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The value and power of student agency

Student agency, or agency in its broadest terms, is about the individual knowing and understanding that they have the capacity of free will. Free will brings with it the power of self-motivation and choice. This power of choice brings with it personal responsibilities and consequences, pertaining to the choices made.


Guy Claxton writes that “[s]tudents with agency are powerful”. Students with agency are self-motivated independent self-directed learners who operate from an internal locus of control. They know they are responsible for and that they’ve got the power over what they think, do, say, choose and learn.

They are also aware that the choices they make, and the behaviours they choose to present, will lead to outcomes that will elicit consequences. These consequences will be either positive or negative; all of which will depend on the choices and actions taken.

Agency can be influenced by extrinsic and intrinsic circumstances

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci write that whatever external influences that are taking place in the life of an individual, it is only when these external influences are consciously internalised and integrated, that these external influences will then have the potential to becoming intrinsically acknowledged with the possibility of self-motivated choices and actions taking place.

Intrinsic influences

In terms of intrinsic influences, these include the constructs of developing and advancing self-concept; self-esteem; self-efficacy; normative changes; perseverance; resilience; self-respect; cognitive and motivational processes; affective selection processes; self-directed learning; mental and emotional maturity; internal locus of control.


James Neill writes that self-concept can be thought of as being an overarching idea that is about knowing, understanding and authentically accepting the self. Roy Baumeister is of the opinion that self-concept is developed, advanced and amplified by self-efficacy, and all of the other attributes that are consciously known to the self.

Self-concept and the totality of a person’s thoughts

Morris Rosenberg writes that self-concept is the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings as consciously referenced by the self, through the self, for the self. Robert Franken is of the view that self-concept is the basis of all self-motivated behaviours.

Referring to Carl Rogers, Saul McLeod points out that self-concept is an all-encompassing descriptive social umbrella, of which self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-respect, self-image and self-awareness are also included.


Nathaniel Branden is of the view that self-esteem “consists of two components: self-efficacy” and confidence. Self-efficacy all about self-belief. Confidence is about acting on the belief that the individual is self-aware and the individual has confidence in their “ability to think, learn, choose, and make appropriate decisions.”

Self-esteem, achievements, fulfilment and self-respect

Self-esteem is also aligned with feelings of wellbeing, self-initiated achievements, feelings of fulfilment and self-respect. Self-esteem, self-evidently allows for normative self-doubt to occur.

However, when self-doubt does, and will, at times inevitably arise, the individual (who has the capacity of self-belief), will have the necessary reflective conscious capacity, and the intellectual insight, to never allow self-doubt to crush their self-efficacy, self-image and their willingness to continually endure, and maintain their focus on what needs to achieved, which is all about having resilience and self-belief.


According to Albert Bandura self-efficacy is an extraordinarily self-empowering construct, which allows the individual to universally appreciate and realise they have immense self-activating power, especially when individuals arrive at the understanding that they own and that they are in charge of their thoughts, behaviours, motivations and choices.

Self-efficacy is fluid

Associated with this knowledge, there is the accompanying understanding that self-efficacy is not static. Self-efficacy is fluid throughout one’s life. According to Richard Robins and Kali Trzesniewski, research has shown that self-efficacy development, and its associated ongoing conscious application, has a remarkable continuity in a person’s life, especially “given the vast array of experiences that impinge upon a lived life”. All of which is part of any and all normative changes that take place in the life of all.

Normative changes

The vast array of life experiences that bring about normative changes illustrates the role of the self as having the capacity of developing and then being, according to Robins and Trzesniewski, a self-directed “organizing psychological construct”.

It is this process which helps to develop the intrinsic means of the self to influence how the individual can successfully develop the reflective and cognitive potential to “orient their behavior to meet” new and, more-often-than-not, unforeseen and unexpected external demands that can and do take place in the daily life of an individual.

Conscious discipline, dedication and determination

This ability to successfully reflect and to consciously deal with these unforeseen and unexpected events, may then (more often-than-not) lead to the development of further emotional and intellectual insights, and associated resilience capacities. This intrinsic strength then provides the means for the individual to help keep their self-efficacy intact. The research suggests that this remarkable intrinsic and self-directed continuity occurs when the individual, purposefully and with intense conscious discipline, dedication and determination, refuses to submit to any other belief except in the belief of self.

Intrinsic capabilities

Self-efficacy is also about a person’s belief in relation to their intrinsic capabilities, which provides the individual with the intellectual means of being willing and able to continually work hard, as required; the purpose of which is to produce designated levels of performance, which then exert constructive influences over their thoughts, behaviours and associated outcomes.

This process will then tend to have a positive impact on the array of decisions, choices and the actions the individual makes every day in their life. Importantly, according to Bandura, beliefs concerning self-efficacy also tend to “determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave. Such beliefs produce these diverse effects through four major processes. They include cognitive, motivational, affective and selection processes”.

