In this age of high stakes testing and prescriptive standardized curriculum, it can be challenging to find ways to encourage students to take ownership in their learning. Yet, as a college professor I’ve found that students who possess soft skills related to learner agency are the ones who tend to be the most capable of adapting to new situations, being innovative and having the initiative to take on new tasks, set goals and meet challenges.
Thus, I encourage all my students to develop these soft skills, rather than just mastering “studenting” with a focus on grades. What exactly does it mean for a student to have agency in their learning? While there is not one universal definition of soft skills, I use the Partnership for 21st Century Skills definitions and categories for life and career skills.
These skills include creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, and leadership and responsibility, traits and skills included in the ISTE Standards. To help my students develop these skills, I use the strategies below.
1. Create a soft skills rubric
To help students both understand what soft skills are, and see their growth related to these skills, I developed a multi-purpose soft skills rubric (via Google Forms) that I use in a variety of ways.
First, I have my students complete a self-assessment with the rubric at the beginning of our class. This introduces the students to the soft skills and allows them to make individual goals for their soft skills development based on their assessment.
Next, throughout the class, I use the rubric each time we have a major class project or assignment. In addition to the traditional assignment feedback that they receive on the content, each student will also get an email with their soft skills evaluation from the project.
The Google Form makes it easy because I simply put each student’s email address in the email box, then the student automatically receives a copy of the form emailed to them after I complete it. It is a quick and easy way to provide feedback on their soft skills. In addition, I have all the data on their soft skills growth in the Google Form spreadsheet and, on occasion, I will do a quick check-in with my students on their progress toward meeting their goals. For example, if I notice that a student is lacking in their collaboration skills, I may encourage them to work in a group.
2. Practice the Power of YES!
One of the most powerful tools in my teaching toolbox is the word “yes!” When students ask questions related to an assignment, such as “Can I work in a group?” or “Can I make a poster instead of writing the prompt?” or “Can I use my own music rather than search for music on the website you gave us?,” it would be easy to answer “no” and stay within a boundary of the assignment. However, I've learned that when I say “yes,” the students do not disappoint me.
In fact, it is often the opposite. When I say “yes,” they tend to create or do something way beyond what I could have imagined when I wrote the initial assignment. Further, by saying “yes,” it empowers students to take agency over their learning, allowing them to develop soft skills, such as initiative, creativity and innovation, leadership, and responsibility.
Furthermore, saying yes can change the trajectory of their lives. If you think back to a time when someone told you “yes,” it often was a game-changer in the way you thought about something, did something or even was the reason you are doing what you do now.
Saying “yes” empowers people; saying “no” is deflating. Make it a goal to say “yes” as often as you can and see what happens. My guess is that your students will go beyond expectations.
3. Encourage agency with tech tools
It’s important to choose technology tools that encourage agency. Unfortunately, most tools for education are created with a drill-and-practice approach, which keeps students in a lower-cognitive space and often discourages agency.
For students to develop agency, they need to have some voice and choice about which tool to use and how to use it. Thus, reviewing a tool through the category lenses of Soft Skills Rubric, will help determine if the tool encourages students to develop agency. For example, a tool with a multiple-choice quiz game format is not a tool that encourages the soft skills categories of creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication and initiative. Knowing that the tool lacks opportunities for student agency, the teacher could “flip” how the quiz tool is used by asking students to work in teams to create their own quizzes for each other, allowing for soft skills such as innovation, collaboration and creativity to be more present.
4. Stick to Core 5 tools
In this time of blended learning when districts have purchased licenses for numerous math, literacy or science learning software, it is easy for teachers to share lists of tools with students without carefully reviewing the content in the tools.
However, a large list of tools is often overstimulating and overwhelming to students, and many of these tools do not help students gain real understanding.
Instead of providing a list of links, come up with a set of Core 5 tools that your students can use all year for meeting most (if not all) of their learning goals.
Sticking to just five tools will allow your students to become adept at using them and give them more control of their learning experiences. Let students learn and explore the Core 5 tools during the first month of school so they will be well versed in them for the whole year.
Here are some recommendations for your Core 5:
Select one tool in the content area that supports your curriculum and that you can get to know well. Be aware, if a math tool is teaching partial sums and you use different language to teach partial sums, then the tool may end up creating more confusion than helpful intervention. Thus, it is important to fully analyze a subject-specific tool to make sure the questions, languages and feedback match what you are doing in class.
Two Select two to three creation tools that allow students to easily show what they know with some voice and choice, such as BookCreator, Google Docs/Slides, Padlet/Jamboard or Mentimetere/Wooclap. Students can use these creation tools to work on their soft skills and present their knowledge in any subject area.
Select one tool for your LMS, such as Seasaw, Google Classroom, Schoology or Canvas.
5. Help students analyze their data
Look for opportunities to give students some control over how they used tech tools and why. For example, if you use tools that collect student data for assessment or interventions (such as adaptive software), it is imperative to teach students how to understand and analyze their own data.
Often, the teacher is the only one reviewing the student’s dashboard data, and while this helps educators determine student growth and needs, it leaves the student in the dark about why they are using the tool and what they need to work on. Teaching students to understand what their dashboard means, will enable them to start setting their own goals and understand their strengths and needs in their learning and growth.
6. Co-create rubrics
Providing students a voice in how and what they will be assessed on, gives them some ownership over their learning. It doesn’t mean tossing out the learning targets. Rather, it means being explicit with students about what the learning targets are and asking them how they understand the meaning of the target and including their input in how they can best meet the targets. By co-creating rubrics and assessments, students better understand soft skills around goal-setting, self-direction and long-term planning.
7. Offer micro-learning
Part of developing agency is allowing students to follow their interests and passions (within certain parameters). When I allow my students to engage in micro-learning — where they can quickly learn a new skill or idea via a quick module on their mobile device — it gives them opportunities to pursue their interests related to our larger learning goal.
Using the tool, EDapp I can create quick micro-learning modules for my individual students. Further, as students learn about a new idea, concept or skill, they can create micro-learning modules for their peers.
While “studenting” tends to be the primary focus of schools, learning the soft skills that students will need to be productive and successful in society should not be overlooked as an essential part of K-16 classroom learning. Teachers can easily integrate the strategies above into their current teaching practices to provide more opportunities for students to become agents of their own learning when using technology tools.
Liz Kolb is a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Education where she works with preservice and in-service teachers on integrating technology into K-12 teaching. She is the author of numerous ISTE books and articles related to educational technology, most recently the best-seller Learning First, Technology Second.