Some Notes on Students’ Personal Agency

Meir Graff, PhD
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Education, Touro College

“Professor, I don’t know what’s going on!”

I had just approached one of my students at the Graduate School of Education about her having fallen behind on one of our course assignments. I won’t say I was entirely surprised by her response: students usually take this course during their first semester when they are often still acclimating to a number of novel responsibilities and the nature of the assignment in particular was one that is unfamiliar to many new graduate students. In truth, I appreciated the student’s candor and readiness to receive help – once it was offered. What did surprise me – and what has surprised me on several occasions over seven years of teaching graduate level courses – is the reluctance of some experienced students to initiate the conversation or to seek any form of assistance on their own.

Years ago, as a high school Special Education teacher for students with an array of learning disabilities, I noticed something fairly common among my students when they were given an assignment that involved reading comprehension. Some of these students seemed to read through passages without pausing to monitor their comprehension of the text. These same students struggled when it came to knowing when and where to apply reading comprehension strategies (such as underlining or summarizing), even though they had learned these strategies and were able to reproduce them when prompted. It turns out that limitations in metacognitive skills, like monitoring for understanding and the self-regulated use of comprehension strategies, are a common characteristic of students with learning disabilities.

I became interested in the source of my students’ challenges with utilizing these self-regulated learning skills, and decided to investigate by conducting an informal study of their text comprehension strategies. I met with individual students and asked them to read a short expository passage, and instructed them to ‘think aloud’ by verbalizing the strategies they employed during their reading. (The ‘think-aloud’ protocol is a commonly used method in research on reading and problem solving). The results of my informal study showed that these students used mostly a class of less-effective reproductive strategies (such as rereading or paraphrasing sentences), which had been anticipated. But what I thought was the most interesting finding was that these students rarely made any reference to themselves (such as by using the personal pronouns ‘I’ or ‘me’) in describing their own thought processes while reading. Of course, no true conclusions could be made from the informal mini-study I’ve described, but it occurred to me that an absence of self-referential statements might be an indicator that these students were missing a sense of personal agency with regard to their learning – they might not have believed they were capable of initiating behaviors that could affect a desired learning outcome. (My experience has motivated a current research project which looks at the connection between students’ agency and their effective use of learning strategies.)

The above interaction made me think of my experience with these high school students. It might sound strange to suggest that our accomplished college students lack a sense of personal agency regarding their learning. But this is likely to be true for some students, and especially those who are still in their first couple of semesters. Lacking a sense of agency can influence the degree to which students are proactive about addressing their academic needs, and even their active engagement in utilizing effective strategies to support their learning. The development of a sense of agency is a vital component of student success, with studies suggesting it may be as important a predictor of positive outcomes as knowledge and skill acquisition. Although truly addressing this topic would require a discussion of much broader scope, the following are some suggestions from the literature of ways we might enhance our students’ sense of agency:

  • Building Self-Efficacy: Provide students the opportunity to develop the belief that they can succeed in a given course. One approach might be to begin the semester by including a task that, while challenging, is well within your students’ range of capabilities.
  • Fostering Perception of Control over Outcome: Enable students to build the expectation that their actions will determine their successes/failures. One possibility is to allow students the opportunity to revise and thereby improve their work on a given assignment.
  • Teaching about Effective Learning Goals: Discuss the importance of setting goals that are specific, realistic, and that can be realized in the short-term. This form of goal-setting can initially be modeled by incorporating goals of this type within an assignment’s structure.
  • Discussing and Illustrating Useful Strategies: Equip students with strategies that may be helpful for completing a particular assignment. This may be as straightforward as clarifying the requirements of an assignment by framing it in a sequence of smaller steps.
  • Acknowledging Contributions: Allow students to make suggestions that could potentially be incorporated into course content. An example could be encouraging all students in your class to refer to a short list of elective topics and form opinions about which of these topics should be covered during the semester.
  • Valuing an Interactive Learning Environment: Allow students the opportunity to become active learners. One way this can be achieved is by promoting inquiry through encouraging your students to raise questions.


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