Beyond Engagement: Empowering Students to Take Ownership of Learning
By: Virginia Ressa
Summer “vacation” is one of those things that non-educators sometimes misunderstand. Some people, even our family members, think teachers have three months off to lounge, sleep in and binge watch the shows we missed during the school year. We know differently. First of all, it’s not three months – it’s maybe two and a half after you factor in required planning and professional development days. But that’s not what I want to discuss today. I want to talk about how we use that time. Educators are also learners, using their time “off” to take classes to maintain their current license, earn a new license or an advanced degree.
What motivates us to continue our education and complete graduate classes?
What inspires us to engage in the learning process? To finish the vast amount of academic reading? And to complete the group projects that are so ubiquitous in grad school? I can tell you from experience, there are no rewards that give graduate students bonus bucks to spend at the university store when they complete the required reading. Rather than extrinsic rewards, we develop our own intrinsic motivations that keep us focused. We have ownership of our learning because we know why we are engaged in the learning. We know where we are going and what is expected of us.
Why don’t our students develop the same ownership of learning that we do?
Think about our K-12 classrooms and how we involve students in learning. Many of our schools and classrooms have rewards systems with stickers and bonus bucks in an attempt to motivate reluctant students. We try to provide extrinsic rewards because we have not given students the information and tools they need to develop ownership of their learning and intrinsic motivation. Teachers make the decisions about what students will learn and how they will be assessed. Teachers determine the timing of lessons and units of study. Teachers collect evidence of student learning. Teachers keep track of student progress. Teachers retain most of the control of teaching AND learning decisions, which leaves students as directed, passive participants.
As classroom teachers or grade level teams, we can offer rewards and privileges that might work for a short time, but rarely result in enduring motivation. Most of our attempts at external motivation fall far short of creating the engagement we genuinely want to see in our classrooms. What we are actually striving for, and what we experience as students ourselves, is ownership of learning. Student ownership goes beyond engagement and motivation, and empowers students with a sense of control and responsibility for their learning. Creating the conditions for students to take ownership of their learning requires teachers to work with students to set and communicate clear learning targets, collect evidence of their learning, track and analyze their progress, and provide opportunities for self and peer assessment.
We often see students engaged in classroom activities – they are busy, on task and focused. But if we stop to ask them what they are learning and why, can students articulate either? They may be on task simply to complete the activity before the end of class so they don’t have homework. Maybe they are on task because they want to earn a spot in Friday’s field trip. They may not know why they are doing an assignment, but have been provided with enough outside motivation to complete the assignment. Yet, research shows that when students know why they are engaged in a learning activity and understand how their learning will contribute to their long-term goals, they are more likely to be self-motivated and to reach their goals. In other words, students are more likely to be motivated to reach goals they’ve helped to set. They are more likely to keep working toward their goals if they can see and track their progress.
“Formative instructional practices involve students throughout the teaching and learning process. These practices – done well – enhance student efficacy and motivation to learn.”
-FIP Learning Modules
If you have participated in any of the Formative Instructional Practices (FIP) professional learning, you will recall it emphasizes four core practices: Creating clear learning targets, collecting evidence of student learning, providing effective feedback and supporting student ownership of learning.
The most critical element of student ownership and FIP is the creation of clear learning targets. Clear learning targets are the keystone in this set of practices because we cannot successfully implement the other practices if we do not have well written, aligned and easily communicated learning targets. Most significantly, clear learning targets provide educators with the key to empower students to take ownership of their learning.
This summer, Ohio’s teachers will have many opportunities to participate in professional learning. it is now easier than ever to learn about formative instructional practices. Free resources are now available on the Learning Management System (LMS). I’ve given you an introduction to student ownership of learning, but there are modules in the “FIP in Action” course that will help you to envision the practices in the context of content area classes. Once you have had a chance to take some time for yourself, visit the LMS and look at the many options available for improving your use of formative instructional practices.
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.