Student Development of Human Agency in an Online Course: Strategies for Instructors

Laptop surrounded by plants, papers, and sticky notes

Mechanisms of human agency, namely, self-regulation, self-direction, and online learning self-efficacy, are situated in the literature as fundamental to student persistence in an online course (Rovai, 2003; Stephen et al., 2020, Tinto, 1993). Zimmerman (1998, 2002) described a self-regulated student as an active participant in the learning process who sets goals, employs and adjusts strategies to assist them in achieving their goals, engages in self-assessment activities, manages their time, and attributes results to behaviors or actions. Active learning, goal setting, and self-evaluation also describe behaviors and actions associated with a student who is self-directed. Knowles (1975) explained that self-directed students also autonomously initiate instructional activities, determine their learning needs, and ascertain the resources needed to accomplish their goals. To engage in the processes of self-regulation and self-direction, students need to have a high level of self-efficacy, which is a motivational disposition that supports persistence by sustaining intention and long-term planning, and encouraging self-correcting actions (Bandura, 1997).

In an online learning environment, a student’s sense of self-efficacy is based on their belief in their ability to complete coursework online (Zimmerman & Kulikowich, 2016). A student’s goals and intentions are a driving force behind mechanisms of human agency, and as agents, online students can exert intentional influence over their actions and behaviors to persist (Bandura, 2001). Thus, student self-regulation, self-direction, and online learning self-efficacy encompass agentic behaviors and processes (e.g., metacognitive and motivational) that can be promoted, cultivated, and developed in an online course. The subsequent sections provide strategies that instructors could use in an online course to positively influence mechanisms of human agency in students.

Promoting and cultivating student self-regulation 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 be self-directed (Brydges et al., 2010; Jossberger et al., 2010). Thereby, a student who is self-directed also needs to be able to self-regulate. Combined, self-regulation and self-direction emphasize goal setting, goal commitment, time management, environment structuring, help-seeking, task strategies (i.e., learning activities, learning strategies), self-evaluation (i.e., self-awareness, self-monitoring), and interpersonal skills (Knowles, 1975; Zimmerman 1998, 2002). Instructors can employ a variety of strategies to promote self-regulation and cultivate self-direction in online students:

  • Incorporate student use of a weekly or module-based learning journal. This activity actively engages the student in many of the constructs of self-regulated and self-directed learning.
    • At the start of each week (or module), prompt students to engage in the following activities in their learning journal:
      • Write two to three learning goals for the week or module.
      • Identify the resources needed to achieve each goal.
      • Determine the number of hours needed to achieve each goal.
      • Decide on the days/times that will be dedicated to working towards each goal.
      • Select the most appropriate physical location (i.e., home, library) from which the work will be done. 
    • At the conclusion of each week or module, prompt students to revisit their learning log to engage in self-monitoring and self-evaluation activities:
      • Reflect on grades earned and feedback received from the instructor.
      • Discuss actions and behaviors that supported or undermined goal achievement. 
      • Address if any changes or adaptations in actions and behaviors are needed in the next week or module to ensure goal achievement.
  • Encourage students to engage in planning and effective time management at the start of the course by creating a study and coursework schedule that consists of the following:
    • Direct and indirect instructional activities and assignments.
    • Assignment availability dates and deadlines.
    • Anticipated start dates for engaging in the direct and indirect instructional activities and assignments.
  • Design assignments that require student-initiated virtual engagement and interaction with support systems and resources (i.e., librarian, tutor, advisement). For example, a research assignment that requires a student to virtually collaborate with a librarian to find and select a journal article. Student engagement with such services through virtual means can help them to further develop their interpersonal relationships and skills. 
  • Design assignments that foster critical thinking and student engagement. For example, provide clear instructions and thought-provoking prompts for online asynchronous discussions, and engage in the discussion as a facilitator.
  • Inspire student use of various 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 learning preferences and strategies, including test-taking, note-taking, reading, writing, critical thinking, research, studying, and so on. 

Developing student’s online learning self-efficacy

To effectively engage in the processes of self-regulation and self-direction, online students need to have a high level of online learning self-efficacy. As Bandura (1997) explained, self-efficacy is contextual. As an 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. Nonetheless, a student needs to have a high sense of self-efficacy in the use of technology, as well as in their abilities to effectively manage their time and learn in an online course (Zimmerman & Kulikowich, 2016). Instructors can employ a variety of strategies to promote student development of online learning self-efficacy:

  • Ensure students complete an orientation to online learning prior to the course start date, if one is provided by the college or university.
  • Create a screencast video that provides a virtual overview and demonstrates the online course environment and the virtual tools that students will be using throughout the course.
  • Provide students with information on basic technology troubleshooting techniques and instructions on how to locate resources provided by the college or university, including contact information for a help desk.
  • Consult with an instructional designer or similar support staff on the design and structure of the online course to ensure student accessibility and alignment of instructional content and activities with course learning outcomes.
  • Include testimonials from former students in the online course to emphasize student practices for success.
  • Engage with students in an online discussion at the start of the course to dispel any ideas or feelings they may have about online learning.
  • Design an online learning environment that is free from distraction and use tools provided through the learning management system to experience the course from the perspective of a student.
  • Use student course evaluation data to inform online course revisions and future development and enhancements.
  • Encourage students to create a Virtual Services and Resources contact list that includes the name of each service or resource (i.e., library, advisement, career services, help desk, tutorial services) and their virtual contact information and hours of availability.

Ultimately, instructors have a significant role in helping online students to develop human agency. Consequently, instructors in an online course should model actions and behaviors associated with human agency by providing students with ongoing feedback in the form of praise, encouragement, and support. This includes the careful planning of deadlines for student work, grading student work and providing feedback, responding to students in a timely manner, and being transparent in student communication and grading procedures.

Jacqueline S. Stephen, EdD, is an assistant professor, instructional designer, and director of the office of distance learning in the College of Professional Advancement at Mercer University 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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Zimmerman, Whitney Alicia, and Jonna M. Kulikowich. “Online learning self-efficacy in students with and without online learning experience.” American Journal of Distance Education 30, no. 3 (2016): 180-191.