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Student Development of Human Agency in an Online Course: Strategies for Educators–Faculty Focus

The mechanisms of human effectiveness, namely self-regulation, self-direction, and self-efficacy of online learning, are found in the literature as essential to a student’s continuation of an online course (Rovai, 2003; Stephen et al., 2020, Tinto, 1993). Zimmerman (1998, 2002) described a self-regulating student as an active participant in the learning process who sets goals, employs and adjusts strategies to help them achieve their goals, participates in self-assessment activities, manages their time, and results in traits. for behaviors or actions. Active learning, goal setting, and self-assessment also describe behaviors and actions associated with the self-directed student. Knowles (1975) explained that self-directed students also independently initiate educational activities, identify their learning needs, and ascertain resources to achieve their goals. To participate in the processes of self-regulation and self-direction, students need a high level of self-efficacy, a motivating disposition that supports perseverance by maintaining intent and long-term planning, and encouraging self-correcting actions (Bandora, 1997).

In an online learning environment, a student’s sense of self-efficacy depends on their belief in their ability to complete online coursework (Zimmerman & Kulikowich, 2016). Student goals and intentions are the driving force behind human agency mechanisms, and as an agent, online students can exert an intentional influence on their own actions and behaviors to persist (Bandura, 2001). Thus, student self-regulation, self-direction, and self-efficacy of online learning include agent behaviors and processes (eg, metacognitive and motivational) that can be promoted, refined, and developed in an online course. Subsequent sections provide strategies that teachers can use in an online course to positively influence students’ human agency mechanisms.

Encouraging and educating students for self-organization and self-direction

Despite the similarities between self-regulation and self-direction, researchers have noted that students must first develop self-regulation before they can self-direct (Brydges et al., 2010; Jossberger et al., 2010). Thus, a self-directed student also needs to be able to self-regulate. Self-regulation and self-direction together emphasize goal setting, goal adherence, time management, structuring the environment, asking for help, task strategies (i.e. learning activities, learning strategies), self-evaluation (eg, self-awareness, observation) and interpersonal skills ( Knowles, 1975; Zimmerman 1998, 2002). Teachers can use a variety of strategies to promote self-regulation and develop students’ self-direction online:

  • Include students’ use of a weekly or module-based learning journal. This activity actively engages the student in many self-regulating and self-learning structures.
    • At the beginning of each week (or module), prompt students to participate in the following activities in their learning notebook:
      • Write down two to three learning goals for the week or unit.
      • Identify the resources needed to achieve each goal.
      • Determine the number of hours needed to achieve each goal.
      • Determine the days/times that will be devoted to work towards achieving each goal.
      • Determine the most appropriate physical location (eg home, library) from which to work.
    • At the conclusion of each week or unit, have students review their learning log to engage in self-monitoring and self-assessment activities:
      • Think about the grades earned and the feedback received from the teacher.
      • Discuss actions and behaviors that supported or undermined achievement of the goal.
      • Determine if any changes or adjustments in actions and behaviors are needed in the next week or unit to ensure that the goal is achieved.
  • Encourage students to engage in effective time planning and management at the beginning of the course by creating a study and course schedule consisting of the following:
    • Direct and indirect educational activities and tasks.
    • Dates and deadlines for the availability of tasks.
    • Expected start dates for engaging in direct and indirect educational activities and assignments.
  • Design tasks that require virtual student-initiated participation and interaction with support systems and resources (eg, librarian, teacher, advice). For example, a research assignment that requires a student to collaborate virtually with a librarian to find and select an article in a journal. Students interacting with these services through virtual means can help develop their personal relationships and skills.
  • Design assignments that foster critical thinking and student engagement. For example, provide clear instructions and prompts for asynchronous online discussions, and participate in the discussion as a facilitator.
  • Inspiring students to use different strategies by providing resources in the online course on Student Success. For example, create a self-help module in the course that provides information about your learning preferences and strategies, including taking tests, taking notes, reading, writing, critical thinking, researching, studying, etc.

