The Benefits of Student Agency: It’s Not about Instructional “Strategies”; It’s about Empowering Learners

There are countless ways for teachers to encourage greater student agency in the classroom. In fact, in my first blog on the topic, I provide a whole bullet list of strategies–and that list just scratches the surface.

And while lists of this kind can be useful additions to an instructor’s “toolkit,” the project of student agency involves more than a set of instructional “methods” to implement “on students” in the classroom. No doubt, there are methods and strategies that enable and promote greater student agency in learning. But student agency is not reducible to “methods.” The unspoken assumption behind the latter tendency situates students as objects of a teacher’s instructional practice, not active subjects/agents capable of determining their own learning paths–a position that runs contrary to the whole point of student agency itself.

The Role of Teacher Beliefs in Fostering Student Agency

The project of promoting student agency presumes some fundamentally humanist views about the project of education itself: Namely, it involves seeing students as autonomous individuals who possess the potential to make meaningful choices that affect their lives in positive ways. The instructional methods that support and encourage student agency are nothing more than the practical expression of this core belief and faith in human ability. And the instructional strategies for enabling greater student agency will have little-to-no meaning or impact in the classroom if not authentically tethered to a more fundamental belief in each student’s ability to employ agency in meaningful ways.

In this sense, the goals of student agency have more in common with the liberatory, democratizing educational projects of educational theorists like Paulo Freire, John Dewey and Bell Hooks (to name just a few of the heavy hitters). For these thinkers, education provides a means to greater freedom and the ability to contribute meaningfully to a democratic society. Education can only support these goals if it fosters greater student agency in the classroom, empowering students with the dignity of choice and autonomy, without subordinating them to passive positions as “objects” of schooling.

To this end, I never simply “implemented” “agentic learning methods”; rather, the need to support student agency informed an overall disposition that informed everything I did: How I spoke and asked questions, even how I stood in front of the classroom (spoiler–I rarely stood in the front of the classroom because I was usually sitting and listening to the students).

When teachers and schools invest in promoting student agency, it’s helpful to begin with some open discussion regarding attitudes around the whole issue of agency itself as a principle and value that informs learning. Significantly, a 2018 survey of teachers involved in introducing agentic learning strategies revealed that many “teachers reported that some of their colleagues have perceptions that limit their use of agency-supporting instructional practice.”¹ Other studies have highlighted the important role of teacher beliefs as a factor in fostering student agency.² Promoting student agency can require a shift in how teachers understand their relationship to instruction. Giving students more agency in the instructional process can represent a challenge to a teacher’s sense of their own professional identity and role in the classroom. This shift can also challenge perceptions regarding perceived beliefs of student ability.

Student Agency as both Pedagogy and Curriculum

The topic of student agency can open up some “big question” conversations. Certainly, epic debates have been waged in fields ranging from psychology and sociology to philosophy on the relative influence of agency vs. the “structure” of social systems in determining human behavior.³ Questions of agency and self-determination have long served as hallmarks of study in both humanities and the sciences. Meanwhile, in the classroom, more immediate, tactical questions emerge regarding maturity levels and student ability to effectively employ agentic skills at different ages.

Questions about agency, whether more philosophical or more tactical, represent valid and relevant concerns at all levels. Promoting student agency in the classroom does not require naive acceptance of individual agency as a simple given of human–let alone

educational–experience. In fact, effectively fostering student agency can benefit from engaging the topic of agency as both an instructional strategy and a topic of class inquiry–as both pedagogy and curriculum. In my classes, we considered the role of agency in the Naturalist literature of writers like Mark Twain and Richard Wright–writers whose deterministic visions of experience questioned and complicated the humanist faith in the promises of individual agency, particularly when confronted with factors of social environment, like class, race, gender, and sexuality. In similar ways, science instructors can couple agentic teaching strategies with discussions of the ways in which biological factors from genetics to medicine work to both limit and promote human agency. And social studies classes can join agentic teaching practices with class discussions of changes in human agency at different periods in history. In other words, employing agentic teaching strategies does not require naive or romanticized belief in human agency as an unquestioned ideal. The goal is to create an instructional environment that enables students to experience agency at multiple levels, empowering them to make informed and consequential choices that enhance their learning.

