinds of tools and strategies can we embrace to help students take more ownership over their learning?

Give it a watch, and let me know what you think in the comments.


And, as always, if you find this video valuable, interesting and/or entertaining, you can support us by liking, sharing and subscribing to our YouTube channel ;)



Video Transcript

Hello everybody, and welcome to this week's From Theory to Practice, where I take a look at the research so you don't have to.


The article I've selected this week is ‘Socioeconomic Status and Self-Other Processing’ by Farwaha and Obhi.


Now, to understand this paper, we have to recognize that human beings are always imitating one another; we're mirroring one another ...

Click to view remainder of the transcript ...

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