The concept of agency in learning is not a recent one. This principle covers both the agency of the learner as well as the agency of others who may affect, in some way, that person’s learning. Although advocates of the behavioral approach to the study of learning were generally silent in regards to agency of either the learner or of others who influenced the experience of the learner in some way, some spoke strongly against it, while others openly acknowledged it. For example, Skinner (1961b; 1961d; 1961h) strongly rejected and opposed any notion of human will:

Every discovery of an event which has a part in shaping a man’s behavior seems to leave so much the less to be credited to the man himself; and as such explanations become more and more comprehensive, the contribution which may be claimed by the individual himself appears to approach zero. Man’s vaunted creative powers, his original accomplishments in art, science, and morals, his capacity to choose and our right to hold him responsible for the consequences of his choice —none of these is conspicuous in this new self-portrait. Man, we once believed, was free to express himself in art, music, and literature, to inquire into nature, to seek salvation in his own way. He could initiate action and make spontaneous and capricious changes of course. Under the most extreme duress some sort of choice remained to him. He could resist any effort to control him, though it might cost him his life. But science insists that action is initiated by forces impinging upon the individual, and that caprice is only another name for behavior for which we have not yet found a cause. (Skinner, 1961d, pp. 7-8)

As an alternative example, Thorndike recognized a discretionary power that he believed to be characteristic of human learning: “All man’s learning, and indeed all his behavior, is selective. Man does not, in any useful sense of the words, ever absorb, or re-present, or mirror, or copy, a situation uniformly” (Thorndike, 1914a, p. 157). It is “the condition of the man” (p. 144), a condition which the man can to one degree or another control, that determines the change made by any acting agent.[1] It is the “the attitude or set of a person [that] decides not only what he will do and think, but also what he will be satisfied and annoyed by” (p. 145). The man can choose which elements of a situation will be prepotent in effect:

One of the commonest ways in which conditions within the man determine variations in his responses to one same external situation is by letting one or another element of the situation be prepotent in effect. Such partial or piecemeal activity on the part of a situation is, in human learning, the rule. Only rarely does man form connections, as the lower animals so often do, with a situation as a gross total—unanalyzed, undefined, and, as it were, without relief.” (Thorndike, 1914a, p. 147)

Pavlov explicitly noted his own role as a controlling agent in the learning of his experimental subjects:

We observe and intentionally participate in building new reactions on this fundamental conduct [instincts], in the form of so-called habits and associations, which now increase, enlarge, become complicated and refined. (Pavlov et al., 1928, p. 42)

Watson played a similar role in his experiments of conditioning with animals and children, and Skinner, though he too acted in this capacity, denied any concept of “will,” instead deferring all explanation of action to external causes. In Science and Human Behavior (Skinner, 1953) he set up the basis for this position based on Descartes suggestion that “the spontaneity of living creatures was only apparent and that behavior could sometimes be traced to action from without” (p. 47), and the later discovery that the tail of a salamander, though severed from the body, would “move when part of it was touched or pierced” (p. 47). This, he felt, was the first “clear-cut evidence that [Descartes] had correctly surmised the possibility of external control” (p. 47). He went then went on to paint a somewhat dramatic picture of the diminished role of the inner will as an acceptable explanation of behavior:

As more and more of the behavior of the organism has come to be explained in terms of stimuli, the territory held by inner explanations has been reduced. The “will” has retreated up the spinal cord, through the lower and then the higher parts of the brain, and finally, with the conditioned reflex, has escaped through the front of the head. At each stage, some part of the control of the organism has passed from a hypothetical inner entity to the external environment. (p. 47)

Any influence of other people in the learning of an individual was described as a “social stimulus” (Skinner, 1953, p. 301) and the concept of the self was reduced to a “functionally unified system of responses” (p. 285):

The self is most commonly used as a hypothetical cause of action. So long as external variables go unnoticed or are ignored, their function is assigned to an originating agent within the organism. If we cannot show what is responsible for a man’s behavior, we say that he himself is responsible for it. (p. 283)


