Teaching Tips

How Do We Give Students Ownership of Their Learning?

I’ll bet we all can remember when we were in school and how it felt: uncertainty about what the teacher wanted, hoping we had the teacher’s answer, or pride when our answer matched the teacher’s main points. But, is that the kind of learning we are looking for?

How can we redefine the purpose of learning? How do we empower our students? I’ve been playing around with how to create a classroom culture that communicates to students, “We (teacher and classmates) value what you bring to the table,” and here are some of the strategies I’ve employed:

1. Post the objective of the lesson on the board at the beginning of class
2. Give students a list of topics or roadmap for the course
3. Ask questions instead of telling the answers
4. Set up activities that promote discovery
5. Resist the temptation to add our two cents
6. In response to a student question, ask the class, “What do you all think?”
7. Shift pronouns from (I, me) to (we, us)
8. Make it safe to take risks or “mess up” through a supportive classroom culture
9. Be transparent about your process- how did/do you learn? Students need to know that we didn’t become experts overnight.
10. Emphasize more than one “right answer” – multiple perspectives & layers

TTT_StudentSoupPostStudents can step up if we let them. They will bring much more to the collective stew if they see themselves as chefs. In other words, learning should be more like creating gourmet dishes than zapping something in a microwave; it’s over in 30 seconds. But students won’t add their ingredient and join in the creation process, unless we make the space for them to do so. Salt is a basic and common ingredient in stew, but imagine the stew without the salt. Students with salt should not be made to feel they brought nothing worth sharing. All of the students have ingredients that will enrich the stew. What if we, as teachers, only brought the stew pot and let the students (chefs) do the rest? Our role becomes one of oversight, asking questions, and raising awareness so that the process yields delicious results. The students add the ingredients and start the fire, and we all enjoy the creation.

Winnie Needham is an assistant professor in the education department at Principia College.  This is her second year at the College.  She moved from Los Angeles where she taught elementary for 17 years and was a school principal for 3 years.    Winnie enjoys reading science fiction books, as well as watching movies from this genre. 

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