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Prioritize student agency


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Experiential educators craft an agentic atmosphere where students have a significant role in determining the focus of the course, able “to emphasize those things that they are finding most personally meaningful and situationally relevant” (Harding, 2021, p. 8). When educators pair this atmosphere with principles of experiential learning theory, students gain confidence in the classroom, develop greater passion for their project and joy in their accomplishments, and accrue lessons of leadership and goal-setting.

Theoretical Background

“The most basic theme of participational agency holds that human action is holistic, immediate, and situated—that is, irreducibly in-the-world” (Yanchar, 2011, p. 218).

According to Yanchar (2011) and Harding (2021), the two theories of agency and experiential learning are both dedicated to creating a space for students to achieve the confidence and competencies needed for life-long learning through student leadership, reflection, and creativity throughout the process.

Many modern researchers have developed Agentic theories to improve student growth and experience, including the psychology of human agency (Bandura, 2006), narrative learning theory (Clark & Rossiter, 2008), Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and even the aforementioned experiential learning theory (Kolb, 2005), all of which include elements of “reflection, narration, self-assessment, and learner goal setting and choice” (Harding, 2021, p. 8).

This also means an Agentic atmosphere inherits the cycle of framing, reflection, and integration in its design, which creates greater growth and freedom in a classroom. The following utilizes the Self-Determination Theory’s (Ryan and Deci, 2000) primary elements of competence, relatedness, and autonomy (p. 68) as starting points for how to structure a well-framed, reflective, and integrated Agentic atmosphere.

Basics of Practice


Ensure competence for your students. Competence refers to the student’s ability to complete, with confidence, the tasks presented to them. For example, a student in a computer science class needs to know the correct coding languages to achieve competence. Choose students who can achieve the needs of the classroom, or design a class to meet the competencies of the students. Ensuring competence does not mean a student must be fully capable before an experience begins—simply that they have enough prior knowledge to keep up with the pace of the class.

Prioritize mentor and peer relationships. Relatedness refers to a student’s need for “belongingness and connectedness with others” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p. 73). In a classroom, choose mentorship over an authoritarian instructor-student relationship and student teamwork over isolated experience (if more than one student is involved). Create a personal relationship with your students, having open conversations and planned equality aided by feedback (see below). Student teamwork is inclusive and presents achievable outcomes, so that students learn from each other and utilize their specific skills— see Discourse Communities.

Grant your students autonomy. Autonomy refers to the student’s sense of control and power in the classroom. The following four subsets of a classroom enable student voice, confidence, and creativity.


  • Provide tools: Give students relevant tools to succeed in their specific projects. A wilderness survival project won’t function if students don’t have proper equipment, an internship will fail if students don’t have access to needed communication tools—but for students to feel true autonomy, there must be an array of tools wide enough for students to customize their approach and experience. For example, in an art class with an open-ended project, students who can freely access photoshop, acrylic paints, watercolors, various brushes, inks, sketches, or any combination of the above will feel a far greater sense of control and influence than those who are given an open project with only a pencil and a canvas. The greater the relevance and effectiveness of the tool, the more necessary it is provided as an option for students. 
  • Set goals: With guidance from the mentor, students should create additional goals for themselves and the course. Time should be set aside at the beginning of the course to set goals both short and long-term, with scheduled reassessments to allow for customization and adjustment. 
  • Give feedback: Mentors and students should set aside time for verbal feedback, both complimentary and constructive. Time can be set aside for feedback in tandem with goal-setting. Prompts for feedback should be targeted and open-ended such as “What steps could allow for greater involvement in the scope of your project?” or “What changes could you make in body language during presentations for greater effectiveness?” 
  • Use writing prompts: In addition to verbal feedback, reassessments or course assignments should set time aside for students to answer reflective writing prompts.

Teaching Materials & Resources:

Quick Links

Basye, D. (July 6, 2018) The power of autonomy: Agentic learning in the classroom. Clarity Innovations: Education and Technology Blog.

Wagner, B. (June 13, 2016). Agentic engagement and facilitating discussions. iddblog.

Agentic Engagement and Facilitating Discussions


Harding, T. (n.d.) - Agentic Design for internships and experiential learning. Blog post.

Yanchar, S. C. (2011). Participational agency. Review of General Psychology, 15(3), 277-287.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Kolb, D. A., (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 164-180.

Harding, T. (2021). Agentic Design for Internships and Experiential Learning [Unpublished manuscript]. Department of English, Brigham Young University.

Further Reading