How often have you faced a class of passive, seemingly disengaged students? Not knowing what they were thinking, how they felt, whether they were understanding complex ideas or what questions they had. Have students ever asked you: “What is the minimum I have to do to pass?”  

These scenarios speak to the need to bolster students’ sense of their capacity for agency – an ability to act, influence a situation in the classroom, ask questions and take initiative. Mediated by others, agency may create dynamic, participatory togetherness. Its enactment provides opportunities for interactions and learning from and with each other. For this reason, the Teaching & Curriculum Team (TACT) from IML will be focused on both student agency and teamwork in the second of our series of five ‘hot topics’ for 2021.

Agency – a social, relational and contextual concept  

Agency is an important topic in the rapidly changing higher education landscape and professional agency in particular because we live, learn and work in uncertain, disruptive times. The ability to engage with disruption, become creative and improvise in our increasingly complex world are sought after professional skills.

Active learning requires participation which happens within relationships (between self and others). It’s not an individual heroic act but happens in social contexts. Here lies the complexity:  

  • What is the role of the teacher to foster student agency?  
  • What responsibilities have students to enable their peers to have a sense of voice?  
  • What conditions and behaviours can help every student to practise agency: take initiative, ask questions, help steer constructive teamwork discussion? 

Traditionally, agency has been related to individual confidence, the belief that one can do something or self-efficacy and the capability to make good use of available resources to think, act and change. However, this individual perspective of agency neglects its dynamic nature and interdependence of people, context and culture. The inclusive teaching practices we explored in our Belonging hot topic can be used to help foster agency for a diverse range of students.

Student agency and teamwork are student-led concepts that imply the teachers’ role as the facilitators of active and collaborative learning. Anne Edwards from University of Oxford writes about relational agency as “a capacity which involves recognising that another person may be a resource and that work needs to be done to elicit, recognise and negotiate the use of that resource in order to align oneself in joint action on the object.” Through this intentionally raised awareness of self, others and the wider context, students can make informed choices, have influence in the class and teamwork, and develop their learner voice.

Agency should not be taken for granted and teamwork is not meant to be a smooth journey, in fact, both are very much about the process, the situation in front of students. The product and outcomes are the result of the process.  

Teamwork requires the capacity to read the context, engage with conflict, speak up where appropriate, make decisions and act upon them. Student agency and teamwork are interdependent, requiring the development of reflexivity, learning about self and others within a context and more specifically, how one is perceived and identified by others.

Key concepts that play into student agency and teamwork

Explore agency with us

In this ‘Student agency and teamwork’ hot topic series, we will put the spotlight on:  

  • How can facilitators enable student agency and good teamwork experiences? 
  • Creating space for agency:  how can we enable creativity in students?   
  • What is the teacher’s role in fostering agentic student learners?  
  • What does an agentic curriculum look like?  
  • Let’s ask the students how agentic they feel in teamwork scenarios! 
  • What about assessment in agency and teamwork?  
  • How do students see teamwork?  A workshop using trigger films  

We will create action-packed sessions where you can learn from colleagues and share your insights and practices. The themed series of events will kick off with the next First & Further Year Experience Forum on April 9th.

Feature image by Kwa Nguyen

Join the discussion