Developing student agency

 Mrs Hazel Boltman, Head of Gibson House

One of the comments teachers often make when writing student reports is ‘she is encouraged to take responsibility for her own learning.’ Over the years, parents have queried what this phrase means, and asked how their daughters can apply this advice in their education. This year, Girls Grammar staff have joined colleagues in a group that investigates precisely this concept; the group focuses on noticing learning and how to develop student agency. Under the guidance of Dr Ann Farley, Director of Cross-Faculty Initiatives, and with input from Associate Professor Lenore Adie from Australian Catholic University, the Noticing Learning group aims to observe student learning in the classroom and to use this to inform further practice and develop student agency through many means, but particularly through the medium of formative assessment.

As defined by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, in their study titled ‘The Influence of Teaching’, ‘agency’ is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness (Ferguson et al., 2002). Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives. To put it simply, agency is a student’s ability to self-reflect and self-regulate their learning. Throughout their schooling, students take on various roles, from passive learners, active participants and peer tutors, to mentors and leaders. In some roles, they are intent on developing their own growth; in others, they influence the growth of their peers. In all this, student agency means that students are stakeholders in their own education. They need to be the agents of their own destinies—while at school and in their lives beyond—and we as teachers are intent on developing student agency in our classrooms.

The importance of developing student agency should not be understated. We encourage students to be life-long learners. The skills of setting their own course, monitoring their progress, adjusting, responding and reimagining are integral components of this process. Student agency is something that all students can develop. It is not something they possess, but refers to the quality of their actions and interactions. It involves understanding the quality of the work that needs to be done, reflecting on whether they have achieved this standard, and if not, finding out what they need to do to improve. What student agency looks like in a Year 7 girl is different to the agency demonstrated by a Year 12 student, and different again to that displayed by university students and adults. The earlier agency is introduced, the more effective the tool, as it becomes an inherent behaviour. In each girl, agency should be developed age-appropriately through opportunities provided to students in the classroom, on the playing field and in many other situations.

One of the aims of the Noticing Learning group is to investigate effective activities for the classroom that support students in developing  agency. Formative assessment is one area that can help students to grow in confidence as they reflect on their progress. Formative assessments do not hold the same high stakes as summative assessment pieces, freeing students to focus on growth rather than grades. Teachers provide opportunities to develop agency through self-reflection as well as peer reflection. Students who develop this agency early are at an advantage over students who do not. In circumstances where students feel unable to complete these reflections, teachers can play the role of mentor, monitoring the process and providing structured feedback. As students grow in confidence, the scaffolding is removed slowly until they can self-reflect and self-regulate.

Student agency also comes into play in classroom situations where students are given choice in what they learn. These choices may be somewhat limited as there are curricula to cover, skills to be taught and behaviours to be learned. Teachers, however, provide opportunities for agency within their lessons. As we differentiate our lessons, students are encouraged to take pathways for themselves that will consolidate their knowledge, and then extend their thinking. This self-regulation is key to student agency.

Zimmerman (1989) states that self-regulation relates to the degree to which students are meta-cognitively, motivationally and behaviourally active participants in the learning process. Each student needs to decide where they focus their energies and how they can take responsibility for their own learning. For younger students this may be as simple as being prepared for lessons, bringing all their books, doing their homework and most importantly, following up on what they do not understand. This is a process where students rely on themselves, rather than their teachers, to develop their learning further. For senior students, it is also about plotting their pathway to success, knowing when and where to apply themselves, and how to self-regulate.

A student who embraces these opportunities will certainly develop student agency. They will be masters of their own lives, and the phrase ‘she is encouraged to take responsibility for her own learning’ will be replaced with ‘she is an independent learner who makes the most of the opportunities presented’.



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Ferguson F., Phillips, S. F., Rowley, J. F. S., Friedlander, J.W. (2015). The Influence of Teaching—Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency. The Achievement Gap Initiative. Retrieved from:

Klemencic, M., (2015). What is student agency? An ontological exploration in the context of research on student engagement in Bergan, S., Primozic, R. (Ed.), Student engagement in Europe: society, higher education and student governance (pp. 11-29). Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. Retrieved from:

Zimmerman, B. J. (1989). A Social Cognitive View of Self-Regulated Academic Learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 0022-0663. Retrieved from: