How Can We Help Students Take Ownership of Learning?

Lacour_MistyMany students struggle with the concept of individual responsibility. What techniques have you found to be particularly helpful in encouraging your students to take ownership of their own learning?

—Misty M. LaCour, Assistant Professor of Education, Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia

Help Students Practice Responsibility and Leadership

Although many of our students come to us ready, willing, and able to take ownership of their own learning, we must take responsibility for teaching students what that actually means and how to practice it on a day-to-day basis. Stephen Covey’s book The Leader in Me (Free Press, 2008) is a prime example of an educational resource that can pay great dividends when used as a teaching tool for students. As a principal and district-level leader, I am a strong advocate of student-led conferences, student-led mastery tracking tools, and student-led organizations as ways to get students to take ownership of their learning experiences. It’s up to schools create educational environments where students feel empowered to be involved.

—S. Dallas Dance, Chief Middle Schools Officer, Houston Independent School District, Tex.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Management

When I hear teachers talk about students taking individual responsibility, I always wonder what opportunities there are in the school and the classroom for students to exercise responsibility. In my cooperative literacy model (described in Building Literacy in Social Studies, ASCD, 2007), the class is organized into interdependent, heterogeneous learning teams in which students hold one another accountable for everything from arriving to class on time to participating productively during the class period. Students learn to self-manage and establish a greater role in how the class functions. The teacher provides feedback that gives students data on how they are performing.

After-school clubs, teams, and intraschool organizations can also help students learn self-management. Like any other activity that requires a degree of fluency, responsibility requires practice. To get them on their way, we have to give students the opportunity to learn and practice responsible roles.Klemp_r65x65

—Ron Klemp, Professor, Santa Monica College and California State University, Northridge

Involve English Language Learners in Setting Learning Goals

For English language learners, taking responsibility for demonstrating competence includes English language proficiency. I suggest talking with students individually about their level of English proficiency and setting goals to reflect where they need to focus in the areas of speaking, writing, reading, or listening in English. Often, English learners acquire conversational English faster than academic language. This can mask their level of language proficiency so that they appear higher than they actually are. By including students in setting their own academic goals, we help them become active, instead of passive, participants in the learning and assessment process.

—Ayanna Cooper, ESL Site Director, Boston Teacher Residency

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  1. In my school we have been using “I can statements” and subsequent formative assessment to give our students ownership over their learning. They are in charge of showing what they know in a variety of ways. The “I can statements” not only clearly state what standard they are learning, but give a very clear picture as to what we as teachers are looking for them to master. By allowing them to take ownership of their learning through various formative assessments they have shown pride in their learning and a responsiblity for it as well.

  2. In my school, we conduct student-led parent teacher conferences. At the beginning of the school year, students are required to write down the goals for the year. During conferences, the students record whether they have achieved their goal, whether they are on their way and any obstacles they have encountered. This helps them take responsibility in the goals they want to achieve for the year.

  3. In our standards based middle school, each class deconstructs the standards into learning targets which are then posted in the classroom. Knowing the expected learning outcome is very helpful. Our teachers and students also use the deconstructed standards to build the rubrics used to assess the learning.

  4. My quest for my students to take ownership of their learning started this past school year when I participated in a book study that focused on the conceptual learning of math. Throughout this process, I was able to plan student centered lessons. This meant that the students were responsible for everything that they did from the start to the finish of the lesson. Each unit would start with several lessons to build the conceptual understanding of a concept such as fractions. However, I never informed the students as to what the new learning was going to be for the day or unit. In fact, I never mentioned the word fractions, nor did I begin instruction by immediately telling them what a fraction was and exactly how to identify one. My rule was strictly to provide materials, support, and guidance in the form of inquiry and discussions.
    I was skeptical at first by providing this type of limited guidance with my students with special needs. On the other hand, the process had the opposite effect on me. I was amazed at the connections that my students made when they made the connections that even though they cut their paper brownies into 4 equal parts, they could still take that brownie of four equal pieces and turn it into eight equal pieces. In addition, my students were motivated and excited at the fact that I was so excited for them that they were able to figure out the new learning on their own and arrive and express that new learning in a way that they understand. They were not told how to complete a task, but rather encouraged to use their own knowledge to demonstrate their learning.
    This conceptual idea learned in math, then allowed me to spread this idea into other content. For example, when learning about nouns and pronouns in language arts, I simply provided a stack of cards with words of nouns and pronouns and asked the students to put them into groups. This enabled me to see students’ authentic thought process as to why each word went into each group. Also, this process turned into a friendly, motivating, and exciting challenge for my students because they each wanted to be the student to figure out what the new learning was going to be and why it was important to know outside of my classroom walls.
    When my students take ownership of their learning, they do not want to give up because they know that once they start a task, they must follow through because their classmates are counting on and will value their feedback.


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