Self-Efficacy and Student Beliefs in Personal Agency

Encouraging student agency is more about facilitating an environment that respects and supports students’ ability to develop a perception of themselves as independent thinkers, “self-effective” and autonomous agents capable of identifying and solving the problems most relevant to their own lives.⁴ An important component of agency is “perceived self-efficacy.”⁵ Simply put, self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to do what is required to succeed in a particular situation. According to the psychologist Albert Branduras, the act of asserting agency implies 2 basic assumptions: (1) Not only a will to achieve, but (2) the belief that one can achieve. Encouraging student agency in the classroom means enabling learning situations in which students can develop a belief in their ability to achieve their goals. Moreover, increases in perceived self-efficacy also correspond with increased motivation: Students who believe they can achieve their goals (i.e., possess a greater sense of self-efficacy) tend to be more motivated to pursue those goals.⁶

Student Agency and Self-Relevance

As for the goals of learning, agency and self-regulation can produce learning experiences and knowledge that a learner perceives to be more “self-relevant”: The perception that learning is relevant and applicable to a student’s lived experience.⁷ For instance, allowing students greater choice in which books they read, allows them to select and focus on topics they find more relevant to their own interests. When students perceive learning as more self-relevant, they are more likely to transfer and apply that learning to meaningful aspects of their own lives. Personal relevance can also make it easier for students to connect new knowledge to previous experience, allowing them to better situate new learning within their existing knowledge structures. And students who find learning more personally relevant are also more intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals. In terms of metacognitive benefits, allowing for student agency also leads to greater self awareness: Because student agency involves student-directed choices, decision making lends itself to greater self-awareness of one’s own learning processes and preferences, along with the emotions and needs that motivate those choices.The overall result is learning that is more flexible and adaptive because it was conceived in the context of a student’s unique personal needs and aspirations.

The Benefits of Fostering Greater Student Agency in Learning

In short ,the implications and benefits of student agency include increases in the following areas of learning:

  • Greater Motivation: The factors or conditions (either intrinsic or extrinsic) that activate and sustain the behaviors necessary to achieve a goal.
  • Increased Perseverance: The ability to maintain effort and motivation amidst challenges and difficulties in the pursuit of a goal.
  • Increased Perceptions of Self-efficacy: A student’s belief and confidence in their ability to perform the tasks required to achieve a particular goal.
  • Increased Capacity for Self-regulation: In the context of learning, self-regulation refers to one’s ability to independently manage the tasks and behaviors required to achieve academic goals. Self-regulatory abilities include goal setting, self-monitoring, self-instruction, and self-reinforcement. Self-regulation should not be confused with a mental aptitude or an academic performance skill. Instead, self-regulation “is a self-directive process and set of behaviors” whereby learners “transform their mental abilities into task-related skills.”⁸ Self-regulatory behaviors include one’s ability to:
    • Analyze task requirements
    • Plan and set goals
    • Select, adapt or invent strategies to achieve objectives
    • Monitor progress as they work through a task
    • Manage intrusive emotions and waning motivation
    • Adjusting strategies in time to foster success
  • Increases in the Self-relevance of Learning: The perception that learning is relevant to a student’s lived experience. Self-relevance can also make it easier for a learner to situate new learning within existing knowledge structures by making connections to previous experience. When students do not experience learning as relevant to their own lives, it can often appear arbitrary, merely a set of normative standards, skills, concepts, or rules mandated from the top-down as necessary knowledge, untethered to a student’s actual life experiences.
  • Increased Metacognitive Self Awareness: Because student agency involves student-directed choices, decision making lends itself to greater self-awareness of one’s own learning processes and preferences, along with the conditions, emotions, and needs that motivate their choices.
  • Decision-Competence: The ability to make rational decisions about learning, while managing impulsive or emotional choices that can undermine progress toward goals.

¹ Zeiser, Kristina, Carrie Scholz, and Victoria Cirks. “Maximizing Student Agency: Implementing and Measuring Student-Centered Learning Practices.” American Institutes for Research (2018)

² Eveliina Stolp, Josephine Moate, Suvi Saarikallio, Eija Pakarinen & MarjaKristiina Lerkkanen (2022): Teacher beliefs about student agency in whole-class playing, Music Education Research

³See, for instance, Hays, S. (1994). Structure and agency and the sticky problem of culture. Sociological Theory, 8, 124-142.

⁴For more on student self perceptions of agency and self-efficacy, see Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28, 117-148.

⁵(1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147

⁶See Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

⁷Ford, M. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions, and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Wolters, C. (1998). Self-regulated learning and college students’ regulation of motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 224–235.

⁸Zimmerman, B. (2001). Theories of self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview and analysis. In B. Zimmerman & D. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 1– 37). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

1 Like