Competency-Based Learning in Action: How Do You Promote Student Agency?

One of the central goals of competency-based learning (CBL) is student agency: ensuring students have voice and choice in what, when, where, and how they learn. Learning experiences that promote student agency instill in students a sense of ownership, which ultimately promotes deeper learning.

Educators often ask us, “How do we ensure that the choices students are making are the best ones for their learning?” As a participant from our Rethinking School series posed, “Student choice may not always represent informed choice.” There’s a risk in offering students choice that they may opt for what’s easy rather than what will push their learning forward.

But, this risk can be minimized by rethinking the role of teachers in competency-based learning. In making the shift from classroom leader to coach, teachers work in conjunction with students to identify areas for growth and allow students to choose how they want to push themselves.

In order to better understand what this looks like in the day-to-day work of teachers, we interviewed GOA Abnormal Psychology teacher and Harvard-Westlake School educator, Heather Hersey. Heather is a librarian and teacher whose interest in the inquiry process and how students search for and use information made becoming a librarian irresistible. She believes that questions are way more important than answers and hopes to instill this mindset in all her students. Recently, she published a book with two former colleagues titled, Letting Go: How to Give Your Students Control over Their Learning in the English Classroom (2018).

In this excerpt from our interview, Heather provides a number of concrete examples of how she structures choice in her competency-based course in order to help her students make informed decisions about their learning paths.

CBL in Action: Inter­view with Heather Hersey

For a deeper dive, check out Heather’s walkthrough of an inquiry-based project in her course. In this walkthrough, Heather shares an artifact from her course that shows how she articulates purpose and sets the parameters for choice.

CBL in Action: Set­ting Up an Inquiry-Based Project

This blog post is part of a series called Competency-Based Learning in Action. We invite you to join us in sharing a video response to this question, “How do you guide students to make choices about their own learning?” on Twitter using the hashtag #CBLin Action and tagging us @GOALearning. If you are a teacher in a competency-based learning course or classroom and are interested in being interviewed for an upcoming blog post, please email us at

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