Thoughts on Student Agency


Agency by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Of the many possible defining aspects of open pedagogy, I am realizing that it might just be centering student agency and learner-driven structures that have the most potency. For a variety of reasons, we faculty tend to be reticent to let go of some of the control that we have, and especially to give power over to our less-educated and inexperienced students. But it seems that we are missing so much when we don’t include student perspectives when we design courses, curricula, or programs.  And often students aren’t just ignored, but there are enormous assumptions about how or what “most students” think.  The generalizations smack of the stereotypes that some people have for minority groups. I hear things like “Students want this or don’t want that or aren’t capable of this yet.” Or we just don’t have the “right kind of students” for this program or that. These assumptions and typecasting could be key to understanding why often our courses or programs don’t always work out as well as we think they should. I marvel at how some of us attempt to teach our students about privilege (race or class for example), and yet can be completely oblivious to our own faculty privilege that we enact in our courses or other higher ed structures.

But what possibilities might open up when we give real agency to our students?

Creating opportunities for students to become more authentically and thoughtfully engaged in designing the structures that constitute their higher education experiences could have powerful effects.  This doesn’t mean that we just let them go and do everything, but we can work collaboratively with students by allowing them to provide substantial and meaningful input into the design of assignments, syllabi, learning outcomes, courses, curricula or programs. Doing so might have several important effects:

  • students develop a deeper understanding of what they are doing
  • students develop a deeper understanding of why they are doing anything
  • students have a more committed investment in engaging in the work
  • students can more clearly see possible outcomes and play an earlier more substantial role in shaping the future directions they may take
  • The structures have more relevance and more efficacy
  • (please add to this list as I’m sure I’ve left some things out)

Questions for future discussion:

What does it mean to really center students?  What does trusting students look like? How do we help students better integrate their work and life responsibilities with their academic responsibilities? What are our responsibilities as educators to support the “real-life” needs of our students? How do we help students create their own pathways towards what they want to become and do in the world?  How do we take seriously our role as higher educators to prepare citizens and preserve this democracy?

When I went to the twitterverse for advice,  one (of the many) valuable insights and suggestions from Maha Bali was this tweet.  It hits me upside the head! Indeed, do we not have confidence or a sense of our own faculty agency?


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2 Comments on “Thoughts on Student Agency”

  1. Great post, Karen. I think one of the main reasons I try to center student agency is the selfish reason that it helps me teach better and the larger goal of nurturing independent learners. I always say learning is always student centered, it’s teaching that often isn’t. I’ve also always reminded people that stepping back on teacher power doesn’t equitably empower students – some are more vocal or intersectionally more powerful in other ways and we need to look closely at who gets marginalized if faculty step back and let students do whatever – this will occasionally result in other power dynamics… Thanks again for that great Twitter thread which we should revisit and convert into an article soon! With tips for doing a workshop on this!

  2. Thanks Maha! Yes- an excellent point that giving students agency is not simply equivalent to stepping back on teacher power. We still have the responsibility to provide support and help ensure that all voices have the potential to be heard and influential, to be vigilant about the possible silencing of marginalized students and to interfere when necessary. Many of us still need to keep learning how to best facilitate interactions between students with differing power in our classes. Maybe this is also where having a secure sense of faculty agency comes in? And a definite YES on the article for doing a workshop on all of this!

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