Aimee's Student Success Element 1: Autonomy and Initiative

February 4, 2019

In today’s highly competitive, extremely fast growing, changing and demanding world, what are the skills and qualities that will help graduates land a great job and succeed?

For years, academic achievement and proficiency have been the primary focus and determining aspects in college acceptance and employment success. However, recently, they were identified as not enough. Research has pointed to other key learner attributes. Employers, in their turn, look for other factors in prospective new hires. What defines their success in their lives and careers are their attitudes, personal attributes, as well as technical and applied skills. These factors are what some are calling employability skills, college and career readiness skills, or 21st century skills for college and career readiness. We are going to call them “success factors.”

In this series, we discuss 11 success factors that we’ve identified as critical to 21st century workplace success. We will explore what they mean, possible ways to develop them, and why they are essential for young graduates work and life success.

Setting the Stage

In the heavy standardized testing environment that defines many modern education systems, it’s difficult to move students past the ‘watch and wait to be told what to do’ behaviors. The problem arises when students do not learn to take responsibility for their own learning, instead they rely on too much scaffolding, detailed instructions and resources prepared for them by dedicated teachers, who are typically concerned with (and evaluated on) student test scores.  How does this help students develop the critical success factors, such as autonomy and initiative, that school is supposed to help them acquire?

With the rapid pace of technological and societal change in the 21st century, education systems must encourage and develop autonomy, initiative and agency in their students.  Students must be able to operate as independent, proactive learners, with a voice in what and how they learn. When well developed in students, these attributes help them grow into responsible adults who are confident, decisive, very adaptable to change, and better equipped to become leaders of change.

How are autonomy, initiative and agency interconnected?  How can they help students affect change in the world? We list below the definitions we use for the purpose of this discussion.

Autonomy refers to the choice and ability to act independently. It involves being capable of independent learning, decision making, and ownership (1). It is choosing an action and being responsible for it (2).

Initiative, a key facet of autonomy (3), reflects proactive, self-starting behavior. It reflects taking responsibility and being persistent to get things done in pursuit of one’s goals.  Autonomy in the workplace, coupled with initiative, has been found to have a direct correlation with heightened job performance and more successful careers (4). Developing autonomy and initiative early on during academic years enhances an individual’s chances of employability (5).

Agency refers to “the capacity to act with initiative and effect in a socially constructed world.” (20) Students with agency have the capacity and freedom to employ choice and voice about what is learned and to participate in deciding how their learning takes place (19). Purposeful initiative and autonomy leads to agency.

Autonomy +  Initiative = Agency

Illustrative Example:

Students are given a classroom task with the independence, or autonomy, to complete the task as they wish within the lines of pre-set instructions and a grading rubric. These teacher-created boundaries and limitations for the task, are a good starting point for developing autonomy in students.

Raise the Stakes: Students who are given a learning invitation to self-assess a stated problem and solve it without any pre-set instructions or grading rubric, are afforded the opportunity to take some initiative in self-directing their own learning.  They can choose what resources and materials are needed to understand and solve the problem at hand. They also decide how to present their results. This is autonomy raised to the level of taking initiative.

How does this get us to agency? Whereas autonomy is about acting independently, initiative reflects a person’s choice and proactive action through their independent action. Initiative is that extra dimension that, when added to autonomy, yields agency in students. Students acting with agency are more likely to have the confidence to become successful leaders of change later in life.

In this paper, we will further explore how the success factors of autonomy, initiative and agency can work together in preparation for post-school life. We briefly explain what they mean, how they intersect, how teachers and parents can support the development of these success factors, and how success is achieved for students in fostering them.

Autonomy and Initiative: How Does it Begin?

The need for autonomy is sometimes very pronounced in adolescents as they try to create their own space, usually resulting in rebellion(14) as they attempt to negotiate demands with figures of authority. Adolescents who desire to create their own autonomous life, also requires taking some initiative to get where they want to go. Students demanding autonomy, but lacking in initiative, fail to function properly.  They are not yet capable of affecting their environment, adapting to change in their surroundings and self, or of setting the image they want to portray and the goals they want to achieve. Having personal initiative raises their game. It sharpens and improves intrinsic motivation, entrepreneurship, innovation, and self-regulation (16).

