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Would you like to help your student reduce their college-related anxiety in advance? How would you also like to support their academic work now? You can start today by helping your student see and use their agency.

Agency can be conceptualized as using one’s motivation and ability to influence an outcome. It is exerted when a student 1) recognizes a problem or opportunity, 2) identifies within their personal resources how they can address the situation, and then 3) proceeds to act based on this plan. Essentially it means to understand that we influence the outcomes we experience.

In the learning environment, a use of agency could look like:

  • Your student needs to write a 20-page paper by the end of the semester.
  • They remember it was helpful in the past to budget papers into “chunks” and to develop a writing schedule.
  • They make a plan for when they will work on each section and proceed according to the plan.

How was this a use of agency? When faced with a potentially intimidating project, the student leaned in and recalled what skills they already had that would be helpful. They evaluated and acted when they could have avoided or proceeded mindlessly. It was their recognition and use of their agency that determined the subsequent steps they took.

Practically, a student’s use of agency in an academic task could be as simple as recognizing they have a question about an assignment and reaching out to the professor or teaching assistant to clarify. Done. That’s a use of agency. And this simple act contributes to success because when the student sits down to do the assignment or write the paper, they will have the clarity they need. By taking action, they avoided being intimidated or distracted by an unclear goal. They can proceed confidently because they perceive how to get from start to finish.

So, what can you do now to help your student identify and use their agency? It’s pretty simple.

You can encourage your student to do two things when they face a big academic project: get clear, and plan when and where.

Get Clear: When we have clarity about what’s required for an assignment or project, we are much less likely to procrastinate. We’re also more likely to believe in the possibility of doing well on the project, because we know what actions to expect and what is expected of us. Clarity about the details of an assignment can even be motivating, and can lead to better work, because we get started sooner than we might otherwise.

Plan When and Where: Planning when and where to complete a task (or part of a task, like a section of a paper), makes it much more likely that we will complete the task, according to research on the role of hope in academic and wider holistic outcomes.

Thus, when your student shares with you about a big class project coming up, ask them if they know what’s required and when and where they will get started. When you do, you will be strengthening their recognition and use of their agency, and perhaps preemptively helping them thrive in college.

About Jennifer Tharp, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success. Visit Dr. Jennifer Tharp's website.