• Kieran Burgess

Student Agency and Online Learning: the chicken and the egg

This article was originally published in Education Exchange, July 19th 2020

I recently facilitated some COVID-19 focus group discussions with UK teachers, and the phrase, ‘What’s the point?’ was the reported view of many students who no longer believed in the purpose or structure of their education, after seeing external examinations so swiftly brushed aside without consequence. Were exams the only fragile thread connecting our students to learning?

At my international school in China, we waved goodbye to our students for the Chinese New Year break in mid-January, and the closure notices landed during the holiday. We shifted to online learning from the first day back on 3 February 2020, and have been in this mode since. Our online provision has been recognised by parents, students and other schools as extremely successful. Student learning and progress has continued to grow, and unexpectedly our waiting lists for admission have grown during the closure too. Hearing the comments from colleagues in UK schools about student motivation and the experiences of online learning caused me to reflect on why we seem to have got online learning right. Why are our students thriving in online learning mode, and why is the perception of learning progress increasing with less face-to-face lesson time? I believe we had nurtured a culture at the school over time that was conducive to independent learning, and so when the enforced and sudden closure came, our students were less affected by the switch in learning, even if they did notice the disruption to routines. So, how did we create a culture that prepared students to succeed throughout extended campus closure?

How did our students buck the trend and thrive in enforced online learning? Was a culture of student agency the reason?

Jackson & Jackson (2003) talk of identity-sensitive education, where a school or a single teacher does not try to change students’ cultures, but instead creates micro-cultures that can be accessed by all to create another layer of academic identity. This approach lends itself well to international schools, who are already by necessity working as a melting pot of cultures. Going beyond tolerance, the international mindedness of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum primes schools to actively seek and discuss the complexities of a multitude of perspectives – without the IB we would still place international mindedness and global citizenship at the heart of our discussions, but with the IB principles and practices we have such depth of awareness of others’ perspectives baked into the very fabric of the curriculum. In my China context, this is a bubble within a largely homogenous external culture. But in the UK, it tends to be the other way around: such rich cultural diversity exists outside the classroom, but within it is often a single culture of the school and its curriculum which assumes, or at least desires, all to converge awkwardly into.

What if we could take a step back from curriculum and spend time nurturing the identities of students, examining and validating the many cultural contexts that our students bring into the classroom, and using them to interrogate topics from different vantage points? For example, language alone provides insights into the understanding of a concept when looking at how a word or phrase translates internationally, before we get into the differences of experiences held by each individual and their families. Robert Marzano (1998) grouped learning as a process into four domains: knowledge, cognition, metacognition (thinking about our thinking) and the self-system. Schools often hone in on the first two domains, leaving the self-system aside. At best in the UK mainstream sector, we devise wellbeing curricula and deliver lessons in topics that veer between self-awareness, self-maintenance, interpersonal skills and life in ‘the real world’. There is often a robust pastoral system, but this is afforded a tiny fraction of the time available in the day, and is usually geared towards targeting social and emotional needs with the underpinning purpose of improving engagement in the curriculum. To truly build a culture where the self-system is the top priority, we must give true agency to students over their learning. At my school we are certainly not in our utopia in this regard, but we believe we have made enough progress to make a genuine impact to our online learning provision.

Leadership opportunities

Sometimes this can be tokenistic – it is counterintuitive to afford students the titles of leaders if we don’t allow them to lead a project to failure as well as to success. We have many well-subscribed projects and extra-curricular clubs that students join: masters in technology, robotics groups, model UN teams, sports, service and charitable support organisations to name just a few. They are genuinely run by student leadership teams, who devise ways to raise funds, manage those funds, and deliver events that achieve their aims. Not one of them has a teacher-director attached. Teachers are the ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ alongside fellow students. Subject and student support areas also have student leaders attached, and as I write from lockdown in the UK, our Year 11 students are planning and delivering daily lessons for our younger students back on campus. They have adult support when they need advice, but the onus is on them to identify their needs and then seek the help.

‘Strength at the level of self allows serious attention to metacognitive learning strategies: planning, goal-setting, self-monitoring, social processing, and help-seeking.’ (Jackson, 2003)

Through our leadership opportunities, we have long expected our students to own each of these strategies listed by Jackson. In turn, these strengths fuel academic success in the first two of Marzano’s domains.

Co-constructing assessment

We know that when students know the purpose of assessment, they ‘buy in’ more freely, and are thus more invested in its success. Davis (2019), Pink (2011) and others remind us that allowing people to complete the task their own way promotes agency and autonomy. Each year we, like many other schools, holds annual end-of-year tests in most subjects. The existence of these tests is a cultural legacy that is to be discussed another day, but the fact remains that, at present, our students and their parents expect them to be undertaken at a set time. The English department turned this into a student-owned process. Students generated the questions for each other and marked through a process that reclaimed the agency for them. Teachers were involved as mentors and facilitators, not as directors. Standards were kept high through bringing students back to the purpose and rationale, rather than simply approving or rejecting student ideas.

Such examples are only small glimpses into how we created a culture of student agency over time. It is a context that helps to set the scene for what happened when enforced closure pushed our community into instant and full-time online learning and teaching.