Whatever the self may be, it is apparently not identical with the physical organism. The organism behaves, while the self initiates or directs behavior. (p. 284)


The best way to dispose of any explanatory fiction is to examine the facts upon which it is based. These usually prove to be, or suggest, variables which are acceptable from the point of view of scientific method. In the present case it appears that a self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses. (p. 285)

Estes, a reformed behaviorist (see his own account in W. K. Estes, 1982a, pp. 13-19), came to recognize “the flexibility of higher organisms in selecting adaptively among alternative responses that are all associated with the same drives but lead to different reinforcing events” (p. 16), and later highlighted the ability of the learner to exercise agency in determining what action to take in a give situation by saying, “In any choice situation the individual is assumed actively to scan the available alternatives and to be guided to a choice by feedback from anticipated rewards” (W. K. Estes, 1982b, p. 60).

Ebbinghaus (1913) did not comment on learner agency but clearly demonstrated it in setting and carrying out his experiments on memory. Tolman described the use of a previously acquired cognitive map being ” employed by ‘intervening brain processes’ in the selective attention to stimuli by the nervous system, and the execution of responses” (Tolman, 1948, p. 192). His view of learner choice was also highlighted in his criticism of trial and error learning:

Our final criticism of the trial and error doctrine is that it is its fundamental notion of stimulus-response bonds, which is wrong. Stimuli do not, as such, call out responses willy nilly. Correct stimulus-response connections do not get “stamped in,” and incorrect ones do not get “stamped out.” Rather learning consists in the organisms’ “discovering” or “refining” what all the respective alternative responses lead to. And then, if, under the appetite-aversion conditions of the moment, the consequences of one of these alternatives is more demanded than the others—or if it be “demanded-for” and the others be “demanded-against”—then the organism will tend, after such learning, to select and to perform the response leading to the more “demanded-for” consequences. But, if there be no such difference in demands there will be no such selection and performance of the one response, even though there has been learning. (Tolman, 1932, p. 364)

Learner agency appears in cognitive information processing theory as a variety of memory control processes and various metacognitive functions. “Subject-controlled memory processes include any schemes, coding techniques, or mnemonics used by the subject in his effort to remember” (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 30). Control processes in the sensory register include making choices regarding which sensory register to attend to, making choices regarding which portion of the available incoming information to transfer to STS, and selectively employing strategies for matching information in the sensory register “against the long-term store and thereby identifying input” (p. 32). In the short-term store include decisions regarding search, storage and retrieval; choices regarding what and how to employ rehearsal techniques to preserve new information in STS and transfer it to LTS; and selection of “grouping, organizing, and chunking strategies” (p. 40).

“Metacognition is knowing about and having control over cognitive processes” (Eggen & Kauchak, 1999, p. 268). “The concept of metacognition includes learners’ knowledge and beliefs regarding their own cognitive processes, as well as their attempts to regulate those cognitive processes to maximize learning and memory” (Ormrod, 2003, p. 261). Self-regulated learning includes the following processes (pp. 355-356):

1. Goal-setting. Self-regulated learners know what they want to accomplish when they read or study.

2. Planning. Self-regulated learners determine ahead of time how best to use the time and resources they have available for a learning task.

3. Attention control. Self-regulated learners try to focus their attention on the subject matter at hand and to clear their minds of potentially distracting thoughts and emotions.

4. Application of learning strategies. Self-regulated learners choose different learning strategies depending on the specific goal they hope to accomplish.

5. Self-motivational strategies. Self-regulated learners keep themselves on task with a variety of strategies, such as competing against their own prior performance, finding ways to make a boring activity more interesting or challenging, imagining themselves completing an activity successfully, or varying the procedures they use for successive tasks or problems.

6. Solicitation of outside help when needed. Truly self-regulated learners don’t necessarily try to do everything on their own. On the contrary, they recognize when they need other people’s help and seek out such assistance; they are especially likely  to ask for the kind of help that will enable them to work more independently in the future.