Cognitive and motivational processes

Bandura writes that cognition refers to the “[t]thinking processes involved in the acquisition, organization and use of information”. Motivation is about self-activated action. This is all about the drive, want and passion to act.

To this end, according to Bandura, a person’s “[l]evel of motivation is reflected in choice of courses of action, and in the intensity and persistence of [their] effort”. This is very much about agency in action.

Affective and selection processes and difficult tasks

The affective process is about “regulating emotional states and elicitation of emotional reactions”. In terms of selection processes, individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy are willing to select and take on difficult tasks. Individuals who make these types of decisions also view any and all difficult tasks – also known as stretch goals – as challenges to be accomplished and mastered rather than threats to be shunned. The development and advancement of self-efficacy also involves the attitude of perseverance and resilience.


According to Rhonda Christensen and Gerald Knezek – research going as far back as 1892 by Francis Galton, and which has continued by focusing on students and their academic studies – the research has found that high achieving students are high achievers because they are not only self-motivated, but they also have the ongoing capacity and personal willingness to work hard and are willing to persist and persevere until the required tasks are completed.

And should, during this time, circumstances become difficult, the high achieving students have the demonstrated intrinsic capacity of resilience to deal with and overcome any and all difficulties that inevitably arise at these times. This is where resilience also plays an important role.


Janet Young contends that when one is experiencing and overcoming negative experiences, it is this deliberate thoughtful action, of dealing with, and by acknowledging, accepting and consciously embracing and working towards overcoming a negative situation (which also brings with it all of the accompanying negative affective dispositions).

It is this process, of accepting and not denying what is being affectively and painfully experienced, that can and does often help “some individuals to emerge stronger out of adversity, with capacities that they may not have otherwise developed”.

The ability to bounce back

Similarly, Michael Rutter maintains that resilience is about having “the ability to bounce back or cope successfully despite substantial adversity”. This resilience, self-belief and self-esteem connection embodies an attitude of never-ending self-love, which is also associated with having an enduring positive self-image, self-belief and having self-respect.


Citing Dennis Coon, Joseph Bailey, notes that “[s]elf-image has been defined as the “total subjective [conscious] perception of oneself, including an image of one's body and impressions of one's personality, capabilities,” thinking, and aptitude.

Further to this, Bailey records that self-image has been defined as being associated with the mental image one has in relation to their “physical appearance, and the integration of one's experiences, desires, feelings,” and their cognitive and associated affective embrace of having and living a life with self-respect.


Robin Dillon writes that “self-respect is a complex of multilayered and interpenetrating phenomena,” which involves affect (self-love), cognition, motivation, valuation, expectations, reactions, behaviours and actions. All of these interpenetrating phenomena “compose a mode of” thinking and “being ‘in the world’ that is considered as being “at the heart of” the self.

Interrelating and interpenetrating constructs

It is these interrelating and interpenetrating constructs that provide the intrinsic means by which the individual is able to intellectually appreciate “oneself as having morally significant worth”. It is this understanding that allows for an enduring faith in oneself.

All of this can and will tend to have a positive impact on how the individual chooses to act and live their life. The individual has agency and they are self-directing their life.

Self-directed learning

This attitude and process is the very essence of agency and self-directed learning. According to Malcolm Knowles, self-directed learning is “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others,” to commence, and to then (in an ongoing capacity) continue to work hard to achieve their goals.

Further to this, self-directed learning has the potential to provide the opportunity for students to learn and intrinsically understand that they – and not their teacher or anyone for that matter – are the one who is responsible for their learning or the choices they are making in their life.

Transfer of skills, knowledge and abilities

The application of self-directed learning also provides the means for ongoing opportunities for students to experience the insight that, through their self-directed application, they will be able to develop and transfer their skills, knowledge and abilities to other situations and circumstances, both in the immediate now, as well as into their long-term future.

Mental and emotional maturity

This will mean that through the application of their self-directed learning, the student will be developing mental and emotional maturity. With this, the student will begin to realise that they can advance their learning, skills, and knowledge potential in any field they choose to engage, without having the external enforcement of ‘being told what to do’. What will be taking place instead is, because of their self-directed actions, the student will not only be taking responsibility for their learning, they will also be advancing their agency potential. This process also tends to involve the application of internal locus of control.

Internal locus of control

Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that the outcomes of their actions and agency take place as a result of their own personal efforts and abilities.

These individuals have a firm belief that their attitude, application, effort, their hard work and their perseverance to task is what advances potential and success.

Dr Ragnar Purje is Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University. Under the supervision of Professor Ken Purnell, Purje’s doctoral dissertation focused on the success of his pioneering neurologically focused acquired brain injury rehabilitation therapy.

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