SIP 9.2 Engaging Students by Developing Agency


Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

One of the familiar challenges university faculty confront is the feeling that students are not really connecting to what is being taught. Most of us have studied for years in a discipline we personally find fascinating, so it is discouraging to confront a room full of disengaged students. As the buzz of the first week of the semester wears off, there they sit, eyes slightly glazed, or glancing at their phones, doodling in a notebook, motivated primarily by the need to earn a grade, pass the class, check the box and move on to whatever comes next so that they can get that degree and a great career. What could possibly be wrong with this scenario?

Take a SIP of this: Engaging Students by Developing Agency

When students recognize that they have a role to play, a potentially powerful voice, and an impact both in their immediate learning and in the larger context of the university and their community, they often are able to connect more fully to what they are doing. This sense of “agency” creates the environment for students to engage at a deeper level with their learning and to carry that learning beyond the classroom. Shapiro et al (2016) describe agency as having three components: action, awareness, and conditions that create impact. In order to develop agency, students need to become fully aware that their actions are connected to having an impact in the world around them (and on themselves). They must develop an awareness of what needs to happen, understand how they can respond or act, and develop confidence that their actions will have an impact. This is true whether the needed actions and impact are related to their own learning (identifying what needs to be studied, how to study and improving performance on a test) or an issue in their community. While fully developing agency is a lengthy process, here are three relatively simple things you can do to help a student along the way:

1. Provide students a quick and easy template for reflecting on what they have learned and what they are confused by in your class each day: draw lines on a sheet of paper to create four quadrants. Label the four areas with some variation on the following categories: 1) What was easiest for me to learn today? 2) What confused me the most? 3) What surprised me the most? and 4) What I am going to do next to strengthen my learning? Provide plenty of verbal examples to ease them into this habit and ask students in the next class to share a strategy they used to strengthen their learning or to explore further something that surprised them.

2. Notice individual student’s interests and concerns and point them to ways to connect to an action that will have impact. This connects student agency to civic agency. While it won’t be possible to do this for every student, every day, think of one student whose interests and strengths might make them a perfect candidate for a university initiative – and let them know you think they should become involved. We often fail to realize how much impact our own words can have when we stop to make a suggestion to a student:

3. Create assignments that connect the material you teach to actions a student can take. For example, have students write a letter to a local policy maker that shares information learned in class and makes a recommendation or requests action. Or challenge students to demonstrate their understanding (and develop media literacy!) by finding material online that misrepresents this content. For those who want to invest a bit more energy, explore larger projects and assignments such as simulations, community-based projects and service learning.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Engaging Students by Developing Agency

Many of the widely recognized High Impact Practices (HIPs) have high impact because they develop student agency. Visit this site for more information: Ideas for using simulations in the classroom can be found here:

You can also find more pedagogical ideas at their more general site:

Further details about pedagogies such as Reacting to the Past* can be found here:

*Note that several faculty at MSU Denver are using this pedagogy.

Articles cited above and others that may be helpful in exploring agency further:

  • Shapiro, Shawna, et al. 2016. Teaching for Agency: From Appreciating Linguistic Diversity to Empowering Student Writers. Composition Studies 44.1: 31-52.
  • Snow, Erica L., et al. 2015. “Does Agency Matter?: Exploring the impact of controlled behaviors within a game-based environment.” Computers & Education 82: 378-392.
  • Zepke, Nick, and Linda Leach. 2010. “Improving Student Engagement: Ten Proposals for Action.” Active Learning in Higher Education 11, no. 3: 167–77. doi:10.1177/1469787410379680.

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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1 comment

  1. Verry Nice article, thanks for sharing

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