Learner Agency – an important part of Deep Learning

13 Aug

Learner agency as a concept in 21st century education relates tightly into students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences.  Agency is the capacity to act, to make decisions about one’s own life and learning.

Deep learning requires ownership and individual engagement with the content. Here is a succinct definition for deep and surface level learning strategies: “the basic processing operations that describe how students react to and interact with the learning material and with people present in the learning environment in order to enhance domain-specific knowledge and skills” (Boekaerts, 2016, p. 81).

This is why learner agency is so important. Students must develop their skills in independent judgment. In order to do that they need ample opportunities to practice choosing. Being or becoming responsible for one’s own actions is one of the possible byproducts of public education.

Recent research recognizes the importance of learning experiences that emphasize autonomous and agentive participation, including the opportunity to have control over oneself and one’s learning environment. There are various ways to perceive agency in the classroom.

It is different to learn something than to be taught something. Being taught doesn’t necessarily mean that learning happens. It only means that the student has been present when the teaching has happened. This is very detached view of learning, and hardly motivates students to try. Memorizing content until the next test is included in students’ perceptions of detached learning.

Sometimes students feel they belong to the school community, which makes them more compliant in learning activities, and a little bit less eager to exercise their agency. In these cases students depend on their teachers and just go through the motions and learning activities, as they are expected to do.

Open dialogue can help students choose to actively engage in their own education and to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers should support growing agency in the classroom, because the ownership contributes to engaging in deep learning. Students who have strong ownership are interested in learning more.

Deep learning experiences can lead students to become ubiquitous learners, who learn anytime, anywhere.  This unbound learning extends beyond school walls and hours, but we as educators must learn to acknowledge and credit this very independent learning.

Students’ perceptions of their agency can span over several categories. These descriptive categories cannot be used to label students.

In formal education the tradition has been to perceive students as objects of the teaching-learning interaction, with the expectation for students to absorb the facts presented by teachers or faculty.  This view of education doesn’t fit into contemporary learning theories that emphasize knowledge construction. Educational research shows how important factors students’ ownership and knowledge construction are for academic success, yet many educational practices still rely on teacher-centered instructional models. Why?  This seems to support the perceptions of detachment.

There are many ways to support agency in the classroom.

Building a learner-centered environment where students can choose how they practice and learn is an easy way to support learner agency. Students must have choices while selecting their learning resources.  Researchers say that agency is about understanding what choices and resources are available (Kumpulainen et al., 2011, p. 13). Becoming responsible for one’s own learning can and must be fostered in the classroom context.

Supporting learner agency improves the quality of students’ engagement in their own learning process, and help students become ready for the requirements of living in 21st century.  Examples of engagement quality are “going through the motions” vs. “I make my own motions” and “being a classroom sheep” vs. “trying to understand how to transfer learned”.

The table below displays components of learner agency and students’ perceptions of it, as see in my research.

Sometimes agency may seem negative, for example when a student decides to leave homework undone, because they are okay with a grade that is less than perfect. Obviously, this is only a problem when learning is seen as a product, instead of (life-long) process.

Understanding students’ perspectives and using practices that support learners’ agency helps teachers create better teaching-learning interactions.  These learner-centered interactions will improve the quality of students’ learning experiences and also their academic achievement (e.g. Reyes et al. 2012).

The importance of intentional engagement, subjectivity and shared classroom experiences cannot be overemphasized as means for deeper learning. Students must have an opportunity to exercise their agency.

More about Learner Agency at Nina’s Notes

 

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Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Kumpulainen, K., Krokfors, L., Lipponen, L., Tissari, V., Hilppö, J., & Rajala, A. (2011). Learning bridges – Toward participatory learning environments. Helsinki: CICERO Learning, University of Helsinki.

Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology104(3), 700 – 712.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).

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