Develop the self-efficacy of online learning for students

To effectively participate in the self-regulatory and self-directed processes, online students need a high level of self-efficacy for online learning. As explained by Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is a context. For example, a student may have a high sense of self-efficacy in terms of their ability to use technology and a low sense of self-efficacy in terms of their ability to manage their time and/or learn in an online environment. However, the student needs to have a high sense of self-efficacy in the use of technology, as well as in his ability to effectively manage his time and learn in an online course (Zimmerman & Kulikowich, 2016). Teachers can use a variety of strategies to enhance students’ development of online learning self-efficacy:

  • Ensure that students complete an online learning orientation prior to the course start date, if provided by the college or university.
  • Create a screencast that provides a virtual overview and demonstrates the online course environment and the virtual tools students will use throughout the course.
  • Provide students with information about basic technology troubleshooting techniques and instructions on how to locate resources provided by a college or university, including help desk contact information.
  • Consult an instructional designer or similar support team about the design and structure of an online course to ensure student access and alignment of educational content and activities with course learning outcomes.
  • Include testimonials from previous students in your online course to emphasize students’ practices for success.
  • Students engage in an online discussion at the beginning of the course to dispel any thoughts or feelings they may have about online learning.
  • Design a distraction-free online learning environment and use the tools provided through the Learning Management System to experience the course from the student’s perspective.
  • Use student course assessment data to inform course reviews, development, and future improvements.
  • Encourage students to create a contact list of virtual services and resources that includes the name of each service or resource (eg, library, guidance, career services, help desk, educational services), their virtual contact information, and their hours of availability.

Ultimately, teachers play an important role in helping online students develop human agency. Thus, teachers in the online course must model actions and behaviors associated with human agency by providing students with continuous feedback in the form of praise, encouragement, and support. This includes careful planning of student work deadlines, grading student work and providing feedback, responding to students in a timely manner, and transparency in student communications and grading procedures.

Jacqueline S. Stephen, Assistant Professor, Instructional Designer, and Director of the Distance Learning Office at Mercer University’s School of Professional Advancement in Atlanta, Georgia. She has authored and co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on topics such as undergraduate and graduate online learner persistence, instructional design, effective practices for online educators, and virtual peer mentoring for racial and ethnic minority women in STEM.


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Bandura, A.; Social cognitive theory: an agent’s perspective. annual review of psychology 52, no. 1 (2001): 1-26.

Bridges, Ryan, Adam Dobrovsky, and Glenn Regger. “A new concept of unsupervised learning: self-directed learning in the health professions.” academic medicine 85, no. 10 (2010): S49-S55.

Gosberger, Helen, Saskia Brand-Gruel, Henny Buchwezen, and Margie Van de Wel. The challenge of self-directed and self-regulated learning in vocational education: A theoretical analysis and synthesis of requirements. Journal of Vocational Education and Training 62, no. 4 (2010): 415–440.

Knowles, Malcolm S. “Self-learning: A guide for learners and educators.” (1975).

Ruffay, Alfred B.; “In search of higher retention rates in online distance learning programmes.” Internet and higher education 6, no. 1 (2003): 1-16.

Stephen, Jacqueline S, Amanda J. Rokinson-Zapkiew, and Chelsea Dubaye. “The perseverance model for non-traditional online learners: self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-direction.” American Journal of Distance Education 34, no. 4 (2020): 306-321.

Tinto, Vincent. “building the society”. liberal education 79, no. 4 (1993): 16–21.

Zimmerman, Barry J. Academic study and personal skill development: a self-regulatory perspective. educational psychologist 33, no. 2-3 (1998): 73-86.

Zimmerman, Barry J. Becoming a Self-Regulating Learner: An Overview. theory in practice 41, no. 2 (2002): 64–70.

Zimmerman, Alicia Whitney, and Jonah M. Kulikovich. “Online learning self-sufficiency in students with or without online learning experience.” American Journal of Distance Education 30, no. 3 (2016): 180-191.

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