7. Self-monitoring. Self-regulated learners continually monitor their progress toward their goals, and they change their learning strategies or modify their goals if necessary.

8. Self-evaluation. Self-regulated learners determine whether what they have learned fulfills the goals they have set for themselves.

9. Intrinsic motivation. Self-regulated learning requires intrinsic motivation.

Agency of the learner is not the only agency involved in the learning ecology. Agency of others also plays a role. In commenting on the role of the teacher in learning, Ausubel et al. (1978) expressed a view that although it has been suggested that teachers fill many different roles, their dominant role is still that of  directing learning activities.

In recent times the scope of the teacher’s role has been vastly expanded beyond its original instructional core to include such functions as parent surrogate, friend and confidante, counselor, adviser, representative of the adult culture, transmitter of approved cultural values, and facilitator of personality development. Without any sense disparaging the reality or significance of these other subsidiary roles, however, it is nevertheless undeniable that the teacher’s most important and distinctive role in the modern classroom is still that of director of learning activities. (pp. 500-501)

Two of the fourteen principles proposed by the Learner-Centered Work Group of the APA’s Board of Educational Affairs refer to motivation. Principle 5 deals with learner agency and states: “Higher-order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking” (Learner-Centered Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Education Affairs, 1997,#5). Principle 11 relates to the role of other agents in the learning process: “Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others” (#11).

The role of peers is manifest in constructive teaching strategies that employ various types of group work:

Student-centered learning often involves social interactions with other students in varied formats, including group instruction, in which students learn, process, and discuss material in groups. Group discussions are conversations amoung students in which students pose and answer their own questions; the teacher does not play the dominant role. Thus learning becomes a socially mediated and facilitated activity. (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, pp. 449-450)

In group discussion “students do not just respond to teacher-initiated questions; they also respond to one another’s questions in an open discussion format” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 455). Groupwork “entails small groups of students working together on tasks in relatively informal settings” (p. 457), which gives every student more of a chance to actively participate.

Cooperative learning is similar to groupwork, but more highly structured by the teacher and under tighter teacher control (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 457). It often involves some type of competition between groups to complete a goal and performance is evaluated by time to completion or group performance on post-learning assessments.

In another type of group work, reciprocal teaching, students are first taught four steps to improve understanding of what they read: summarizing, asking a question about an important point in the text, clarifying the difficult portions of what was read, and predicting what is likely to come next (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 459). Once they have learned the method, students take turns teaching and leading the class or group.

An important function of the teacher in constructive discovery learning is to guide the process, since unstructured discovery often leads to confusion, frustration, and inappropriate conclusions:

Unstructured discovery occurs when students make discoveries on their own. Guided discovery occurs when the teacher assists the students in making discoveries. Guided discovery is more practical and effective; unstructured discovery often leads students to become confused and frustrated and may result in students’ drawing inappropriate conclusions. (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 455)

Piaget spoke of the role of the “social group” in transforming sensorimotor intelligence into reflective intelligence (Piaget, 1963, p. 356). Bruner addressed both the agency of the learner and the influence of others. Regarding learner agency he said there are “powerful effects that come from permitting the student to put things together for himself, to be his own discoverer” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 22) and that “left to himself, the child will go about discovering things for himself within limits” (p. 22). He further described the learner as taking an active role in learning:

The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking a part in the formulation and at times may play the principle role in it. He will be aware of alternatives and may even have an “as if” attitude toward these and, as he receives information he may evaluate it as it comes. (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 23)

Bruner described the role of others in individual learning in terms of the cultural transmission of techniques and skills  (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 1). He also described how others have an influence on the control and freedom of the learner; that “there are certain forms of child rearing, certain home atmospheres that lead some children to be their own discoverers more than other children” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 22); and that the aim of the teacher should be to give the student as firm a grasp of a subject as possible and then “make him as autonomous and self-propelled a thinker as we can—one who will go along on his own after formal schooling has ended” (p. 23). He also stated the importance of having a model:

