Promoting Student Agency Through Project-Based Lessons

By David Reese, Ed.D.


I frequently collaborate with teachers around the ideas of making learning authentic and relevant for students. The conversation is often driven by the need for student engagement, igniting student passion, and ensuring students develop the skills needed to be lifelong learners.  In my years of teaching, I found a great way to achieve this was by encouraging student agency.


Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners and gives them voice and choice in how they learn. With increased student agency can come higher levels of engagement, motivation, and commitment to the learning process.


Authentic project-based learning provides opportunities to increase student agency.  A real-world example of this was when my students created their own learning experiences out of a tragedy in our community involving the deaths of students in a car accident. The students wanted to do something to honor their classmates’ memories and decided on the creation of a memorial garden in the school’s green space.


This decision was democratic and all students had an equal voice in the brainstorming and voting. The students broke up into teams and were responsible for different aspects of the project, based on what interested them and their skill set. They had to create designs to scale related to the available space. Within the design, they had to decide the materials that would be used, the living and non-living attributes of the memorial garden. In my biology class, we discussed soils, flowers, trees, and other biotic factors that were part of the design development. From an engineering perspective, the students had to create stone walkways, stone walls, running water for a waterfall and irrigation for the plants. Some students chose to develop plans for a swing and rose trellis.


As the process went forward many new problems arose and the students utilized problem-solving and academic knowledge to solve each problem as it occurred. The students created budgets and connected the mathematical attributes of the design with the materials needed and the cost of services to be rendered. Another critical part of this project was keeping the school board updated on all facets of the project. Students had to submit budgets, material reports, and designs to be approved by the board and the board’s lawyer. The students learned how the design and building process is tied to local and county mandates.


Throughout the process, the students developed and sent letters to individuals and groups who shared donations with us. They were interviewed on the local news and presented presentations to all facets of the school community.  When the garden was complete, they held an Open House for the community and family members to come and visit. I was incredibly proud of these young women and men and count this experience as one I will never forget in my educational career. They never forgot their classmates and developed all aspects of the project with strong consideration for the families, their audience.


This project was engaging and meaningful to the students because they had a voice and choice in how they learned and what was created.   Promoting student agency empowers students to take initiative and ultimately leads to enhanced motivation, engagement, and achievement.


Online curriculum resources like Defined STEM provide teachers with real-world projects that encourage student agency.  Defined STEM's performance tasks give students several culminating projects they can choose from to prove their understanding.  Click here for a free 14-day trial.


Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work focuses on providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective. 




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