What is agency?

At its core, agency refers to an individuals’ psychosocial capacity for intentional, self-directed and self-regulated action.

"Agency, in other words, is not something that people have; it is something that people do." Biesta & Tedder, 2007, p. 136

A range of social sciences and humanities disciplines invoke ‘agency’ to conceptualise how people and societies act to achieve goals under various constraints (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Evans, 2007; Bandura, 2000; Ahearn, 2001). This page emphasises its relevance in and for higher education.

What does it mean to say that 'agency is something people do?'

In terms of how people do agency, it is useful to bear in mind at least four key components: individual, societal, relational and temporal.

  1. Individual: Agency refers to one’s (belief in their) capacity to act in ways which will lead to desired outcomes (Bandura, 2000).
  2. Societal: All social contexts present both opportunities for and constraints upon action - prompting the concept of ‘bounded agency’ (Evans, 2007).
  3. Relational: Agency cannot be fully understood apart from the interpersonal relations of the ‘agent’ within a given context - prompting the concept of ‘collective agency’ (Bandura, 2000).
  4. Temporal: One’s sense of possible futures depends on both past experiences (i.e. of successful or failed attempts at enacting agency) and present conditions (i.e. constraints and opportunities).

Why evaluate agency?

Positive engagement, identity development and wellbeing

Student agency is important to students’ positive engagement in higher education. The relationship is a reciprocal one: an engaging learning experience promotes students’ ability to achieve agency; at the same time, as students develop their agency, they are likely to be more engaged (Pitterson, Case, Agrawal, & Hasbun, 2018; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013; Kahn, 2014; Titus & Roman, 2019; Klemenčič, 2015).

Research highlights the implications of this for developing positive learner and professional identities. For example, engaging students as partners is found to promote “the development of self-regulated learners with a greater sense of agency”, thereby also “enhancing learner identity” (Bourke, 2018, pp. 837, 838). Similarly, professional identity development is found to be a personalised process of embodyingprofessional skills and values (Adams, Daly, Mann, & Dall'Alba, 2011; Sutherland & Markauskaite, 2012) which “requires students’ active engagement and agency” (Trede, Macklin, & Bridges, 2012, p. 378).

Moving away from the focus on individual agency, contemporary work and learning environments mean that agency increasingly plays out in collaborative arrangements, foregrounding “collective agency” (Bandura, 2000, p. 75-76). Evaluating through the lens of ‘collective agency’ also helps us to understand students’ relationships with their peers, which are essential not only for (collective) agency, learning, and generic skills such as teamwork, communication and negotiation, but also students’ well-being and mental health (Klemenčič, 2015; Burke, Bennett, Burgess, Gray, & Southgate, 2016).

Tools to evaluate agency

There are relatively few instruments for evaluating agency, partly because its multi-faceted nature cannot be fully captured through self-report questionnaires. The below questionnaire is adapted from the few recently-developed scales that address university students’ agency, having extracted items which you are most likely to find relevant (the references are within the document). We also provide interview protocols to enable a deeper focus on “students’ interpretations of their own experiences and reasons for activities” (Damşa, Kirschner, Andriessen, Erkens, & Sins, 2010, p. 60)

Common approaches to analysing interview data include ‘thematic analysis’, ‘grounded theory’ and ‘phenomenography’ (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Tight, 2016). It is also possible to analyse interview data quantitatively. One recent study (Shultz, Herbst, & Schleppegrell, 2019) quantified the frequency with which interview participants talked about their agentic educationalactivity, such as responding in class, choosing a project, joining a study group, reaching out for support, or deciding on a career.


Adams, R. S., Daly, S. R., Mann, L. M., & Dall'Alba, G. (2011). Being a professional: Three lenses into design thinking, acting, and being. Design Studies, 32(6), 588-607.

Ahearn, L. M. (2001). Language and Agency. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 109-137.

Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of Human Agency through Collective Efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 75-78.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 132-149.

Bourke, R. (2018). Self-assessment to incite learning in higher education: developing ontolotical awareness. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(5), 827-839.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101.

Burke, P. J., Bennett, A., Burgess, C., Gray, K., & Southgate, E. (2016). Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education: Developing Inclusive Approaches. The University of Newcastle, Australia.

Damşa, C. I., Kirschner, P. A., Andriessen, J. E., Erkens, G., & Sins, P. H. (2010). Shared Epistemic Agency: An Empirical Study of an Emergent Construct. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(2), 143-186.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What Is Agency? American Journal of Sociology, 962-1023.

Evans, K. (2007). Concepts of bounded agency in education, work, and the personal lives of young adults. International Journal of Pyschology, 85-93.

Kahn, P. E. (2014). Theorising student engagement in higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 1005-1018.

Klemenčič, M. (2015). What is student agency? An ontological. In R. Klemenčič, M. Bergan, & S. Primožič, Student engagement (pp. 11-29). Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Pitterson, N., Case, J., Agrawal, A., & Hasbun, I. (2018). Investigating the ways in which Student Agency develops through Engagement with Knowledge. IEEE Frontiers in Education (pp. 1-5). IEEE.

Shultz, M., Herbst, P., & Schleppegrell, M. (2019). The expression of agency by gradute teaching assistants and professors in relation to their professional obligations. Linguistics and Education, 52, 33-43.

Sutherland, L., & Markauskaite, L. (2012). Examining the role of authenticity in supporting the development of professional identity: an example from teacher education. Higher Education, 64(6), 747-766.

Tight, M. (2016). Phenomenography: the development and application of an innovative research design in higher education research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(3), 319-338.

Titus, S., & Roman, N. V. (2019). Predictors of student agency: the relationship between student agency, learning support and learning experiences in an interprofessional health science faculty. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 33(3), 308-312.

Trede, F., Macklin, R., & Bridges, D. (2012). Professional identity development: a review of the higher education literature. Studies in Higher Education, 37(3), 365-384.

Wimpenny, K., & Savin-Baden, M. (2013). Alienation, agency and authenticity: a synthesis of the literature on student engagement. Teaching in Higher Education, 311-326.