Successful online learning

Online learning is inherently motivational. Its very existence is biased towards greater engagement and confidence, and more positive learning experiences (see Alkis and Temizel (2018) for many cited examples of research). So it is perhaps to be expected that whatever state learning was in before the closure, it simply ‘got better’ through increased use of learning management systems and video calls. But the reality was more complex, and these studies were not carried out during a global pandemic where many other contextual factors threatened to derail student motivation. This was a sudden, enforced shift to online learning, with no transition period to speak of (though we already practiced a blended learning model in mathematics), and students experienced fears, anxieties and logistical barriers.

Students broadly fell into one of four categories when comparing their offline engagement before the closure, to the period during online learning:

High-flyers: These students were highly motivated and engaged both offline and online.

Cliff fallers: Students who were highly motivated and engaged offline, but whose learning ‘dropped off a cliff’ during the online period.

Blossomers: Students who typically demonstrated lower engagement and motivation offline, but who blossomed into engaged and motivated online learners.

Persistents: The students who demonstrated no change from a low engagement and motivation offline, and who continued to receive close support.

In the survival mode of maintaining core operations of teaching and learning, gathering quantitative data on numbers of students in each category was impossible, but immediately our attention must be drawn to the two changing groups in the middle: were more students falling off learning cliffs, or blossoming? This is impossible to say without robust data, but both groups were small in relation to the majority in the high-flyers category. The blossomers I encountered were previously quiet in lessons, and reluctant to participate publicly. They would typically attain average scores or progress indicators, and would not demonstrate strong leadership. They would typically prefer to be told what to do and how to participate (either by a teacher or by peers), rather than grasp agency and shape their own experience. Some blossomers had social anxieties that were naturally eased by the online environment. Cliff fallers sometimes had non-learning reasons for declining engagement, such as lack of access to technology or location issues (being trapped in a remote holiday location, for example). However, others were exhibiting signs of low conscientiousness, a trait that Alkis and Temizel (2018) acknowledge is a key predictor of academic success. Without the tight boundaries of a rigid timetable and the extrinsic motivators of immediate teacher feedback to parents should standards slip, cliff fallers often found themselves slipping into poor time management habits. This inability to cope with the sudden demands for greater independence conflicts with our perception of having created a culture of student agency.

As a school we came back to this student agency, realising quite quickly after the initial period of emergency transition to online learning that it was not efficient. We assembled student focus groups and conducted a deep dive into the online learning experience from their perspective. Their feedback was the foundation for pivoting our online learning strategies, evolving through versions 2.0 and 3.0 before arriving at our current hybrid model of online, onsite. Through these re-inventions, based on the foundations of the student focus groups, we reduced friction points and rescued some of those cliff fallers.

Our initial batch of high-flyers was quite large due, I believe, to the culture of student agency already nurtured at the school. Blossomers had the space in which to emerge – without the pressure and anxiety of timebound and public participation they excelled, and found their confidence. Some cliff fallers, and even a few persistents, were rescued through the process of using student voice to reinvent the learning culture online: the process of enacting their feedback, converting their voice into agency.

Positives to grasp from online learning

Much more independence was required from students during the period of largely asynchronous online learning. Learning management system use has become embedded, and along with it the positive influences on confidence and motivation, an outcome confirmed by Alkis and Temizel (2018). Teachers can see the evidence that asynchronous learning works, and have seen how students are often motivated even without the ‘tight leash’ of the hovering teacher. Perhaps they are more willing to step back than ever before, which can only have more galvanising effects on student agency.

Questions and doubts

How can we be sure that the broadly positive engagement and progress of learners during the online period is heavily influenced by the culture of student agency? Alkis and Temizel’s (2018) case study does find that personality type influences motivation in an online setting – is that the case here? It is unlikely that the vast majority of our students are of the ‘magic formula’ of personality traits presented as being more inclined to succeed in online learning. But measurability is key here. I would like to be able to quantify the numbers of students in each of the four categories I created, in order to confirm or reject my suspicion that blossomers outnumbered the cliff fallers. If I am correct, then a method of measuring contexts – including the impact of the culture of the school – would help to rule out the noise of other external factors. Cliff fallers were in the minority, and while some could be explained away with stories of great personal struggle in a time of global disruption, others did not respond to online learning in a way that supports the theory of an established culture of student agency. Why did some students not benefit from this micro-culture, and thus were underprepared for the shift to online learning?

The transition back to normal must be taken carefully: the demotivators must not be ignored or dismissed. How do we ensure that we do not undo the positives of increased independence in learning? A fundamental question remains: did a culture of student agency promote success during online learning, or did successful online learning strategies for other, perhaps unidentified, reasons lead to a growth of student agency? What must give way from the pre-COVID learning environment in order to provide the space for new, successful practices, those that further promote independence and agency, to flourish? Now we see the primacy of the self-system, how can we consolidate its place at the top of the school hierarchy? This makes next school year less of a return to normal, but more of an opportunity to create a new, better, normal.


  • Alkis N and Temizel TT (2018) The impact of motivation and personality on academic performance in online and blended learning environments. Journal of Educational Technology & Society 21(3): 35–47.

  • Davis C (2019) Intrinsic Motivation. In: Dulwich College International Thought Leadership. Available at: https://singapore.dulwich.org/careers/thought-leadership/intrinsic-motivation(accessed 2 June 2020).

  • Jackson DB (2003) Education reform as if student agency mattered: Academic microcultures and student identity. Phi Delta Kappan. DOI: 10.1177/003172170308400807.

  • Marzano RJ (1993) How classroom teachers approach the teaching of thinking. Theory into Practice 32(3): 154–160.

  • Pink DH (2011) Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. USA: Penguin Group.

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