Thus, within the culture the earliest form of learning essential to the person becoming human is not so much discovery as it is having a model. The constant provision of a model, the constant response to the individual’s response after response, back and forth between two people, constitute “invention” learning guided by an accessible model. (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. 69)

Human learning theory addresses the learner as a complete person. A person that not only senses, and thinks, and feels, but one that has the power to choose. The learner is an agent. And the agency of the human learner is so powerful that people have been known to “give up everything for the sake of a particular ideal, or value” (Maslow, 1943b, p. 387). It’s also true, however, that primary drives can, under extreme conditions or where the will is not sufficiently strong, preempt the higher pursuits of man (Fuller, 1962, p. 100). There is an interplay between motivation (external or internal influence) and choice (exercise of will). As has been described in chapter 3, this dynamic was explored deeply as the founding principle of self-determination theory:

As an organismic view, SDT conceives of humans as active, growth-oriented organisms, that innately seek and engage challenges in their environments, attempting to actualize their potentialities, capacities, and sensibilities. However, this organismic tendency toward actualization represents only one pole of a dialectical interface, the other being social environments which can either facilitate the individual’s synthetic tendencies, or alternatively wither, block, or overwhelm them. (Ryan & Deci, 2002, p. 8)

Self-determination theory posits that learners are generally curious, self-motivated, agentic, and inspired—striving to learn, to extend themselves, to master new skills, and to apply their talents (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). Similarly, self-regulation theory views the learner as an active participant in their own learning process, able to choose whether or not to participate, selectively employ metacognitive and self-motivational strategies, select desired performance outcomes and self-monitor progress toward objectives (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994, p. 8).

Rogers described human learners as “curious about their world, until and unless this curiosity is blunted by their experience in our educational system” (Rogers, 1969, p. 157). He said that significant learning is maximized when a learner “chooses his own directions, helps to discover his own learning resources, formulates his own problems, decides his own course of action, [and] lives with the consequences of these choices” (p. 162); He also said that the most lasting and pervasive learning is self-initiated learning that involves the whole person (pp. 162-163).

In addition to the view that the learner is his or her own agent in the learning process, human learning theory also describes the role of other people acting in that process. For example, Rogers[2] (1983) viewed the role of the teacher as being one of facilitation and said “the primary task of the teacher is to permit [italics added] the student to learn, to feed his or her own curiosity” (p. 18). One person can induce another person to do something by persuasion (Bandura, 1994a, p. 3) or by otherwise producing conditions of action in the person (Heider, 1958, p. 245). Even vicarious experience through the observation of others can influence a person’s belief in their own ability to succeed, or provide a target for them to aim toward in their own learning (Bandura, 1994a, p. 3). This idea leads to the larger picture of learning in a social context.

Vygotsky described a unique social nature of humans “by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 88). His view was in contrast to the predominant belief of his day that the mental development of a child can only be measured in terms of what the child can do alone. As an alternative, he suggested that the zone of proximal development created by learning “awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (p. 90). Based on these ideas, he explained that “the bringing up and education of children must proceed within society, through society, and for society”  (Vygotsky, 1994a, p. 24).  Vygotsky also emphasized the value of modeling and the role of imitation in learning:

A full understanding of the concept of the zone of proximal development must result in reevaluation of the role of imitation in learning. An unshakable tenet of classical psychology is that only the independent activity of children, not their imitative activity, indicates their level of mental development. This view is expressed in all current testing systems….But recently psychologists have shown that a person can imitate only that which is within her developmental level. For example, if a child is having difficulty with a problem in arithmetic and the teacher solves it on the blackboard, the child may grasp the solution in an instant. But if the teacher were to solve a problem in higher mathematics, the child would not be able to understand the solution no matter how many times she imitated it. (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 87-88)

