Agentic Design for Internships and Experiential Learning

Trina Harding


Experiential learning, including internships, is becoming an increasingly important component in higher education. These “high impact practices” (Kuh 2008) can have lasting impacts, even on post graduation outcomes (Brooks & Simpson, 2014). The effects of these courses are most positive when the coursework that accompanies experiential or applied learning is designed with the challenges and benefits of experiential learning in mind (Ash & Clayton, 2009). 

This article explores some of the theoretical foundations for an approach to experiential learning that incorporates an agentic view of learning and learners. This approach allows learners to take more ownership of their experiential learning and document their learning in personally meaningful ways. The theoretical foundations for the design approach are agentic learning (Yanchar & Spackman, 2012), experiential learning theory (ELT) (Kolb, 2005), narrative learning theory (Clark & Rossiter, 2008), and self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Literature Review

Agentic Learning

For centuries, philosophers have tried to determine to what extent human beings control their own behavior. Though arguments have been made to support the idea of free-will, within traditional philosophy and psychology, ideas of determinism have become the standard. Determinism, which grew out of Newtonian views of the world, is a belief that all things have a cause, including human behavior. Over the course of the lengthy debate, the deterministic focus on cause-effect relationships has left no room for theories of agency (Yanchar, 2011). 

Whether educators are aware of it or not, they have inherited this deterministic framework, and it influences how they think about and approach education. Yanchar and Spackman (2012) described our deterministic inheritance by stating, “Based on this commitment [to determinism], behavior and cognition have typically been equated with the automatic workings of machinery or physical processes on par with lawful regularities such as universal gravitation of the water cycle” (p. 3). In many ways, there is much that is comforting and appealing in accepting this view of education. Deterministic approaches seek to predict (and even guarantee) outcomes. In some ways, a causal approach keeps alive the possibility of a clear or efficiently linear answer to our education questions.  

In addition to the appeal of this very controlled view of human experience, Yanchar, Spackman, and Faulconer (2013) argued that the only way education (and other human-centered) research could be “taken seriously as a scientific phenomenon, would be conceptualized in mechanistic, efficient-causal terms” (p. 216). The result is a heritage of deterministic theories and approaches to teaching and learning that have infiltrated all aspects of education. Dominant among these theories are the traditional behaviorist and cognitive approaches to understanding learning. More recent learning theories have distanced themselves from behaviorism and cognitivism, but so much of what is still done in teaching is a variation on the theme of putting in the right stimulus to get the desired response. With this approach, we run the risk of seeing learners more as information receptacles than as human participants in the learning process, and we design learning experiences and conduct instruction accordingly.  

One example of an artifact of this deterministic heritage is in the level of control teachers try to exert over their classes. Reeve (2009) stated that a majority of teachers adopt a controlling style in their classrooms as opposed to more autonomy-supportive styles despite evidence that a controlling teaching style is associated with “relatively negative student functioning” (p. 160). Reeve identified a number of reasons why teachers adopt a controlling style, but several point to the value that our society puts on control in education, and the belief among parents and other adults that “controlling strategies (e.g., offering rewards) [are] more likely to be effective than autonomy-supportive strategies (e.g., providing rationales)” (p. 166).

Beyond the classroom, we see deterministic frameworks influencing how we design instruction. Pieters (2004) said that instructional design was based on deterministic, rule-based processes and models that, “had limited prescriptive value, were closed systems and failed to integrate instructional development, which often led to passive instruction” (p. 83). Additionally, this deterministic approach can result in instruction that ends up more manipulative than collaborative (Matthews and Yanchar, 2018). 

Even the language we use is a product of our deterministic inheritance. Gant and Williams (2014), argued that we should understand human beings as moral agents rather than as objects to be acted upon. Their next argument was that we need to be careful of the words we use to talk about human experience. For instance, the word, “motivation” has been heavily associated with more deterministic approaches and can be conceived as some force acting upon an individual. They suggested instead “intentionality” as a non-mechanistic way to explain action.

