Learner Agency

Learner agency is an important concept in current education.  This research described the perceptions high school seniors have about their learning experiences.  Educational research indicates students’ self-regulation being an important factor in academic success, yet many educational practices still rely on teacher-centered instructional models. I finished my dissertation research about learner agency in 2017.  (Doctoral thesis defense PDF presentation)

Students’ Perceptions of Their Learner Agency: A Phenomenographic Inquiry toThe Lived Learning Experiences of High School Seniors

Supporting learner agency could improve the quality of students’ engagement in their learning process, and help students become ready for the requirements of living in 21stCentury.  In this phenomenographic inquiry into students’ perceptions of their learner agency nine high school seniors were interviewed about their engagement and learning experiences.  The analysis yielded an outcome space of four qualitatively different ways of perceiving learner agency 1. detachment from learning, 2. belonging to the school community, 3. synergy of learning ownership, and 4, unbound ubiquitous learning.  The outcome space was organized into a visual conceptualization of the hierarchical relationship between intentionality, agency, and quality of learning.  Based on the findings of this research, the recommendations for educational policy and practice include crediting informal learning, embedding choices into learning experiences, and supporting both students’ and teachers’ individual learning process.

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.

Learner-centered education

Providing learner-centered education means acknowleding the individual differences among learner group and providing instruction that focuses on supporting the learning process.  Considering learners as agents of their own lives and learning yields for best research-based approach for supporting motivational and self-regulatory practices for students of all ages.

While it appears that most research is done in K-12 learning environments, it is important to remember that student-centeredness is not a practice belonging solely to formal and formative education, but an educational approach suitable for all education and training.

Defining Learner-Centered teaching and learning

American Psychological Association (APA) defined learner-centered education in 1990 and revised it in 1997. (McCombs work). In 2015 these learner-centered principles were updated to the “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for pre-K to 12 Teaching and Learning”.

These Top 20 principles have been divided into 5 areas of psychological functioning:

  1. Cognition and learning: How do students think and learn?
  2. Motivation: What motivates students?
  3. Social context and emotional dimensions: Why are social context, interpersonal relations and emotional well-being important to student learning?
  4. Context and learning: How can the classroom best be managed?
  5. Assessment: How can teachers assess student progress?

I consider the APA to be the highest authority of educational psychology in the U.S. and a positive influence in the education world in general. Education is about looking both into the past and into the future, which is why it also has two opposite purposes: to ensure cultural progression and to prepare students for their unknown future.

Cultural progression is necessary for societies to have members who will know about the past (history) and the traditions (culture), but emphasizing the traditional ways of doing things may cause difficulties for students to learn for the future. Yet, not knowing the history could cause us to repeat the mistakes of the past generations. For anyone engaging in instruction this is just one of the many dichotomies of the teaching-learning situation. Finding balance is important because both past and future are necessary in understanding the process.

Modern educational theory and practice are built on the premise of education being the process for students to “develop their rational faculties so that they become capable of independent judgement”. This requires for students to engage in three-dimensional learning process and grow their skills, knowledge and understanding. The role of instructor is to support this growth.