Bandura, of course, demonstrated the role of others in learning through modeling in his work on observational and vicarious learning (see, for example Bandura & Ross, 1961; Bandura et al., 1963; Bandura & McDonald, 1963; Bandura & Mischel, 1965; Bandura, 1965; Bandura, Grusec, & Menolve, 1966; Bandura, 1971; 1977b; 1989). In his more recent work (Bandura, 2001; 2008b; 2008c), he has focused on describing social cognitive theory from an agentic perspective, thereby emphasizing learner will and choice:

In the agentic sociocognitive view, people are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events. People have the power to influence their own actions to produce certain results. The capacity to exercise control over one’s thought processes, motivation, affect, and action operates through mechanisms of personal agency. (Bandura, 1999a, p. 2)


In social cognitive theory, people are agentic operators in their life course not just onlooking hosts of internal mechanisms orchestrated by environmental events. They are sentient agents of experiences rather than simply undergoers of experiences. (Bandura, 1999a, p. 4)

As part of this shift in emphasis to the learner as an agent, Bandura (2006b) described three modes of agency: individual, proxy, and collective:

Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency: individual, proxy, and collective. Everyday functioning requires an agentic blend of these three forms of agency. In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events. In many spheres of functioning, however, people do not have direct control over conditions that affect their lives. They exercise socially mediated agency, or proxy agency. They do so by influencing others who have the resources, knowledge, and means to act on their behalf to secure the outcomes they desire (Baltes, 1996; Brandtstadter & Baltes-Gotz, 1990; Ozer, 1995). People do not live their lives in individual autonomy. Many of the things they seek are achievable only by working together through interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency, they pool their knowledge, skills, and resources, and act in concert to shape their future (Bandura, 2000a). People’s conjoint belief in their collective capability to achieve given attainments is a key ingredient of collective agency. (p. 265)

The three remaining social learning theories reviewed for this study are similar. Situated learning focuses on the learner as a person-in-the-world, but in the context of a sociocultural community. This focus “promotes a view of knowing as activity by specific people in specific circumstances” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 52).  Activity theory focuses on the activity system in which “[Learning] is accomplished in and between multiple loosely interconnected activity systems and organizations” (Engestrom, 2004, p. 15), and is “crucially dependent on the contribution of the clients or users” (p. 16). Thus, in the activity theory view of expansive learning, learning is dependent on the contributions of others, interacting through a process of knotworking (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 532).

Cognitive apprenticeship focuses primarily on the role of the teacher as agent in the learning process of the apprentice. The teacher provides support to this process through modeling, coaching, and fading  (J. S. Brown et al., 1989, p. 39). However, both the teacher and peers may serve as models:

In modeling, the apprentice observes the master demonstrating how to do different parts of the task. The master makes the target processes visible, often by explicitly showing the apprentice what to do. But as Lave and Wenger (in press) point out, in traditional apprenticeship, much of the learning occurs as apprentices watch others at work. (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 2)

The “thread running through the entire apprenticeship experience” (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 2) is coaching, which includes the following activities:

  1. Choosing tasks
  2. Providing hints and scaffolding
  3. Evaluating the activities of the apprentices and diagnosing the problems they are having
  4. Challenging them
  5. Offering encouragement
  6. Giving feedback
  7. Structuring the ways to do things
  8. Working on particular weaknesses


Cognitive apprenticeship also recognizes the role of peers in cooperative problem solving. Cooperative problem solving “refers to having students work together in a way that fosters cooperative problem solving. Learning through cooperative problem solving is both a powerful motivator and a powerful mechanism for extending learning resources” (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 16). Table 11 summarizes the local principles from the theories reviewed that are subsumed by the universal principle of agency.


