Accommodating Agency-Supportive Learning Environments in Formal Education

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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Internationally, schools engage in efforts to promote student agency, hoping it will increase attainment, better prepare students for their employment future, and enhance a sense of active membership of the school community and society. Student agency is promoted when students are encouraged and supported to exert influence, make choices, and take stances in ways that affect their learning. A growing body of research supports the belief that student agency has direct positive effects in the context of formal education, for example by turning students into more engaged and motivated investors in their education. Yet, other studies produce seemingly opposite results. To understand what makes student agency initiatives effective, there is a need for further educational theory and empirical research. This dissertation contributes with theory on how student agency can be promoted in formal education. The empirical studies in this dissertation also investigated the challenges that teachers, school leaders, and researchers are confronted with while attempting to promote student agency. These are, among others, how student agency can be measured, how to balance the tension between input from the learner and teacher guidance, and how to identify high-impact school improvements. Specifically, this dissertation focused on 1) the relationship between measures of student agency through self-reports and online trace data, 2) the contribution of the notion of Transactional Proximity in understanding agency-supportive learning environments in formal education, and 3) a method for researchers and practitioners to collaboratively identify high-impact improvements for agency-supportive learning environments using descriptive data. The general picture that emerges, taking the results of all five studies together, is that attending to the relationships within a school is key in promoting student agency through learner control. Students’ trust in their educators (principal and teacher trust) is shown to have a relatively high average association with all areas that together make up the student’s school experience. In accordance, teachers indicated that it is key to build a relationship with students to identify and create beneficial opportunities for learner control. Furthermore, the literature review shows that dialogue (e.g., group work, the use of non-controlling language, explaining the relevance of an uninteresting task) positively impacts manifestations of student agency. The importance of relationships and dialogue suggest that students do not always recognize learner control as an opportunity to benefit from it and that they need additional support and guidance. Descriptive evidence suggests that transactional proximity may be a helpful concept when promoting student agency in formal education. Transactional proximity enables both the teacher and the students to better estimate which opportunities for learner control will benefit both learning and the student’s sense of agency. The mechanism that connects the concepts of transactional proximity, control, and student agency is laid out in the ATP model. The Student Experiences of Proximity (SEP) inventory provides school organizations with opportunities to identify growth areas based on the views of multiple stakeholders and can be used to facilitate the improvement of learning environments by catalyzing a conversation regarding targeted instructional domains. Finally, this dissertation shows that while leaders have good insights as to which areas to focus on, research-based methods and instruments can allow school leaders to see where they are excelling and where they need to focus for further growth. Within a partnership that respects the expertise of school leaders and teachers, researchers can empower those in schools working alongside teachers and students so that they can make informed decisions based on learners' needs. Researchers may influence policies and implement new programs, but without empowering school leaders and creating a school culture where people feel valued and involved, it is unlikely that student learning will improve.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Meeter, Martijn, Supervisor
  • van Klaveren, Chris, Co-supervisor
  • Cornelisz, Ilja, Co-supervisor
Award date24 May 2022
Place of PublicationSine loco
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2022


  • Student Agency, Formal Education, Transactional Proximity, Learning Environment, Self-Regulated Learning, Research-Practice Partnership


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