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The Importance of Student Agency and Self-Direction

Students have long been passive in their own education—but it’s not their fault! Higher ed institutions need to let students exercise agency and mold their education according to their needs.

The traditional higher education model is not a one-size-fits all. And students are increasingly calling for adaptability and flexibility to meet their needs. The focus on student agency is a tactic that many leaders can leverage when looking to support these needs and thrive moving forward. In this interview, Cathrael Kazin discusses the need for student agency and self-direction, the challenges that come with it and how to improve student retention and success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher education to focus on student agency and self-direction?

Cathrael Kazin (CK): The simplest answer is that higher education doesn’t work for the majority of learners. Not only are graduation rates dismal, but those who do graduate are too often left without the critical skills they need, the capabilities that higher education should be developing: the capacity to apply theory to practice, communicate effectively, solve problems creatively, think critically, persevere in the face of challenge, recognize patterns and bring disparate sources of information together to solve new problems. All these skills require agency to develop as well as exercise.

One of the reasons learners are so unprepared for the workplace is that their formal education has conditioned them to be passive. The tell is evident even in the language we use to describe education: Faculty give assignments and grades, deliver lectures, instruct students. We even talk about education providers. Where are the learners in this? What is their responsibility?

This attitude is also detrimental to equity: You can’t have equity without the capacity for self-determination. We often treat college students as if they are in K-12. We tell them what to do, when to do it, even how many pages long it should be. None of this prepares you well for the world outside the classroom. 

Evo: What are some challenges that come with fostering more of that learner agency model?

CK: Nearly everything about higher ed militates against fostering learner agency and self-direction. Though we pay lip service to student-centricity, much of higher education is oriented around administrative needs and faculty interests. We still focus more on teaching than on learning.  

Too often, students do not get the experience of tackling real problems—especially the messy, hard-to-characterize problems that arise in real life. Why? In part, it’s because most schools are organized by department and discipline; students have limited opportunities to integrate what they are learning across discrete courses, even within the same department. But all the important problems that need solving—e.g., climate change, inequality—require the capacity to think across and beyond disciplines. Even the notion of the major locks students into rigidity.

Higher education is littered with unintended consequences. This is especially true when it comes to promoting learner agency. The well-intentioned focus on student success has paradoxically limited learning by defining failure as something to be avoided at all costs. We’re afraid and we’ve made students afraid. But failure isn’t a bug in the system—it’s a key feature of how learning occurs. Think about how babies and children learn. They’re constantly experimenting, failing, getting feedback, figuring out what works. Higher ed must normalize failure by providing the safe space and encouragement for learners to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. We must fundamentally change the paradigm of what it means to be a learner. That requires learner agency. 

Evo: What is intentional learning design’s role in developing learner agency?

CK: In some ways, higher ed is both over-structured—depriving learners of meaningful choice—and under-structured. On the one hand, the learner experience is highly regimented and inflexible. Learning is constrained when classes are scheduled. On the other hand, students are too often left to fend for themselves. They are confronted by a buffet of classes rather than a cohesive academic program. They don’t have access to good information and guidance. In other words, they lack choice and whatever choice they do have is neither meaningful nor well informed.

The solution is not for educators to throw up their hands and say, “Okay, do whatever you want,” but rather to intentionally and strategically develop learners’ capacity for self-direction. The K-12 experience is so relentlessly focused on conformity and passivity that when most people arrive at college, they are simply unequipped to exercise agency in a meaningful way. Transparency, staging and scaffolding, and actionable feedback rather than grades are essential to building competence and confidence.

Evo: What impact does learner agency have on student engagement and retention?

CK: Retention is a complex issue. Many of the reasons students leave school are not academic but have to do with money, competing family and work responsibilities, not feeling a sense of belonging. But colleges’ inflexibility just compounds the problem. It’s part of the reason I believe so strongly in competency-based learning. At its best, it affords students the flexibility they need to thrive.

Engagement is essential for learning, and passivity is antithetical to engagement. Active learning fosters engagement –one of the many reasons that experiential and project-based learning is so important. Having actionable feedback rather than grades is also key. I had the opportunity to design a competency-based college at Southern New Hampshire University called College of America. Students described their experience as transformational, in part because they had the opportunity to exercise and develop their own capacities for self-direction.   

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CK: I often think about the fact that we still talk about going to college. Not only does the phrase perpetuate an outmoded view that most college students are traditional-aged, living on campus, studying full time, but it also implies that you need to leave your life to get an education. Why isn’t your life—where, by the way, you do get to exercise agency and meaningful choice—invited in? This is especially tragic for working adults, who despite bringing a wealth of professional and personal experience to higher ed, are too often treated like children, their expertise ignored or dismissed. They should be seen as assets, not as problems to be fixed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.