Student agency in learning

What is student agency?

The concept of student agency is centred upon the level of autonomy and empowerment that a student feels during their time in education. Agency is the opposite of passivity. Encouraging student agency means encouraging students to think independently, make unique connections and to act and think with purpose. Agency is the first step towards standing on your own two feet.

The research that backs it up.

Albert Bandura, the revered social learning psychologist, has studied how agency is increasingly important to succeed and thrive in a globalised world. Additionally, social psychology studies have shown that building agency in young people is key to instilling a sense of confidence and competence in their own abilities. One Harvard study, using a sample size of 300,000 students, suggests that student agency is a fundamental outcome of schooling, equivalent in its value to basic scholarly skills.

What can we do to improve student agency?

1. Foster a growth mindset

A growth mindset means believing that your progress, success and abilities can be changed by your own actions. This mindset empowers students to believe in the value of their hard work, and is fundamental to student agency.  A study (1) looking at thousands of 15 year old students in Chile found that, at every socioeconomic level, those that held a growth mindset consistently outperformed those who didn’t, showing that attitude is just as important as aptitude.

2. Give them options

By including a variety of learning materials, homework options and classroom tasks, when possible, a sense of agency over their own learning can be fostered. Different students thrive in different environments, and allowing them to take charge of their education will empower them. Indeed, Deci et al.’s study implies that choice plays a critical role in students’ intrinsic motivation for learning and engaging in school tasks, tests and homework. (2)

3. Go beyond the syllabus

Don’t always stick to the syllabus rigidly. Ask your students to go home and find a news article relevant to what you’re discussing in history. Set them the task of keeping a record of the different phases of the moon for a month if you teach physics. Activities like this demonstrate that the relevance of education is not restricted to the school environment, and relates to students’ personal lives. This has been shown to increase motivation, particularly if the choices given, are personal, meaningful and related to their own values and goals (3).

4. Nudge them towards the answer

If a student has made a mistake, don’t reveal the answer right away. Help them come to the correct answer by themselves by gently nudging them in the right direction with hints and clues. By allowing space for their independent cognitive processes, you can help to empower them to think on their feet.

5. Encourage students to discuss amongst themselves

Ask the class a question and get them to chat in small groups and feedback. By creating an atmosphere where all students’ voices can be heard in some way, you bolster their self-confidence and sense of agency. Take this a step further by holding debates in class, allowing students to independently research a topic and come to their own conclusion.

How does CENTURY boost student agency?

1. Motivational messages

CENTURY regularly gives personalised messages to students that encourage resilience and help to cultivate a growth mindset. Progress is recognised and achievements are congratulated. These messages appear at the optimal time for students to absorb them during their learning.

2. Choices of learning material

We recognise that different students prefer to learn in different ways, and so have integrated a variety of types of learning material, such as slideshows and videos, into our platform. Students can choose which they feel will best suit them, granting them greater autonomy over how they learn!

3. Interleaving

CENTURY generates a Recommended Path for each student that incorporates “interleaving”: encouraging students to study different subjects one after the other, for relatively short periods of time. This helps students to make unique connections between subjects, fostering independent thinking.

4. Immediate and constructive feedback

Immediate feedback is actionable feedback. It allows maximum space for student improvement. CENTURY provides immediate, constructive feedback if a student gets an answer correct. This provides them with more information, allowing them to deepen their knowledge. If the answer is incorrect, CENTURY will prompt them to come to the right answer on their own, by providing helpful hints that supports the student’s problem-solving.

5. Teacher dashboard

While it may not initially seem like a feature for teachers will improve agency in students, the teacher dashboard is key to boosting student autonomy. Studies have shown students thrive the most when they are appropriately “stretched” – when they’re doing work that is just a little bit out of their comfort zone, but not too much (4). The teacher dashboard shows which students need to be stretched more; the ones who are completing their tasks with high speed and high accuracy. It shows which students need to be encouraged and which need support. The immediate collation of this data by CENTURY can be transformed by the teacher into action; how they can best build student agency in their class.

Entering the adult world is daunting, but we can make it less so. As people passionate about education, we can all do our part in helping equip young people with the confidence to succeed. As technological developments rapidly transform our society, digital literacy skills become ever more important. CENTURY builds students’ confidence in using digital technology, by virtue of its digital nature. At every level, we have strived to instill a sense of belief, motivation and independence in the learning journey.



  1. Claro, S., Paunesku, D. & Dweck, C.S., 2016, ‘Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement’, PNAS, 113(31): 8664-8668
  2. Deci, E., Williams, G. & Ryan, R., 1996, ‘Need satisfaction and the self-regulation of learning’, Learning and Individual Differences, 8: 165-183
  3. Katz, I. & Assor, A., 2006, ‘When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not’, Educational Psychology
  4. Evans, M. & Boucher, A.R., ‘Optimizing the Power of Choice: Supporting Student Autonomy to Foster Motivation and Engagement in Learning’, Mind, Brain and, Education, 9(2): 87-91