Student agency is at the heart of university education. If we want our students to graduate as ethical citizens and knowledgeable professionals who will shape the future of our world, as teachers, we must engage with the notion of student agency. But why do students sometimes seem reluctant to exercise agency in their learning?

Freedom or responsibility

Student agency is often thought about in terms of ‘independence’, ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’. We imagine students taking matters in their own hands and heroically carving out an education pathway of their own. This is a common, individualised view of student agency. For example, the world cloud below represents the Hot Topics: Student Agency and Teamwork webinar participants’ responses to the question: What words come to your mind when you think about student agency?

Responses to the question: What words come to your mind when you think about student agency? by Hot Topics: Student Agency and Teamwork webinar participants in April 2021.

Examining this word cloud, we might ask ourselves: ‘independence from what’, ‘freedom from what’ and ‘choice to do what’? Does our selection of words imply that student agency is necessarily about liberating ourselves from the constraints of the collective or the education system?

I would like to invite educators to consider the word ‘responsibility’ as an alternative way of thinking about student agency. Whilst ‘independence’ seems to suggest a separation or disconnection from others, could we perhaps talk about student agency as taking ‘responsibility’ over the collective (eg. team, cohort, university community) and the world?

Re-conceptualising student agency

Drawing on sociomaterial theories and scholars like Stetsenko (2019) and Barad (2017), human action can be conceptualised as emerging from the world, but also shaping the world in return. This view highlights the importance of everyday actions and interactions. Thought about in this way, agency can be seen as an ongoing iterative process of responding to, acting in, but also creating, making the world through our actions. For educators, this is significant, because it suggests that every educational encounter is world-making.

The focus on everyday education practices helps us shift away from the idea that, for example, students do not exercise agency because the education system does not allow it. We might think that if we could only fix the education system, then students would have more agency. Similarly, we might imagine that if we give students the necessary skills and capabilities, then they will have the agency.

In contrast, education philosopher Gert Biesta (2015) argues that agency is ‘something that can occur from time to time, something that can emerge, rather than something that is constantly there, that we can have, possess, and secure’ (p. 22). Thus, we cannot think about student agency as an outcome or a student attribute – it is not something that we can have, achieve or guarantee. Instead, student agency is something that emerges – it is better thought of as a process or an event. It follows then that agency cannot be ‘given’ to students through education. We can invite students to exercise agency, but students themselves have to step up and take this responsibility. As educators, we cannot do it for them.

Conceptualising learning in this way suggests that there is a possibility for agency to emerge in every educational encounter, if it is open enough for student agency to occur. Our job as educators is to create educational environments that encourage and enable student agency to emerge.

Insights and examples from TD School

Invite students to bring their whole selves to learning

In the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation degree, students come from 25 different degrees and disciplinary backgrounds, and whilst they learn together, each student focuses on and takes away different things from the learning experience – no student graduates the same. Transdisciplinary learning is about enabling students to discover their interests, curiosity and strengths in relation to each other, and the most pressing challenges facing the society today. Students are more likely to take responsibility and exercise agency if the issues they’re exploring provoke emotional investment, tapping into their values, sense of purpose and life experiences.

Examples of exercises used in TD School

Direct students’ attention to their relationships with peers and awareness of their contribution to the world beyond the university course

Reflexive activities (eg. the above examples) invite students to break the ice, develop a sense of belonging and connection, and acknowledge the diversity of disciplinary and cultural backgrounds available to be drawn upon in their learning. Learning in the TD School is also intensely collaborative, students are encouraged to bring their perspectives, experiences and knowledge into their team based projects. Further, when addressing real-world challenges framed as a ‘problem’ (by staff or industry partners), students are encouraged to ‘reframe’ these problems by integrating their own perspectives and drawing upon those of their peers. This encourages students to take collective responsibility over their responses to the challenge.

Examples of approaches used in TD School:

Open assessment briefs based upon real challenges for which answers and solutions do not exist yet

With open assessment briefs, there is no one way to succeed. In TD learning students have the opportunity to consider multiple different approaches by interrogating and integrating diverse perspectives. The ‘messiness’ of real-world challenges invites different responses, encouraging students to take responsibility over their learning by moving away from formulaic and familiar genres of assessment tasks. Importantly, students’ capacity to respond to these types of ill-structured challenges has to be cultivated, encouraged and supported, so that students don’t feel thrown in at the deep end. As educators, we have to delve into uncertainty together with students, and be prepared for surprises ourselves!

What’s your experience?

Do these insights about agency resonate with you? How do you stimulate student agency in your teaching?

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. duke university Press.
Biesta, G. J. (2015). Beautiful risk of education. Routledge.
Stetsenko, A. (2019). Radical-transformative agency: Continuities and contrasts with relational agency and implications for education. Frontiers in Education (Vol. 4, p. 148).

Feature image by Anna Zhu

  • I love this idea of “ongoing iterative process of responding to, acting in, but also creating, making the world through our actions” – this is where the delight of my job is – watching the leaders develop agency over their course of being a leader in the program, and developing understanding how they can impact and change the educational experience for those other students and for themselves.

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