Support agency to increase engagement!

Learning environment is so much more than just the physical surroundings or LMS and learning materials. It is where the learning process happens and we should invest time to supporting Learner Agency and SEL.

How much control do your students have over their learning environment?

In the era of online teaching and learning we might be tempted to say that students have more control than they used to. And in some ways, this is true – students may have the choice of having their laptop on the kitchen table, or be laying on their bed or in some other location in the house. But, does that really mean that their learning environment has changed?

Learning environment is so much more than just the physical surroundings or LMS and learning materials. It is where the learning process happens and it definitely extends to the social, cultural and material environment, in addition to the interactions between instructors and students [1].  Students’ perception is what matters in this relational triangle of self, content, and environment, because the perception defines their motivation and choices for participating and engaging in learning.  EdSurge has a great article about this: The key to Better Student Engagement Is Letting Them Show You How They Learn. Please read it!

If students are just focusing on earning a grade, or going through the motions of complying with their learning tasks, there is not much agency related to their learning experience. No need for metacognition, either. Enhancing the learning environment – which in this case means providing choices and acknowledging existing competencies and individual differences – can make a huge difference by helping students to choose to move from mere compliance towards learning engagement. At the same time, it may shift students’ perception of their agency from detachment towards ownership of their learning. Isn’t this exactly what we want for every student?

Learner agency and engagement are deeply intertwined.  Engagement in one’s own learning process is profoundly different from mere participation in classroom activities – whether online or in physical classroom[2]. Often heard claim is that students must participate in order to engage in learning, but I think we may have to challenge this. The reason is that the student may already know the content and possess the competency this particular lesson is about. Participation may enhance this competency and provide more information about the topic, but what this particular student really needs, is to be challenged in their own level of competence. This is why we do differentiated instruction, right?

The question then is: how do we know what each individual student needs? This is where agency and empowerment are so very important! We must ask students to tell us what they need. Helping students to identify and communicate their needs is certainly a part of educating them to be productive members of a society.

When students have strong learner agency, they often are aware of their metacogitive skills and will tell you what they need. This happens because they are intrinsically interested in learning for life and have very strong ownership over their learning process. They learn everywhere and are actively trying to understand how to use what they learn in different contexts. (In my research I called this unbound and ubiquitous learning.)

When students exhibit less agency, they are not interested in engaging in their own learning process, and just try to go through the motions and complete the expected activities. Enhancing the learning environment to meet the needs of these students is crucially important! Otherwise, they will remain detached from deeper learning, and may never feel the thrill of intrinsic interest to learn something. The emphasis remains on reproducing information, passing tests, earning graders and feeling that their learning is seriously missing real-life connections. All my research participants discussed this detachment, and it is very important to remember that the exhibited engagement does NOT define learner agency, because it is situational and contextual.

Even as adults, our learner agency shifts based on the expectations we are facing. Some trainings exist solely for compliance – I am thinking safety trainings, IRBs, policies and procedures. We are not going to exhibit ubiquitous agency in those trainings, as we just need to get through the task. Therefore, getting through the motions is enough for engagement in situations where only low-level information is shared.

Engagement choices are about self-determination and our own learning process. In externally regulated learning environmnet there is very little or no use for self-determination [3]. So, we cannot just assume that we know when students are engaged. Nor can we trust assessments or evaluations, because they are just snapshots in time and the student may have learned very much after that test. We just won’t know about students’ engagement levels unless we ask. Student self-assessment are a great tool to start these discussions about metacognition, and we definitely must support students’ self-reflection of their learning.

As the subject matter experts of the learning content, we should be suggesting suitable learning strategies for our students to help build their metacognition. We understand the concept hierarchies in the subject our students are learning, and while it makes perfect sense to us how things relate, we just have to ask questions to figure out what still may be unclear to students. And then help students to move forward from that point.

After working for years with teachers pursuing their M.Ed. degrees, I am convinced that even adult learning still happens in interactions. From a developmental viewpoint it is obvious that the younger the student, the more interactions are needed to support learning. Fortunately we have a plethora of resources to support all students’ learning process and agency in all levels of education. Social- emotional learning (SEL) provides great tools. CASEL framework has identified 5 areas in SEL:

  • SEL competencies:
    • self-awareness
    • self-management
    • social awareness
    • relationship skills
    • responsible decision making

Embedding the SEL competencies into our everyday discussions with students helps us to address the individual learning process and agency. This may be a learning opportunity for faculty, but the CASEL framewords makes it very clear and straighfroward.

  • Discussions for SEL competencies includes the following (and more):
    • Supporting students’ self-awareness means that we address their metacognition, which includes the thoughts, beliefs, emotions and motivations regarding the learning experiences students have.
    • Supporting students’ self-management means that we help students to take initiative and cope with their emotions and thoughts, and we also provide guidance for stressful situations.
    • Supporting students’ social awareness means that we model empathy and compassion, recognize (and verbalize) situational demands and opportunities, and help all students to take perspective.
    • Supporting students’ relationship skills means that we emphasize cooperation, communication and proactively teach students to seek help and offer help to others.
    • Supporting students’ responsible decision making means that we teach students how to make good decisions, first with smaller things and about personal behaviors and social interactions, but also increasingly more complex decisions.

All the five SEL elements are organically present in our lives, in our societies. Formal education shouldn’t be an exception of this. Choosing to teach with the focus of supporting students’ learning process also helps us empower our students to learn more on their own. Investing time to these two things that may seem auxilliary in formal education – learner agency and SEL – increases students’ metacognition which then strengthens learner engagement and learning success.


[1] Just as a reminder: Nina’s Notes refers to learning process as defined by Illeris: “an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (Illeris, 2003, p. 298)

Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406. doi:10.1080/0260137032000094814

[2] Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American journal of sociology, 103(4),
962-1023. Retrieved from:

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological
perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149.

[3] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macro-theory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185. Doi: 10.1037/a0012801

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