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How to give your students as much responsibility for their learning as possible

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

As a teacher, it's easy to forget that you are not the only person responsible for your students' education. Sure, you are vital to their learning. But if you constantly rely on yourself to make sure they are doing well, you are missing out on one of the most important aspects of being an educator. You must give your students as much responsibility for their learning as possible — and here's how.

The teacher is the coach, not the player

You are not the only person responsible for your students' education. Sure, you are vital to their learning. But if you constantly rely on yourself to make sure they are doing well, you are missing out on one of the most important aspects of being an educator — giving students responsibility for their learning. When we talk about student responsibility in education, we're talking about instructional scaffolding.

Are you giving your students as much responsibility for their learning as possible?

This is an important question to ask, because you are the only one who will. Your students are counting on you to put them in a position where they can develop their thinking and skills — and you must continue trying to achieve this goal for each of them.

Maybe you've heard the phrase "the teacher is the coach, not the player." If you hadn't before, you have now. It's an analogy about teachers in classrooms.

Coaches train players to make sure they can consistently employ game strategies in order to win games. Teachers should do the same thing with students in the classroom. The analogy seems straightforward enough, but let's think about it in practical terms for a minute.

The best coaches and teachers can facilitate learning without getting directly involved. Even though you are a crucial part of a student's education, you cannot do it all yourself.

Give your students more responsibility for their learning

The learning process should be student-driven, so give your students more responsibility for their learning.

A key aspect of self-determined learning is that the learner takes responsibility for the quality of his or her performance. By giving students responsibility for their own learning, you also give them "ownership" of their education — which, in turn, helps them feel more motivated and engaged. The higher the level of motivation and engagement, the more productive they will be.

The other side of this coin is that students who are given responsibility for their own learning must also be held accountable for it.

This means:

  • providing clear, measurable standards;

  • assessing students' progress against those standards;

  • giving feedback on performance;

  • identifying areas for improvement;

  • and developing an action plan to help students achieve greater success.

The end result should be that you are helping your students develop into self-directed learners who are accountable for their own success.

Students learn best when they take responsibility for their own learning. This means that you'll want to give them opportunities to make decisions about what they're learning, how they're learning it, and when they're studying it.

There are some steps you can take to get started.

  • Set clear expectations:

Before you hand any kind of responsibility over to students, make sure that they understand the necessities of the assignment. Write down the requirements so that you both have a record of what needs to get done. The more detailed you can be with your expectations, the better prepared your students will be.

Make sure that your students know exactly what is expected of them before you hand any kind of responsibility over to them. Set clear expectations by writing down the requirements for an assignment before you teach it.

  • Provide options:

The more freedom you provide your students to choose how they learn something, the more likely they are to become invested in their own success in the long run. If you give them access to a number of different resources or ways in which they can study something, they'll be more likely to find one that works well for them.

Give your students plenty of opportunities for multiple choice quizzes and other assessments to help assess their own knowledge throughout the year.

For far too long, we've been giving students the message that they are passive recipients of knowledge. This needs to stop. Doing so will help you create a classroom where students are active learners and take ownership of their own learning.

They will continue to learn even when you are not there with them, because they have the capacity to be self-directed learners.

Help your students take ownership of their work

If your students aren’t taking ownership of their work, it’s your responsibility to help them do so. You can do this by giving them clear assignments with well-defined criteria for success. Be specific about what you expect from them and how you plan to evaluate their work.

Your students need to be challenged constantly, and you need to summarize what is to be learned in really simple terms so your students can clearly understand what they are working on.

If you put your students in charge of taking care of their own education, you are giving them a personal responsibility that will encourage them to remain committed and engaged.

They will get the job done, even if it doesn’t always follow instructions exactly — and they will do it better and with more passion and purpose than they thought possible.

The key is to find the right balance between what you can provide (instructions for completing tasks, feedback on their results) and what they need to provide (effort, commitment). And one of the best ways to do this is with deadlines.

Deadlines are motivating because most people want to avoid the psychological discomfort of not getting something done. People with internal motivation set their own deadlines, but people who need external motivation usually need externally imposed deadlines more than anything else.

To create an effective deadline, first determine exactly what needs to happen by when. Then tell your students what you expect them to do by that date and let them know why it’s important for them to meet that goal.

Make sure everyone understands how the assignment fits into larger goals for the class, so they can see how it contributes to their success in meeting those goals.

Don't just give them responsibility, but help them use it wisely

Give students responsibility. And then you have to help them do something with that responsibility. You have to help them use it wisely.

Students learn by doing. When they're in charge of their own learning, they gain a sense of ownership that can't come from lectures and notes.

Allowing students to take ownership of their own learning is critical to your success as an educator. The more you delegate, the more freedom you give them to make mistakes and clean up after themselves, the more you empower them to make good choices about their education.

Delegating work. How should you do it? Here are some ideas for delegation in the classroom:

Let students choose which projects they want to work on, or encourage them to submit their own proposals for projects that they could be interested in completing. This gives them a sense of autonomy while still ensuring that you're giving them work that's within your scope of expertise.

