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.

References:

[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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/231294.

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

3C Framework for Deep Learning

This framework is built on understanding how learning and instruction are two separate processes.  Learning doesn’t always require instruction. Instruction doesn’t always lead to learning. In IDEAL situations these two processes balance each other.

The holistic view of learning considers learning to be a part of our everyday lives in a society, instead of being a function that only happens in the classroom.  The holistic view of teaching extends instruction beyond providing information and measuring retention, considering didactics, pedagogy/andragogy, and subject matter expertise being professionally combined to create an environment conducive for deep learning.

Learner agency is a central theme in the framework, and refers to the choices and degree of freedom students have about their learning. It is also the opportunity to perceive oneself as an actor and to “influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” (Bandura, 2008, p. 16). Agency is an integral part of our identity and social life.

Interest is the foundation of learning. We all have tried to learn something that doesn’t interest us. It is hard, very hard. Instructing without interest is even harder. Most common way to increase interest is to support meaningfulness of learning and instruction, often by creating connections to real life experiences. Intrinsic interest in learning can be supported by providing choices (for content, assignments, assessments, etc.) Every child born to this world likes learning, which is also a survival skill, and thus a necessity. Somewhere along the way we lose that enjoyment of learning, and start to do things because others ask or mandate us to do so.

Dispositions for learning and teaching are always present in instruction. It would be unwise to deny their existence, because the classroom practices, beliefs of learning, and the tone of interactions are all based on our dispositions. Do we as instructors have a perception of teachability – the idea of a model student? Or, do we as students have a perception of the ideal teaching method? Dispositions can become a group of invisible elephants in the room, because beliefs about learning have an effect in how classroom experiences are perceived. (Here is a PDF about teaching dispositions.)

Engagement goes well beyond reading the textbook. Today students have access to more information – and misinformation – than ever before. This abundance of choices presents new requirements for instruction and measurements of learning:

  1. Instructors’ role has changed from being the source of information to the facilitator of learning – we must teach advanced learning strategies.
  2. Learning is ongoing and formal education is just a small part of this journey – deep learning cannot be done just for a grade but for life.
  3. Finding ways to support students’ individual learning process is the key to keep them engaged and support transfer.
  4. Anyone who wants to teach must learn how to ask non-googlable questions.

Engagement in one’s own learning process is different from participation in classroom activities.  The difference lies between autonomous and controlled activity, as seen in the Deci and Ryan (1985, 2008) metatheory of self-determination.  Intentional engagement reflects student’s intrinsic motivation and goal orientation for determined involvement in one’s own learning (Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006; Appleton et al., 2008; Boekaerts, 2011; Upadyaya & Salmela-Aro, 2013).

Agency emphasizes students’ active role in their own learning process, providing a view into students’ perceptions of learning. This is why agency is so important for the 3C framework: People with agency are generally viewed as contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of their environment, and they make choices about their own life and learning (Bandura, 2006; Giddens, 1984). Development of learner agency depends on the experiences students have in the classroom and in the educational system in general.

Lifelong learning cannot be surface learning. Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiring transferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The instructional emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term “deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenographic research of Marton and Säljö (1976) where researchers found that university students had different approaches to learning.  These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected pieces of information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), or as knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings (deep learning).  Deeper learning has been defined by American Institutes for Research as “a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job” (Huberman, Bitter, Anthony, & O’Day, 2014).

The theory for 3C framework is based on the works of Piaget (1952) and Kolb (1984), where the learning process is understood to be an internal procedure, enhanced by external events. The relational nature of learning process belongs to humanist socio-constructivist view where information is shared but knowledge is constructed. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught.

 

IDEAL learning experiences

 

 

References:

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.  Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development: A research annual. Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues, Vol. 6, (pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.

Boekaerts, M. (2011). What have we learned about the social context-student engagement link?. Teachers College Record113(2), 375-393.

Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Boekaerts, M., & Cascallar, E. (2006). How far have we moved toward the integration of theory and practice in self-regulation?. Educational Psychology Review18(3), 199-210.

Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S. D., Parker, W. C., Nguyen, D., Mosborg, S., … & Bransford, J. (2011). The quest for deeper learning and engagement in advanced high school courses. The Foundation Review3(3), 3.

Deakin Crick, R. E. (2012). Deep Engagement as a complex system: identity, learning power and authentic enquiry. In C., S. Reschly, & C. A. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. (pp. 675-694). New York, NY: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_32

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

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

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Linnansaari, J., Viljaranta, J., Lavonen, J., Schneider, B., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). Finnish Students’ Engagement in Science Lessons. Nordic Studies in Science Education11(2), 192-206.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), 4-11.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origin of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Skinner, E. A., Pitzer, J. R., & Steele, J. S. (2016). Can student engagement serve as a motivational resource for academic coping, persistence, and learning during late elementary and early middle school?. Developmental Psychology52(12), 2099.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000232

Upadyaya, K., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2013). Development of school engagement in association with academic success and well-being in varying social contexts. European Psychologist, 18 (3), 136–147.  doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000143

Wolters, C. A., & Taylor, D. J. (2012). A self-regulated learning perspective on student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L., Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 635-651) Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_30

Deep Learning

Deep and deeper learning are crucially important concepts in contemporary education. The fact is that what is taught is not necessarily learned. With deep learning approach students are likely to learn more.

Learning is a fundamental, subjective phenomenon, and an important part of being a human.  Once crucial part of 21st Century education is distinguishing learning experiences from the experience of being taught. In instructional situations, deep learning appears to be closely entwined with learner- and learning-centered teaching approaches, emphasizing the lifelong learning process.

I have been focusing on deep learning during my whole career, ever since I read about the original research about deep and surface learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976), which finally led me to do my doctoral research (2017) about learner agency.

In general, agency is the capacity to act, to make decisions about one’s own life, within the structure of our environment. In education, learner agency relates tightly into students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences. Within the context of  21st century education, learner agency means the need to change the structure of learning enviroments, so that students can make choices about their own learning. Supporting student’s individual learning processes also promotes deep learning.

Overemphasizing learning goals and targets instruction may overlook the importance of the individual learning process, especially when focusing the attention on gradable projects and tests. In my own experience, excessive goal orientation seems to be a problem in American education, when the evaluation focuses on achieving the standard.

With instructional approaches focusing on memorizing information in the tests, the deep learning strategies remain unused. However, in today’s flood of information, one of the key roles of a teacher is to guide the students to gather meaningful information, by helping the student to structure their experiences and build their own understanding of basic concepts.

Deep learning requires ownership and individual engagement with the content. Here is a succinct definition for deep and surface level learning strategies: “the basic processing operations that describe how students react to and interact with the learning material and with people present in the learning environment in order to enhance domain-specific knowledge and skills” (Boekaerts, 2016, p. 81).

Deep learning approach aligns with learner agency, because both are focusing on those transformative learning experiences that contribute to students’ learning for life, and constructing their own understanding of the world.

In all levels of education deep learning can be supported by instructional approaches that emphasize choice, learning ownership, knowledge construction, and making connections to one’s own experiences.

Suomenkielinen versio – This same post in Finnish – on page Suomeksi


Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process*. British journal of educational psychology, 46(1), 4-11.