Some studies have linked autonomy with job satisfaction, loyalty, higher job performance, and stability (18). Employees who believe they are free to make decisions (autonomy) and free to change things (initiative) are more productive and satisfied (17). In the reverse, employees lacking autonomy and freedom to take initiative, experience decreased job satisfaction which limits their engagement and overall commitment to their job. They become transactional, and with diminished intrinsic motivation, reluctant to give more of themselves. Employees who lack initiative are content with doing “just enough”, and are generally more reactive vs. proactive.
Today, managers desire active participants rather than passive implementers (16). Companies are actively seeking employees who are well-rounded and pursue innovative ideas while maintaining high success and efficiency rates at work. This is a tall order for youth, however, if they harness the power of autonomy and initiative they will flourish in the workplace.

Autonomy and Agency: How Do They Relate?

Autonomy is first understood as an individual’s capability for independent learning, self-organization, and self-evaluation(1). Adding these capabilities to an active approach to problem-solving, persistence in overcoming obstacles, goal-directedness and action-orientation, leads to purposeful initiative and autonomy, otherwise known as agency.

In promoting student agency in the classroom, teachers work with students to co-create an environment where learning takes place. They provide opportunities for students to set goals, take action toward goal achievement, self-assess and revise their plans, and help them develop a belief that they can do what it takes to succeed.

Earlier work by Hitlin and Elder(7) distinguishes four types of agency:

  • Existential agency describes the free will of every human being as the capacity and will they have to affect their personal or work environments.
  • Pragmatic agency reflects the adapted responses to circumstances that deviate from the routine. It is the propensity to come up with alternatives when the routine steps are compromised. Changes happen every day, or at least often enough. Individuals with pragmatic agency acquire a competitive advantage as they can adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Identity agency refers to the effort one makes in preserving a certain social identity. Identity agency is most often exampled on social media platforms where individuals share activities and insights into their work and personal lives.
  • Life-course agency is manifested in individuals who take steps towards a desired future outcome (7). Having life-course agency is mirrored in setting goals and aligning all actions towards the set goals.

These four types of agency are not necessarily meant to be viewed as a continuum, or menu of skills or behaviors. Rather, the type of agency demonstrated by or observed in individuals, depends on each individual’s self interest, social situation, where they are in time, and self development. Autonomy and initiative play directly into agency, but there are other social and environmental factors that ultimately affect an individual’s ability to demonstrate agency.

How Can You Assess Student Agency?

A fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education, developed another model in which to view and assess student agency, incorporating Hitlin and Elder’s four types of agency. Her model for defining student agency, encapsulates the following four components and their related skills(19):

  • Setting advantageous goals (life course agency) - builds awareness, forethought, planning ahead, intentionality
  • Initiating action toward goals (pragmatic agency) - choice, voice, free will, individual volition, ownership
  • Reflect and revise (existential agency) - self-assessment, self-reflection, grit, perseverance, self-control
  • Internalize self-efficacy (identity agency) - growth mindset, empowerment, the belief that you are in control and will succeed

Encouraging agency comes in many forms. As students direct their own learning, educators work with them to build upon these four components to develop agency. Teachers may decide to offer students a choice between projects, modules, methods, writing assignments, class playlists or other activities. Additionally, they might offer student-led conferences as an alternative to traditional parent-teacher meetings. In a student-led conference, students get to chose the work they feel is most important and relevant to their individual learning and present that work to their parents, while the teacher observes.

Three Types of Autonomy: How Each are Developed

Several types of autonomy help explain how building autonomy in students leads them to taking initiative and exercising agency in their learning and eventual life choices. An important facet of autonomy is that it’s an action that is chosen, for which one is responsible and held to account for (8).

