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Two Essentials for Fostering Agency in Virtual Education
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By Jean Mandernach, Rick Holbeck / June 2023

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Learner engagement—true engagement in the learning process—demands that educational activities tap into learners’ individual passions, purpose, and interests [1]. Today’s learners are keenly focused on the value and relevance of their educational experiences as they align with their personal and professional goals. They want to tailor their time and efforts toward personally relevant outcomes. Simply put, students are more willing to invest their time and effort in the teaching-learning dynamic when they have agency in the learning process [2].

Learner agency rests upon creating learning that is meaningful and relevant to students, directed by students’ individual interests, and supported through guidance of the instructor. There are two essential features for fostering learner agency in the online classroom: voice and choice.


Traditional approaches to teaching and learning in the online classroom rely on didactic models in which the learning objectives are set, the content is standardized, and expectations are pre-established. This type of approach assumes the instructor makes all decisions about learning expectations and the students’ role is to meet the established expectations. In this context, students are recipients of the learning experience but are not actively involved as collaborators. 

In contrast, instructors can prompt learner agency by seeking opportunities to give students a voice in the teaching-learning dynamic. For example:

  • Solicit student needs, preferences, and desires. Instructors can create an introductory discussion that asks students to share their reasons for taking a class, what they hope to gain from it, and their learning preferences. Then, this information can be utilized to tailor examples, resources, and formative activities to align with the students’ feedback. It is important to follow-up the activity by sharing with students how you will use the information to tailor the learning environment in relation to their feedback.
  • Integrate collaborative course policies. Instructors can utilize learners to help create policies for the course. For example, the instructor can engage with students in a collaborative dialogue to determine participation and communication policies, standards, and expectations for the course.
  • Utilize negotiated assignment due dates. Allowing students to have a voice in due dates and late policies provides them a sense of control of their learning environment. For example, instructors may offer students a voice in determining which day of the week the regular module assignments are due or options in how late submissions will be handled. Offering students a voice in due dates does not imply that the instructor loses control of the pacing of the course, but rather student input is considered in creating the final course structure.
  • Utilize technology tools to promote student voice. Technology platforms, such as blogs, forums, and social media, can help learners to express themselves to a wide audience. Additionally, technology is great for supporting student-led research projects where students can investigate topics of interest and present to others.


In this context, students actively make decisions about how they will most effectively engage with course material and the structure/format in which learning is measured. This doesn’t imply that students select their own learning objectives, but rather they have a choice in the path by which they master the instructor-established objectives and choice in how they demonstrate their understanding.

  • Design content paths. Allow learners to choose an individualized learning path based on their own needs and interests. This can be done by providing a range of learning resources (video, podcast, website, textbook, journals, etc.) and allowing students options in which format they utilize to engage with course content.
  • Utilize assignment menus. Assignment menus offer multiple options for how learners display their mastery of learning objectives. For example, rather than assigning students a standard term paper to demonstrate understanding, an assignment menu specifies the learning objectives for the assignment and then gives students options (such as presentation, infographic, annotated bibliography, blog, poster, etc.) that allow them to choose an assignment format that they feel will best display their understanding. This will allow students to take more ownership and customize the learning to fit their unique strengths.
  • Integrate “un-essay” assignments. Rather than utilize a preset assignment menu, instructors can integrate un-essay assignments. In an un-essay, the instructor sets the learning objectives and evaluation rubric, but allows students open choice on the format in which they will demonstrate mastery of the objectives. Typically, when using un-essays, the student will propose their own assignment format that will be negotiated with (and approved by) the instructor.
  • Provide optional mastery materials. Recognizing that learners enter the classroom with a range of prior knowledge and experience, instructors can integrate optional learning content and activities that allow individual students to choose whether they need additional instructional support. To guide the use of optional materials, the instructor should clearly state what students should know or be able to do, then provide optional content and self-checks to allow students to reach mastery for each topic.

Embracing learner agency creates a more personalized learning experience and empowers students as active collaborators in their own learning [1, 2]. The simple act of giving learners choice and voice fosters increased motivation, interest, engagement, and investment…. which, ultimately, translates into a more effective, meaningful, and enriching learning environment.


[1] Coppens, K. Engaging and empowering students through choice. Science Scope 45, 1 (2021), 16.

[2] Thibodeaux, T., Harapnuik, D., and Cummings, C. Student perceptions of the influence of choice, ownership, and voice in learning and the learning environment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 31, 1 (2019), 50–62.

About the Authors

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Jean is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

Rick Holbeck, M.Ed., M.S. is Executive Director of Online Instruction at Grand Canyon University. His research focuses on online learning, student engagement, and instructional technology. He explores ways to use technologies to foster student engagement and increase teaching effectiveness. In addition, he is currently exploring ways to use artificial intelligence to support teaching and learning. Rick s an active researcher and presenter in online education.

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