Learner Agency

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.

In a classroom context students’ perceptions of their own learning are an important factor for engagement and deeper learning. These perceptions are a large part of emerging agency and the experience of having ownership of learning.

Students’ perceptions of their agency can span over several categories. These descriptive categories cannot be used to label students. The table below shows how students participating in my research perceived their learner agency as Detachment, Belonging, Synergy or Unbound when focusing on the categories of description (Learning, engagement, intentionality, ownership and self-regulation).

Categories of description for Learner Agency. NCS 2017

Here is a link to my thesis: Learner Agency

The Intriguing Diversity of Learning Experiences

I never wanted to be a teacher.  What led me to study learning and education was taking care of my own children and recognizing their diverse learning preferences.  Signing up to study education and psychology in Open University was the first step on a path that eventually took me abroad to teach and study in other countries.  My studies at the University of Jyväskylä were an eye-opening experience that led me to understand the subjectivity of learning, and to value the situationality and contextuality of education.  It is agreat mystery: while being exposed to the same content and instruction, every individual student has a different take-away we call learning.

Learning is a fundamental phenomenon in our lives, everyone has experienced it. Researching learning is complicated because there is no single variable to pinpoint as a measurement for it to have happened.  Even providing a comprehensive definition forlearning is hard because each experience is extremely individual, situational,and contextual.  Some things are granted,though.  Learning includes a change, an update in knowledge structure (Barron et al., 2015).  This change does not happen in a vacuum but is supported with interactions, both socially and physiologically.  From the neurological viewpoint, “learning changes the structure of the brain” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking,2000, p. 103), thus being an essential part of human development.  Measuring learning outcome solely as information acquired is inaccurate because of the focus being on the end state of activity instead of the change in knowledge or skill.  Learning is subjective and requires both acquisition and elaboration (Illeris, 2003).

Research Questions

The central research question and four sub-questions were designed to help understanding and describing of learner agency, as perceived by the high school seniors.

Central question.  What are students’ perceptions of their learning experiences?

Sub-questions.  What kind of learning interactions do students experience in the classroom?  How do students choose to engage in the classroom, and how do they describe the intentionality of their own learning?  What are students’ perceptions of life-long learning?  What instructional choices do students describe as being impactful for their self-direction and self-regulation?

The central research question focuses on students’ conceptions of learning in order to understand how they perceive learner agency.  In order to support active engagement, it is important to know what students think about their learning experiences (Säljö, 1979; Boekaerts, 2011). The sub-questions have been chosen to illuminate students’ experiences of “intentionality of learning,forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness” (Bandura,2006, p. 164).  These four core properties of agency are crucial to understanding what students’ agency in the classroom looks like.  The learning experience is considered to be constructed from the processes of interaction between the student, the content and the environment followed by acquisition and elaboration of learning (Entwistle, 1997; Illeris, 2003).

Summary of the recommendations for practice and future research.  Six recommendations were made based on theresults of this research.  First two recommendations –engage in learner-centered practices and support deeper learning – have implications for teacher training and professional development.  These recommendations are aligned with the contemporary research about educational psychology, including motivation and the learning process (APA, 2015).  Furthermore, in order to increase learner agency, it is important to find more legitimate ways within educational structure to engage in deeper student-centered learning.  The two recommendations for policy changes – acknowledge students’ subjective experiences,personal goals and interests and credit informal learning – suggest decreasing the domination of learning within educational structure.  Students’ future success to thrive in the rapidly changing world depends on their unbound learning skills.  Education should not overemphasize standardization and compliance, but empower students to learn more.  This recommendation also applies to teachers’learning and professional development. The two recommendations for future research – strengthen the synergy of learning ownership and prevent detachment and negative agency – extend this inquiry to students’perceptions of their learning experiences into a larger context of contemporary research in education.  The social structure of classroom learning and students’ experience of agency are imbalanced when students choose to be a “classroom sheep”.  Much more research is needed to make students’ voices heard about their own learning experiences and engagement.

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

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