  • Behavioral autonomy is demonstrated by the ability to act for oneself independent of outside influence and to take responsibility for one’s actions (11). At home, it is supported through relinquishing parental control. In the classroom, teachers boost autonomous behavior by creating instances requiring procedural autonomy (choosing a media tool to present) and organizational autonomy (making decisions) (2).
  • Emotional autonomy denotes the ability to have one’s own feelings towards a specific situation separate from others. Individuals who have emotional autonomy can find healthy solutions (12). This type of autonomy is supported and developed when parents and educators allow and encourage youth to have their own feelings about any situation or issue. When students shift from depending on the views of parents and others to making their own judgments, they build emotional autonomy.
  • Cognitive autonomy is a more complex type. It involves having independent attitudes, beliefs, and thinking. The development of cognitive autonomy requires being able to evaluate their thinking, voice their opinion, make decisions independently, assess themselves, and use comparative validation (13). Support at home comes from giving more responsibility in the choices made, encouraging the expression of one’s own opinion, and requiring an evaluation of selections before deciding. In the classroom, support comes from the opportunity to perform self-evaluation from self-developed standards (2).

Another way of supporting student autonomy in various settings, not exclusive to the classroom, is through the practice of taking the other’s perspective and acknowledging their feelings, providing them with pertinent information, and an opportunity for choice while minimizing the use of pressures and demands (9).

The 7 Cs to Promote Autonomy, Initiative and Agency in the Classroom

Teachers, in traditional learning settings, play an essential role in the development of these critical success factors. It is an outcome of schooling as important as the skills measured via standardized tests.

Any student may develop agency; however, it is more easily exercised by those enjoying autonomy and expressing initiative.  It’s the students’ perception of teaching and their connection with the teacher that affect their skills, feelings, behavior, and thoughts. These, in turn, promote the expression of agency.

When teachers connect with students in personal ways, and create engaging materials and lectures, aspirations for future learning tend to rise.

Ferguson describes 7Cs, which are teacher habits or behaviors, through which teachers connect with their students in personal ways and thus cultivate student agency (6):

  • Classroom management: Achieve good behavior through a clear, captivating, and challenging, but not coercive, environment.
  • Clarify: Clear up confusion and give instructive feedback; regularly check for understanding, without giving answers easily.
  • Captivate: Deliver interesting and relevant materials.
  • Challenge: Push students to be extremely thorough and persist in the face of resistance.
  • Care: Remain attentive and sensitive, but not overprotective.
  • Confer: Allow for the exchange of opinions and perspectives.
  • Consolidate: Allow students to make sense of their learning by summarizing and combining knowledge into a coherent whole.

Embracing the 7 Cs are a great starting point towards promoting and developing the student success factors of autonomy, initiative and agency in the classroom.  In doing so, teachers must also acknowledge the role of intrinsic motivation in student success. This is the motivation to act without obvious external rewards. This is where students take autonomous action that maximizes their own opportunities to explore, learn, and reach their potential. Providing students with choice and voice is merely a starting point. Their ability to decide and express themselves encourages genuine interest, motivation, and dedication. Teachers can embrace the idea that shifting learning towards student agency; shifting the control of learning from educator to the learner.

Where Will These Success Factors Take Students?

Developing autonomy and initiative happens both at home and at school where teachers play an essential role.

Students who develop these success factors come better prepared to confront their own learning in diverse academic and work settings. They know how to maximize their opportunities for learning. In work life, being autonomous leads to setting goals. Taking initiative leads to action towards results. This provides a larger purpose, direction, motivation, and meaning to one’s efforts and life’s work.

Autonomy, initiative and agency are applied skills. They are highly contextual and challenging to quantify across diverse learning settings. However, the successful acquisition of these success factors may be measured by the individual actions taken, targets achieved, or changes observed as a result of individual efforts.  

As most traditional education systems foster a culture of compliance where standardized tests suppress expressions of creativity and individuality, a move for change has become obvious, and necessary.

Aimee Bio’s contribution

Supporting students as they tackle the real world is our main aim and purpose. We believe that a student’s individual effort is just as important as the result. offers a customizable space where youth may record and showcase (autonomy) every single effort undertaken and completed, achievement made, and goal reached. It gives youth a space to track their own development, and solicit the support of educators and peers (initiative) in the process.  

By building their online bios, initiative and autonomy are practiced as students display punctuality, collaboration, effort, and conscientiousness in a help seeking environment. Giving them a place to plan their careers and education as well as map out their own future is how we help them adopt this critical success factor.

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