There is an important place in education for a causal, deterministic view of how the world works, and our understanding has been greatly increased by what has come out of behaviorist and cognitivist traditions. But many educational theorists have recognized the need for understanding learning and education in ways that are not accounted for by default-setting cause-and-effect mechanisms. Some education theorists have attempted to find room within this deterministic, causal framework to try and account for some version of learner agency. But very few have seriously questioned the reality of determinism, rather accepting it as fact. 

Bandura (2006) claimed that personal influence is part of the larger causal structure that we all function within. This personal influence, which he called agency, is something that has emerged as part of human social and technological evolution. He outlined four core agentic properties including intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness. Bandura also identified personal efficacy as one mechanism in his view of human agency. Personal efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to influence outcomes through actions. The belief helps individuals face and overcome challenges and is positively associated with positive emotional states and even entrepreneurial behaviors. Though Bandura’s theories came from a causal framework, he distanced himself and his ideas from other deterministic approaches. He claimed, “These nonagentic conceptions strip humans of agentic capabilities, a functional consciousness, and a self-identity” (p. 167).

Hermeneutic approaches to understanding agency and learning went a step beyond Bandura’s and others’ evolutionary explanations of agency. In contrast to seeking answers within a causal or mechanistic framework (where issues of will and even consciousness are perennially problematic), hermeneutic philosophers changed the question. They believe that the enduring problem of agentic control is an artifact of wrong thinking. Guignon (2012) called hermeneutic phenomenology “the road less taken in psychology and philosophy” (p. 98) because it rejects the dominant, centuries-old idea that we need to look to the physical world for answers to human questions. Guignon maintained that the natural world is a great place to look to understand natural phenomena, “but that it is completely inappropriate for understanding human beings and their creations” (p. 98). Yanchar et al. (2013) likewise insisted that human experience is “fundamentally distinct from physical objects and natural processes” (p. 219).

Gant and Williams (2014) asserted, “There is good reason to believe that Newton himself would have resisted [the] application of his work to human beings” (p. 83). They argued that strictly mechanistic and causal approaches to psychology are old-fashioned and not even keeping pace with contemporary natural science which has “moved on from strictly Newtonian approaches and philosophy has proposed a number of more fruitful epistemologies— especially for science” (p. 84).

Yanchar (2011) described a non-causal view of agency as "meaningful engagement in the world” (p. 279). This version of agency is called participational agency. Yanchar et al. (2013) explained further that “the most basic theme of participational agency holds that human action is holistic, immediate, and situated—that is, irreducibly in-the-world” (p. 218). This situated definition of agency sets up a framework for understanding learning in a new way. Instead of a focus on cause and effect, we are concerned with, “the uniquely human phenomenon of meaningful (or concernful) involvement; or more specifically, the phenomenon of being concerned about the circumstances and possibilities of life in the midst of one’s situated activity” (Yanchar and Spackman, 2012, p. 8). 

Through this lens, Yanchar et al. (2013) described a hermeneutic, agentic view of learning as embodied familiarization. Rather than stimulus and response or cause and effect approaches to understanding learning, embodied familiarization “refers to the dynamic, nonlinear means by which an agent becomes increasingly acquainted with, and capable of performing, meaningful activities in certain situations or in general” (p. 219). 

Experiential Learning

The holistic, embodied, situated, and participatory themes of a hermeneutic view of agency are particularly well-suited to approaches to education that fall in the experiential learning category. Dewey (1938) presented what he called a “technical definition of education” as “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (p. 76–77). In more recent years, and particularly as technology is changing the way people interact with information, learning is being more and more recognized as an embodied process, or something that is experienced holistically and not just cognitively or emotionally (Cox, 2018). Though assertions about learning being an embodied process apply to all learning, they are most often used to understand and facilitate experiential learning.

Experiential learning is a term that covers a wide variety of educational experiences. Roberts (2005) named ropes courses, service learning, internships, and therapeutic wilderness programs as just a few of the variations of experiential learning. What they and others have in common is elements of direct experience and a framework through which to understand that experience. This framework most often takes the form of guided reflection and analysis of the experience. 

