3 Ways to Build Student Agency into Your Lessons

Although many teachers recognize the importance of making students active agents in the classroom, it is easy to overlook student agency when we plan our lessons. However, the ability to make key decisions about their learning is a powerful motivator for students. If they are invited to tailor the learning to their interests, decide how to approach a problem, or determine what they will create, it makes them feel valued as individual learners. It also has the advantage of getting more students to lean into the learning happening in the classroom.

When I work with teachers designing lessons using blended learning models, I encourage them to think about where in the lesson they can hand over decision making power to the students. A simple approach is to think about the what, how, and why of a lesson, assignment, or project and give students the opportunity to answer one of those questions.

What?

Can you allow students to decide what aspect of a subject or topic they want to focus on for a lesson, assignment, or project? For example, if we are researching Elizabethan England to complement our reading of Romeo and Juliet, I invite students to decide what aspect of that period most interests them–the plague, entertainment, fashion, gender roles, musical instruments, the monarchy–and research that topic. Even though they are focused on different topics, they are still developing research skills, designing a presentation, and presenting for the class. This agency to choose what students will focus on creates a level of personal investment in the task and invites students to focus on an aspect of the subject that interests them.

How?

Can students decide how they will accomplish a task? Teachers are always tight on time, so it is easier to tell students how to approach a task. However, this one-size-fits-all approach does not encourage students to think critically about what they are being asked to do or how they would approach solving a particular problem. There is value in challenging students to think through a task, assignment, or project and articulate their own path for completing that work. For example, if students are asked to create a digital story or test a hypothesis, allowing them to decide how they will tackle that task, what steps they will take, and which tools or technology they will need can make that task more engaging for students.

Why?

Can you challenge students to articulate why a task, assignment, or project is valuable? Asking students to define the purpose of the work they do and then decide how they want to demonstrate learning can be an incredibly powerful exercise. Too often, students label the work they are asked to do as “busy work,” which is an indication that they do not understand the value of that work. If they can define why they are doing a task, they can also make informed decisions about what they want to produce to show they have learned.

When students work on a project, I will often allow them to decide on the topic, articulate the path for how they want to complete it and ask them to think about the purpose of the project and propose a product. At the end of a project, some students have built physical models others have designed multimedia presentations and others have created digital artifacts. Allowing students agency about what they produce or create is another way to get even our most reluctant learners to lean into the learning.

Many teachers worry about a loss of control when it comes to student agency. When I work with teachers, I am quick to point out that student agency does not mean students make all of the decisions, but it does mean they get to make some of them. I also share that in my experience the more I release control of the learning to the actual learners, the more rewarding the learning is for everyone.

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Station Rotation Model: Avoid Falling into a Rut

As a blended learning coach, I spend a lot of time in classrooms where teachers are experimenting with blended learning models. The Station Rotation Model is one I see used frequently. Its popularity stems from the fact that it allows teachers to maximize limited technology and it creates a nice balance between online and offline work.

The basic design of a station rotation lesson includes three types of stations: teacher-led, online, and offline. The exact number of stations will vary based on factors like the length of the class period, the total number of students in a class, and furniture constraints.

As with any approach to lesson design, it is easy for teachers to slip into a rut when it comes to designing their stations. Too often, when I enter classrooms using the Station Rotation Model, I see the same types of activities happening at each station. Here are the classic pitfalls I see when observing teachers using this model:

Problem #1: The teacher spends the majority of the teacher-led station talking at students, and often, the teacher provides the same instruction to every group that cycles through his/her station. Teachers can use their stations for a variety of tasks beyond direct instruction. (For more ideas on how to design your teacher-led station, check out this blog.)

Problem #2: The online station is used exclusively for personalized practice using adaptive software or an online program. Although personalized online practice that meets the learner exactly where he/she is at in terms of skill is incredibly useful, students quickly become bored and disillusioned with online programs if that is the only work they do online. I also worry about the fact that using technology in this way isolates learners. I want to see more teachers use technology to encourage conversation, collaboration, and creation online.

Problem #3: The offline stations are often used for classic pen and paper practice. Essentially, students are asked to sit quietly at their desks and work on handouts or practice problems in a workbook. Instead of designing collaborative tasks that allow students social learning opportunities, they are required to practice without support or peer interaction. This isolation often results in students who are not engaged in the task and distract the work happening at the other stations.

When I work with teachers, my goal is to get them to think bigger when they design their stations. I encourage teachers to mix it up because variety is key to keeping students excited about the Station Rotation Model.

As teachers head off for summer break, I would suggest thinking about how you can mix up your stations. Begin making a list of possible station activities using the template below. If there are activities that have worked well this year, add them to the template. If you see another teacher using a great strategy, game, or activity, think about what station that might work well at and add it to your template.

Hopefully, you will find that as you populate this template with ideas it becomes easier to plan your station rotation lessons next year because you have an idea bank to draw from.

bit.ly/SRMideabank

Teachers who are interested in the Station Rotation Model should check out my laminated On Your Feet Guide (published by Corwin). It’s available on Amazon!

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Personalizing Your Final Exam

As a student, I remember the stress of preparing for final exams. I spent hours reviewing notes that spanned an entire semester because it was all “fair game.” I never had a clear sense of what content would appear on the final. Sometimes I didn’t even know what the format of the final exam would be…essay, multiple choice, or short answer.

In a coaching session last month, I had a teacher ask me how to create a final exam that complements a standards-based approach to assessing students. My suggestion was to create a personalized final exam. At first, this may sound like a big undertaking, but it has the potential to ease our students’ anxiety and make the teacher’s last week of school more manageable.

Instead of creating a monster final exam that attempts to cover every standard or aspect of the curriculum, I’d love to see teachers make time to conference with students, identify the target skills/standards they want to show development in relation to, and then the teacher provides them with a final exam that focuses on those specific skills.

The beauty of a personalized final exam is that it gives students a degree of agency over a situation where they classically have no voice or choice. Students meet with their teacher in advance of finals week to decide which skills they want to focus on and have the teacher reassess. As soon as teachers give students agency, it creates a powerful incentive for them to want to prepare for their final exam. Students no longer feel powerless. They know what to focus on as they study. Since the teacher is dedicating time to meet with students to identify the skills they want to target, students also have an opportunity to ask for help.

If teachers are only assessing a handful of skills for each student, we can limit the time it takes for kids to complete their final exam. This has the benefit of eliminating the anxiety students feel about finishing the exam in the time allotted. It also saves teachers time because they do not have to grade every question they develop for every child.

This personalized approach to final exams does require that teachers anchor their test questions and tasks in specific skills/standards so that students are answering questions that target the skills they’ve identified in their conversation with the teacher. This approach reflects two ideas that drive a lot of my work with students and teachers: 1. less is more and 2. a one size approach to any part of education is not equitable.

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