Giving Control and Taking Control: Student Agency

When I first started teaching in 2005, as a very shy and extremely nervous casual tutor at Deakin University’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus, I never thought about student agency. The undergraduate students I was ‘responsible for’ were always happy – even enthusiastic – to be ‘spoon-fed’ the required information, the required way of doing things, the required means of completing assessment tasks, and at times – as a by-product of these things – the ‘required’ manner in which to think.

Tutorial Notes
My first batch of Study Notes from 2005… #oldperson

The strongest card I had in my hand was that I would use my ‘Study Notes’ documents as a carrot to ensure, with generally positive success, ongoing seminar attendance. I would only email these to students who attended; my taking of the roll consisted of me getting students to write their email addresses down in addition to their names, and I would forward them the document later that night. I’m not criticising this practice per se; it can actually be quite an effective pull-factor in getting students to class – a worthy end in itself. Yet this strategy does have its limitations, and I saw it becoming less and less effective for me as time went by both as a casual tutor and later in my role as a full-time academic.

Photo of me by Emma
Photo of me in (rare) lecture mode by Emma Whatman, 22 January 2017

As a Lecturer and Unit Chair, I found myself needing to make all of my teaching materials available to all students without any attachment to attendance, so that old strategy couldn’t be used anyway. Yet even before this, I asked many groups of students throughout my years as a sessional tutor about what happened to the Study Notes I sent them. I discovered that very few ever actually opened these documents that had laid bare the tutorial plan I’d used with its extra theoretical content, examples, study questions, video links, assignment advice, and so on. But students still liked to have them; they seemed to provide a sense of ‘security’ – in the same way that audio recordings of lectures provide a sense of comfort that they are there even though they are rarely used.

Not unlike my collecting of Ultra Fleer X-men cards in the 1990s, there seemed to be a strong desire to ‘collect the set’ of my teaching materials. I still have those cards by the way, which were read multiple times after they were sleeved. I imagine few graduates would still have my Study Notes archived somewhere, though now I realise the real tragedy was that students had craved them so hungrily in the first place…

X-men Cards.jpg
Photo by Adam Brown, 5 May 2016.

This is just one example of the (flawed) student reliance on the teacher that I find myself rallying against more and more as time goes by. I don’t say this to lay the sole blame on students either; educational systems have long been the bastion of rote learning and all its differently mutated descendants – and I was complicit in reinforcing the dominance of this species for long enough myself.

Now the empowerment of student agency is not only an internal mantra, but has seeped more and more explicitly and transparently into my pedagogical approach. Students shouldn’t rely on me because they can’t afford to rely on me – not only because I cannot possibly be an ‘expert’ in and on this immensely complex digital media world, but also because authentic learning about this world can’t be secured by being told about it by someone else.

Any endeavour to ‘give’ people control always requires those same people to take control, and this goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of student learning by making, doing, sharing, and connecting. Employing gamification in my teaching across various media platforms by introducing a virtual currency or points system I called ‘Tiffits’ has certainly enhanced student learning in these ways, but the actual outcomes comprise the all-important end game. The Tiffit tally is redundant once the trimester ends; it’s where that tally took people that I’m more interested in. And more importantly, where they decide to take themselves…

Students thrive when they take control; it’s after all what a university education – any education – is, or should be, designed to allow them to do. There are boundaries that this agency must take place within of course, but the notion that the teacher alone must set these boundaries may well threaten the whole undertaking from the beginning. Curriculum design, after all, can be as organic as student learning – and I’ve seen many examples of this kind of learning since I’ve changed my approach. I could point to numerous examples of student agency producing unexpected, productive, and highly valuable outcomes throughout the past few months alone.

Seeing people in educational settings dive into the deep end well beyond their initial comfort zones (as in the entirely optional video below) is an amazing thing to behold, and inspires students and staff alike.

Seeing oneself dissipate into the background to some degree while student agency takes over in the spotlight is one of the best things to experience as a teacher. The ‘disappearance’ of the teacher in such circumstances is never literal, but backing away to figuratively – and sometimes actually – watch from a corner does have its merits. Every Twitter conversation, every blog post comment, every exchange of ideas on SoundCloud, every interaction on YouTube that I’m not directly part of reveals the power of student agency. And the creative, collaborative, and collegial environment that this engenders is where I get most of my ideas and energy from (the rest comes from Tiff).

20140515_143726
Photo by Adam Brown, 15 May 2014

The last point to make is that students are not the only ones who benefit from their creative freedom. Teachers benefit too. I’ve been done with spoon-feeding for a while now. I’m still happy to feed students things – as long as they feed me in return. That’s how it should work. That’s the only way it can work.

Thanks for reading.

 

Featured image: Waiting for Time to Pass by Richard Phillip Rucker (CC BY 2.0)

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Direction is very important. (I think) that’s whats provided in a Unit such as the ones you have been chairing. It has been extremely interesting watching you “teach” the same #ALC203 Unit again in T1 2017 (after doing it T3 16/17). I have a whole different perspective about how I got to where I am now in regards to my learning by doing. However, total honestly requires me to say this: Watching it happen again I feel somewhat like a student who wants to cheat…! i know the answers, but I REALLY want to participate….. Is that a sign that you have done your job too well??? Excellent and thought provoking topic! I look forward to seeing the reset and I am envious of the next group of students.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Steven – it has certainly been interesting to see the very early ‘nostalgia’ that students tweet about for the hashtag/community they were once part of. At least given the nature of the subject, you can never really ‘give anything away’ by ‘cheating’ given that everyone sort of has to discover the learning by doing and lifelong learning lessons for themselves… and perhaps those who discover it for themselves are the only ones who are really going to take it on board past the end of the unit anyway… 🙂

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