Experiential learning does not always easily fit within traditional models of learning. Roberts (2005) described experiential learning as a “significant, if marginalized part of the educational landscape” (p. 13). Experiential learning is significant because of the transformative potential of experiences and marginalized because it is hard to define. Roberts asserted, “I do not believe that a unified, operational definition of ‘good’ experiential education is possible, or even desirable” (p. 27). However, the lack of a clear definition can make it difficult or impossible for experiential learning to fit easily within more mainstream models of learning. 

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is one way to understand experiential learning and make it more approachable as a learning technique. Kolb (2005) built the theory on six propositions of experiential learning found in the works of Dewey and other notable experiential learning scholars. The propositions include 1) learning is a process or reconstruction of experience rather than achieving outcomes; 2) learning is relearning; 3) learning requires dealing with differences, disagreement, and resolving conflicts; 4) learning is a holistic process of adapting to the world; 5) learning results from interactions between the person and the environment; and 6) learning is the process of creating knowledge.

Kolb’s (2014) model of experiential learning has been the most widely-used portion of ELT. In the model, the four components of experiential learning are Concrete Experience (CE), Reflective Observation (RO), Abstract Conceptualization (AC), and Active Experimentation. Ideally, learners touch on all four points of the circle in a spiral throughout the experience, but this model clearly identifies reflection as a primary component of experiential learning. Reflection assignments are now part and parcel of almost every formalized experiential learning.

Figure 1

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

Narrative Learning Theory

Reflection is also a key part of narrative learning theory. According to Clark and Rossiter (2008), The narrative process, “is how we make our learning visible to ourselves . . .  constructing a coherent narrative is how, in fact, we learn” (p. 66). Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly telling ourselves stories to make sense of our experiences and the information we encounter. This is an especially important approach when considering the often very individual nature of experiential learning. Instead of an instructor simply presenting a conclusion of what has been learned, each individual’s experience of an event can be very different. This is why personal reflection and storying are important.

Narrative is also linked with the hermeneutic definition of agency. Yanchar (2011) stated, “Moreover, the background context against which agentive action and experience will unfold can be thought of as having a type of narrative structure—that is, it constitutes a broader narrative context in which one’s personal life story will transpire” (p. 282). Additionally, narrative orientation “is fundamental to engagement in the world as participational agents” (p. 282). 

Self-determination theory

Ryan and Deci’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory is particularly informative for understanding effective experiential course design. SDT associates “personal importance” and “conscious valuing” higher on the scale of regulatory styles, meaning that students who believe in the importance of what they are doing and endorse the activity, will demonstrate higher levels of motivation and better regulatory styles. Self-Regulated Learning models (Nilson, 2013) recognize the importance of positive emotions toward and during the learning process. Some learners need help framing their experience as relevant and valuable at the beginning of the experience. These students may need the same help recognizing what they have learned and learning to communicate the experience to others, but the additional support on the front end is vital to making the experience personally meaningful. 

SDT also identifies three needs to foster personal motivation. These include the need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy, and are “essential for facilitating optimal functioning of the natural propensities for growth and integration, as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being” (p. 68). 

Competence. In SDT, competence is related to a “can do” feeling which, when individuals experience it, contributes to a greater sense of personal motivation. 

Relatedness. Relatedness refers to the level of security learners feel in their relationships. Within the experiential learning context, providing more of a mentor relationship rather than an instructor relationship could also promote increased motivation. 

Autonomy. Finally, students need to experience a sense of autonomy. This is particularly important in experiential learning because of the individual nature of the experience. Students should feel that they have some power over their experience. They may still have to take direction from a supervisor, but most students are surprised at the amount of autonomy they are granted, particularly in an experience like an internship. Experiential learning courses should likewise support student autonomy by allowing them to set many or all of the goals for the experience, and giving them leeway as far as what specifics they chose to report on in their reflections. They should be able to craft their reflections around what is most meaningful to them. 

