Student Agency and Student-Led Learning: Post-Pandemic Differentiation


The chaotic and rushed shift to online teaching and learning due to COVID-19 has left many teachers unable to dedicate time to differentiated instruction or student-centered learning. They’ve been left to weather the storm of new technological tools, virtual spaces, and requirements that have come upon them. An unfortunate outcome in many schools has been a hodgepodge of antiquated instructional practices replicated in the online classroom leaving students uninterested, unengaged, and underserved. As long as teachers envision their role as disseminators of knowledge and information rather than facilitators of learning, there will continue to be a sore lack of student engagement and student agency. The following are concrete steps teachers can take to transform a tedious online learning environment into a vibrant and dynamic community of learners. 

In developing a deeply engaging online learning experience, teachers must begin with identifying expected learning outcomes as encoded within standards or prescribed curriculum maps. Unpacking and applying these standards to the instructional design process helps ensure learning remains relevant and rigorous, regardless of the toggle between online and in-person instruction. Once the target knowledge and skills have been identified, teachers can begin to act as curators of resources. Some schools and districts provide online learning programs which dictate many of the core texts responsible for providing important information. However, these texts (or even textbooks) are often dry and irrelevant due to outdated information. Teachers must model for students the judicious identification of reliable resources to enhance curriculum. This is the first step in teaching informational literacy: getting the right texts in front of students. These texts might include dynamic online boards or walls (Glogster), interactive videos (Edpuzzle), leveled news articles (NewsELA or Reading A-Z), or any of the thousands of online resources available to teachers and students. 

The next step can make or break the efficacy, relevance, and meaningfulness of any student-centered learning experience. Teachers must invest time and energy in getting to know students by seeking to understand their needs and interests through pre-assessments, formative assessments, and “Get to Know You” surveys. In this way, teachers can determine the following about their students to guide the development of learning experiences: 

  • intrinsic motivational factors (i.e., interests and personal goals)

  • prior knowledge and experience

  • prerequisite skills

  • cognitive ability level 

  • home life details 

  • prior academic experiences 

  • linguistic background 

Teachers must invest time and energy in getting to know students by seeking to understand their needs and interests through pre-assessments, formative assessments, and “Get to Know You” surveys.

Once teachers organize and analyze this critical student data (a process explored in Moreland’s March no-cost professional development), they can responsively develop differentiated learning experiences relevant to students’ specific needs. In the online learning environment, there are innumerable tools and resources available to empower each learner to receive an education which matches her needs. Differentiated learning need not be limited to leveled instruction with premade worksheets and activities based on predetermined themes. Rather, the forward-thinking differentiated classroom invites students to become co-creators of knowledge and creative problem solvers by completing tasks and projects which guide their learning.

Differentiated instruction as described thus far is characterized by student-directed learning based on interests (Bondie, Dahnke, Zusho, 2019, p. 346). In this way, teachers can empower students to develop as self-regulated global learners who can function both independently and interdependently. Students receive individualized attention and support through small-group instruction and remediation in alignment with their growth and development as critical thinkers. The focus of learning shifts from regurgitation to application of the skills and knowledge of class. In addition, teachers can use students’ background information and preferences to design dynamic learning experiences with multimedia, multimodal, and metacognitive opportunities to engage with subject-area content: “Students engaged in learning that incorporates multimodal designs, on average, outperform students who learn using traditional approaches with single modes,” according to meta-analytic findings on page 13 in this white paper (2008) commissioned by Cisco Systems, Inc. and written by Metiri Group. According to this research, highly engaging, personalized, and student-directed learning experiences lead to increased student outcomes.

Classrooms, both online and physical, transform into learning laboratories wherein students identify real-world and personally relevant problems and work with one another to uncover solutions. Students become agents of their own learning as they do the hard work of researching, applying, and even developing ideas in alignment with course goals and standards. What is the role of teachers in this novel environment? Consider the following scenarios and how they might apply to your own instruction:  

  • Teachers creatively integrate skills and information from the standards into student-led tasks and projects in ways that support student success and help them meet the expected curricular outcomes. 

  • Teachers develop dynamic multimedia learning experiences that attend to students’ needs, interests, and preferences. 

  • Teachers explicitly instruct and model 21st-century skills which set students up for success outside of the classroom.

  • Teachers establish success criteria through thoughtful rubrics and formative progress-monitoring processes that help keep students on track. 

  • Teachers develop and facilitate small-group, targeted instruction through multi-tiered systems of support to respond to trends in data on student performance as it pertains to the standards and classroom behavior. 

  • Teachers embolden students to be successful citizens and community leaders, holding them accountable to classroom norms and expectations in order to maintain a positive culture of learning. 

  • Teachers follow their passions and mindfully integrate ideas, topics, resources, and tools that inspire them each day as a model of lifelong learning! 

There are a wide range of possible barriers to learning during this pandemic: lack of technology, unavailability of physical space at home, necessity to work to support families in financial crisis, and even illness or death of a loved one. Teachers must ensure that a lack of opportunities for meaningful engagement and relevant learning in the virtual classroom is not the cause of students’ incomplete work and absence. In Moreland University’s TEACH-NOW Teacher Preparation Certificate Program, I introduce to teacher candidates this transformational conception of teaching in which educators empower students to lead learning by differentiating instruction in the module “The Learner and Learning in a Digital Age.” The culmination of one of our weekly live virtual classes is an individual pedagogical renaissance, a person-by-person reintroduction to the group using a new title of each individual’s choosing. Rather than calling ourselves teachers or educators, we adopt new titles to better encapsulate our roles in the forward-thinking, student-centered, 21st-century environment. What is your new title?  

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.

Additional Reading