Table 11

Principles of Learning Subsumed by the Universal Principle of Agency

Theory Group   Local principles




Teachers provide guidance



The attitude or set of a person decides not only what he will do and think, but also what he will be satisfied and annoyed by

One of the commonest ways in which conditions within the man determine variations in his responses to one same external situation is by letting one or another element of the situation be prepotent in effect

All man’s learning, and indeed all his behavior, is selective



Pavlov and his team observed and intentionally participated (as agents) in building new reactions in the animals they worked with



External control: although Skinner did not recognize “will,” like Pavlov, he participated as an agent in conditioning the subjects he worked with

Others as a social stimulus

Note that Skinner argued against the self, or inner determination, describing the self as an “organized system of responses”



Adaptive selection of higher organisms among alternative responses

In choice situations individuals choose based on feedback of anticipated rewards



Cognitive   Ebbinghaus:

Demonstrated self-directed learning in carrying out his experiments on memory.



Selective attention to stimuli and execution of responses

Learning does not consist of the “willy nilly” stamping in and out of responses, but rather of the organism discovering what the alternative responses lead to and selecting the appropriate response leading to the more demanded-for consequences at the time the choice is made


Cognitive Information Processing:

Control processes in the sensory register

Control processes in the short-term store

Control processes in the long-term store

Memory skills improve due to knowledge about the domain and understanding of one’s own memory

Metacognition: knowing about and having control over cognitive processes

Metacognition: regulation of cognitive processes to maximize learning and memory

Self-regulated learning



Teacher role as “director of learning activities”



Constructive   General:

Selecting and monitoring

Influence by others

Group work

Value of teacher guidance



The role of the “social group” in transforming previously acquired intelligence, through language, into “reflective intelligence”



Techniques transmitted by the culture

Self-driven discovery

Learner is an active agent

Influence of others on control and freedom of the learner

Importance of a model



Human   Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs:

The integrated wholeness of the organism

Sometimes people will give up everything for the sake of a particular ideal or value


Biological Motivation:

Primary drives can preempt the exercise of agency toward higher goals


Attribution Theory:

One person can induce another to do something by producing conditions of action in the other person



Verbal or social persuasion

Vicarious experiences through observance of social models


Self-Determination Theory:

The human organism both acts on internal and external forces, and is vulnerable to those forces

People are generally curious, self-motivated, agentic, and inspired; and striving to learn, to extend themselves, to master new skills, and to apply their talents


Self-Regulation Theory:

Learners selectively use of metacognitive and motivational strategies

Learners select, structure, and create learning environments

Learners choose form and amount of instruction needed

Learners are active participants in their own learning process

Learners choose to participate

Learners choose method of learning

Learners choose performance outcomes

Learners choose or control physical and social environment

Learners are intrinsically or self-motivated

Learners utilize planned or automatic methods

Learners are self-aware of performance outcomes

Learners are environmentally and socially sensitive and resourceful

Learners’ self-motivation is derived from setting goals, a sense of self-efficacy, and values

Learners self-monitor and self-record

Learners structure their environment and self-select exemplary models to observe

Goal setting

Strategic planning

Self-efficacy beliefs

Goal orientation

Intrinsic interest


Freedom to Learn:

Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning

Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process

Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner—feelings as well as intellect—is the most lasting and pervasive.

A continuing openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change

Role of teacher as facilitator


An Agentic Theory of the Self:

The human capability to exert influence over one’s functioning and the course of events by one’s actions





Self-efficacy is a prerequisite for the exercise of agency






Value of modeling, and role of imitation in learning

Growing into the intellectual life of those around them

Some internal developmental processes are only able to operate when the child is interacting with people in his environment

Role of society in education



People have the power to influence their own actions to produce certain results

Agentic operators

Modes of agency


Situated learning:

The learner is a “person-in-the-world”


Activity theory:




Association through cultural artifacts


Cognitive apprenticeship:

Teacher modeling, coaching, fading, and support (also peer support)

Role of teacher as master to apprentices

Master or others may demonstrate a task


Community of practice leads to a sense of ownership, personal investment and mutual dependency

Cooperative problem solving



In the next chapter, the ten principles identified will be organized into a conceptual framework of learning.

[1] Agent is used here in the way Thorndike (1914a) used it to convey the idea of a “stimulating agent” (p. 98), which may be, but is not necessarily, another human being.

[2] The son of Carl Rogers.


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