Autonomy is also a focus for Reeve (2009). He proposed five acts of instruction that “have been shown to be particularly helpful to teachers as they try to become more autonomy supportive—namely, nurture inner motivational resources, provide explanatory rationales, rely on non controlling and informational language, display patience to allow time for self-paced learning to occur, and acknowledge and accept students’ expressions of negative affect.” (p. 172). Similarly, Lee, Pate, and Cozart (2015) suggested that instructors and designers promote learner autonomy in online learning environments through 1) providing students choices, 2) providing explanation or rationale, and 3) opportunities for personalization. 

Applications in Experiential Learning Course Design

Especially given the personalized experiences and potentially “messy” environments of applied and experiential learning, a non-deterministic, agentic view of learning can improve the design and implementation of experiential learning courses. Below are some ideas of ways to approach creating and facilitating an experiential learning course based on the theories and ideas outlined above. In this whole process it is important to remember that the role of facilitator is to guide. Especially if this is a student’s first experience outside of what would be considered traditional college coursework, they will need a knowledgeable guide to take full advantage of the learning and growth they are about to experience. 

  • Meet with students well before the experience begins. Some learners need help framing their experience as relevant and valuable (rather than something they have to check of a graduation requirement list) so this meeting should help students understand things like how this course will differ from more traditional courses, what they hope to gain from the experience as well as the course, and how the assignments included in the course (like reflective writing) can help them to get the most personally from their experience. 

  • This meeting should also serve to establish the beginnings of a mentoring relationship between the course facilitator and the student if such a relationship has not yet been formed. The more secure students feel in this relationship and the better they understand the role of facilitator and mentor, the better their relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2002), resulting in higher student motivation. 

  • Let students be involved with setting some of all of the learning objectives or goals for their experience. As they think about what they want to learn rather than what someone else wants them to learn, they are able to take more ownership of the experience. 

  • The course should be flexible enough to accommodate or account for the goals a student sets. Allow the student to review the course syllabus and provide feedback on aspects that they have questions about or that they feel may not work with their situation or goals. 

  • Avoid prescriptive assignments. With reflective writing assignments, I have found that the most effective prompts are neither too open-ended (“Write about your experience”) or too prescriptive (“What five things are most important for success on your internship?”). On the open end of the spectrum, students may end up just listing the things they did or accomplished in a day (their “experience”) rather than really reflecting on their personal growth or learning, and on the prescriptive side, students try and guess what the instructor is wanting them to say and worry about getting the “right” answer rather than (again) reflecting on their personal experiences. Both extremes lead to less-meaningful reflection. When students are given several prompts to choose between or given suggestions of topics to include in their reflection, they can more effectively examine their experience and do so without fear of getting it “wrong.” 

  • Create space for ongoing conversations throughout the experience. The more students can talk about (or write about) their experience, the more they can make sense of it and what they are learning. If they are possible, peer conversations (for instance interns in the same type of work) can help do things like normalize student experiences, provide support and suggestions when students run into roadblocks, as well as help the students recognize their own learning and progress by observing it in others. 

  • Where possible, course assi

  • gnments should allow for plenty of feedback from the course facilitator including encouragement as much as more constructive feedback. This conversation can help in a myriad of ways from guiding the ways that students are thinking about their experiences and learning, to recognizing challenges or problems and providing support or help before these become serious issues. 

  • Allow some choice in the assignments. For instance, if there is a reading component to the course, allow students to select some or all of the books/articles they will read. A course creator or facilitator could assemble a list of possible or recommended readings and then allow students to select from the list or pull in other works they are interested in that can meet the facilitator’s approval. Additionally, students could have the options in how they complete assignments. For instance, allowing students to use bullet lists, journal entries, or even poetry, rather than always requiring an essay format for reflective writing. Final projects could also include several options for students to choose from. For instance, a final project could look like a long-form personal essay, a poster or artwork, a business plan for a new start-up, a detailed outline for the next steps of a project. Final project options should reflect the specifics of the experience and the student’s goals. 

In talking with alumni, the applied and experiential learning courses they took are often remembered as favorites, most impactful, and even transformative. However, this kind of result is most often the product of a valuable experience combined with coursework that supports and guides students and recognizes and respects students' agency. Thoughtful course design and engaged mentoring throughout the experience can create experiential learning coursework that can have a profound effect long after the experience has ended.



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