Student agency — how the ‘IKEA effect’ can benefit learners

|5 min read

Think about how proud you feel when you make something for yourself. That feeling can lead you to place a disproportionately high value in your own work. In the classroom, you can use this ‘IKEA effect’ to increase pupils’ sense of engagement and ownership in lessons. You decide the learning but let them plan how they’ll achieve it.

What is the IKEA effect?

If you’ve ever built a flat-pack piece of furniture, you’ll know the feeling of achievement when you finish. Even if the results aren’t perfect, you place a higher value on what you’ve made. After all, your blood, sweat and tears went into making it.

This so-called IKEA effect builds on many studies looking at how people feel about their own work. It shows we disproportionately value what we have produced and expect others to view it in the same way.

‘Student agency’ is a broad term. Simply put, it means looking for ways to let your class take control of their learning. This is a great way to use the IKEA effect bias. You decide what must be learned and give pupils choices about how they do it.

Develop Student Agency to Harness the IKEA Effect

Jennifer Davis Poon at the Center for Innovation in Education writes in Education Reimagined that student agency can be broken down into four key elements:

  1. Setting advantageous goals
  2. Initialising action
  3. Reflecting and redirecting
  4. Internalising self-efficacy

Setting advantageous goals

When you plan lessons, it’s easy to make all the decisions for the class. Pupils passively follow along, completing tasks you give them. This leads to learned helplessness, particularly for struggling learners.

Give children some responsibility in tracking and analysing their progress. They take ownership over the direction of learning and become invested in it.

Feedback helps them see areas of strength and development points. You set the key goals. Your learners make informed decisions about what they need to do to achieve them.

Initialising action

Student agency moves away from you doing all the hard work. It puts the emphasis back on the pupil. You encourage them by providing choice and open-ended exploration.

There are four ways you can give pupils ownership over their learning:

  • Time: Let them decide when they have finished a task and secured the learning
  • Task: Allow them to choose the task they will complete
  • Technique: Give them ownership of how they will complete the task and record their results
  • Team: Look for opportunities for flexible grouping

Teach your pupils to use journaling and make informal notes. They will see the progress they are making towards the learning objectives. Help them overcome problems they encounter as part of this learning process.

Reflecting and redirecting

The ownership of work doesn’t stop when the task is complete. Reflections should include opportunities to give and receive feedback. This must be directly linked to the learning intentions. Feedback includes peer assessment, written marking and verbal feedback. This is a great opportunity to focus on efficient methods and address misconceptions that have arisen.

Task ownership will help your children reflect on what they have learnt. They will see what they need to develop and potential barriers. Success criteria checklists are useful for them to track small steps towards a larger goal.

Internalising Self-Efficacy

Every child can succeed in maths. So why do some children persist in believing they are naturally bad at it? Children with low self-efficacy believe they have no power over their learning. They don’t think what they do in class makes any difference to their abilities.

Harnessing the IKEA effect bias helps your class see that success depends on effort and perseverance, not innate ability.

The Benefits of Student Agency

Giving your pupils a choice over their learning helps them derive more value from it. This can lead to:

  • Greater resilience
  • Ownership over learning
  • Enthusiasm and engagement with tasks
  • Becoming reflective about own their progress
  • Sense of pride

Developing agency allows pupils to build their sense of self as a learner. This moves away from thinking they are a good or bad mathematician.

How to Use Maths Mastery to Encourage Student Agency

The maths mastery approach is the perfect way to harness the IKEA effect. Think of your classroom as belonging to the learners rather than to you. This sense of ownership is vital for student agency.

Plan time for collaborative working. Encourage your pupils to talk about their learning. They can:

  • Discuss and share ideas
  • Model their work to the rest of the class
  • Be creative about how they are going to work
  • Explore alternative ideas
  • Use concrete and visual representations

Create a simple routine that all learners can easily follow. This reduces time spent on classroom management. Help them to know what you expect by providing a clear structure. This avoids asking them to do the same things every lesson. Keep your expectations high. Every child can succeed.

Get the Challenge Level Right

In the 1950s, Betty Crocker wanted to sell more cake mixes. The solution was easy; remove powdered egg from the mix. Making home bakers add fresh eggs gave them ownership back by making them work a little harder — the IKEA effect.

Apply this legend to your classroom. Don’t make things too easy, your class should feel like they are working. But, don’t make the tasks too hard. Failure at an activity will quickly remove the IKEA effect bias. Instead, aim for the perfect level of challenge by providing scaffolded support where needed.

Developing student agency does not replace high-quality direct instruction; it should complement it. Lessons will still include time when the children watch you model a task or teach them a method. The choices about learning come when they need to practise and develop their understanding further. The results are engaged children who value the work they do in your lessons.