Allow students to choose when they turn in assignments. They'll be less likely to procrastinate if they have control over when the work is due. Conversely, if you have deadlines, let them know how much time they have so they can plan accordingly.

Make sure your students know how to learn for themselves

Advice for teachers -- show your students how to learn independently. Make sure your students know how to learn for themselves.

Students enjoy learning when they feel they are in control of their education. They become engaged in the learning process and motivated to master the material presented, which leads to a more successful and enjoyable experience.

How can you help your students learn for themselves? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Encourage students to ask questions and make comments.

  • Give students options for how to complete assignments, including electronic submissions and oral presentations.

  • Let students develop criteria that will guide their learning efforts.

  • Allow freedom of movement during class time, such as allowing students to move around the room while working on an activity during class time.

  • Give students opportunities to help each other learn.

Leverage the power of your students to take control of their own learning and to develop intrinsic motivation, so they're motivated by the enjoyment of the learning itself rather than external factors like grades or awards.

Do this through activities such as:

  • Letting students help design their own assessments - teachers ask students what they think is important for them to learn and then create assessment tasks accordingly. This encourages students to take ownership of their learning.

  • Sharing different strategies or skills with groups - this helps students to see that there are multiple ways of doing things; it also gives them ideas for how they could try something different next time around.

  • Asking students for feedback after a lesson - this helps the teacher know what the group found difficult or easy, and can be used in future lessons to tailor teaching accordingly.

The best way to make sure your students know how to learn for themselves is to teach them. This is not something that happens overnight. The more you show, the more they will know.

If you are doing this correctly, then you will provide your students with opportunities to practice their learning independently over and over again. By providing the resources and guidance for them to learn independently, it should mean that they should become more independent learners in the long run.

Learning how to learn is one of the most important skills you can give your students. What good is it to know all the facts and figures about a topic? The students who are going to succeed in college or careers are the ones who have learned how to learn on their own. They know how to research, how to find other resources, how to take notes, and so on.

Learning how to learn takes practice. At first, you'll have to guide your students through the learning process, but as they gain experience, they'll start picking up strategies on their own.

First, show them what learning strategies are out there. Ask your students if they know any strategies for learning independently. Give them some time to think about it or do some research online.

Then, come back together for a class discussion. It's likely that your students will come up with some strategies you've never heard of before. Encourage them to share their suggestions with the rest of the class.

Be available to answer questions and provide support when needed

What is the best way to give students more control over their learning?

One way is to give them feedback. Feedback loops are an important part of teaching and learning. They allow you to convey your understanding of students' understanding.

Giving students feedback is one of the most important things teachers do, because it tells students how close they are to meeting the desired learning outcomes.

Learning happens when there is a discrepancy between what someone thinks they know and what they actually know. Students who think they understand something fully often do not, and vice versa. Providing feedback on what you observe in their learning helps students identify areas of strength and areas of growth.

It’s important to be available to answer questions and provide support when needed. Try to respond to messages as quickly as you can, even if you only have time to send a brief response to let the student know you’re working on their query.

Does giving students more responsibility mean they should be able to choose whatever grade they want? No. Do you need to give students more feedback than ever before? Yes.

Recognize that student choice is an essential component of responsibility. If you're seeing too much choice as a threat instead of an asset, it's time to shift your perspective. When students are get ample opportunity to choose what they will learn and how, they feel empowered. They become invested in the process and take ownership of their learning.

Provide feedback about what they've done so far so they can adjust their choices accordingly. The good news is that, in most cases, students actually want feedback in order to improve their work and get the grade they want.

There's a big difference between giving students what they want — more autonomy — and just surrendering control altogether. If we're going to give our students greater responsibility for how and when they learn, we'll need to be more responsive than ever before.

You already know that you guide your students' learning process, but you might not realize the extent to which they can help themselves along the way.

As a teacher, you already know that you are responsible for guiding your students' learning process. You decide what content to cover in class and how to go about it.

However, over the course of a school year, many teachers who wish to maximize student success will encourage their students to take a more active role in their education.

In fact, the best teachers realize that they are not solely responsible for preparing their students for the future. While they do need to make sure that their students have access to the resources and information, it is ultimately up to the student whether they use those resources in order to learn new skills and concepts.

Here are some big ideas to take away from this article.

  1. Students are likely already invested in what they are learning, so you shouldn't be afraid to give them some ownership of their learning process.

  2. You should be more concerned with creating a classroom environment that supports student agency than with making sure your students can memorize and regurgitate specific information.

  3. Student agency is only possible when they understand the requirements and expectations for what they're doing and how it will be evaluated. Make those expectations clear to both you and your students, and then proceed with confidence.

In the end, implementing these strategies will require a carefully constructed plan, as well as a lot of communication between teacher and student.

It's difficult to teach the self-directed learning that we're discussing here, but you can transform your class into a more effective learning environment.


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