How do you get your students to take ownership of their learning?

For a long time now I have used the term "learning activities" when referring to what teachers design and carry out as they go about their job of teaching. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about moving ownership of learning from the teacher to the student. The term "learning activities" implies something that the teacher provides in the hope that the students will learn as a result of the activities.
I am now thinking that we should refer to our creations as "learning opportunities". This terminology implies that the teacher provides access to learning and creates an optimal environment but that the student must seize those opportunities for learning to occur.
What do you do to insure that your students "own" their learning?

Note: this is duplicate of a posting I did on another NING social network called thinkteaching. Connie suggested that readers here might be interested in this topic as well.

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Tags: learning, teaching


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Comment by Connie Weber on February 28, 2009 at 6:08pm
BTW, I've talked to my students about this research, how your approach to learning makes all the difference. Some are easier to convince than others... And a lot of the convincing comes from the learning habitat in which students are a part. The proof is in the experience. Moving the learning environment's emphasis far away from competition helps. Establish a cooperative environment: everybody's job is to uplift everybody, not to outperform everybody. Of course, getting a good deal of play and laughter in the learning habitat is really good medicine, too.
Comment by Connie Weber on February 28, 2009 at 6:04pm
Yes, Ken, that sounds very good. I'll try to notice what leads to those things we need to encourage. And may I throw in this article by Carol Dweck (one of my tip top favorites in the world of education)? Dweck talks about how we switch from static mindset to active mindset, a key in it all...
"The Secret to Raising Smart Kids", Scientific American
Comment by Ken Messersmith on February 26, 2009 at 10:45pm
You pose the question: "It's all about intrinsic motivation, self-discipline... and about being unafraid to experiment, take risks, make mistakes. Is our education system geared around these things?" You nailed it. Multiple choice tests are absolutely NOT about any of these things.
It all comes back to developing and maximizing what I call the "joy of learning". Learning was fun when we were 2 and everyone celebrated when we learned from either making a mistake or not. We were encouraged to try new things and adults marveled at how quickly we learned.
I think the people who make up this network have rediscovered that joy of learning. What happened?
I know I went through that phase of "just tell me what to learn and I will learn it to pass your test" phase. It wasn't until I became a teacher that I regained that joy experienced from really learning something that I had been exposed to in high school or college but failed to engage with at the necessary level for complete understanding.
Can we make a list of things we could do in schools to encourage:
intrinsic motivation
being self-disciplined
being unafraid to experiment
taking risks
making mistakes?
Comment by Ken Messersmith on February 26, 2009 at 10:18pm
Our Central Administration mandates Blackboard as our only course management system. It sounds very much like your system. One of the reasons they use it is because all access is controlled by the University which affords us much protection from copyright violations since limiting access to students in the class is one of the factors that work in the favor of the teacher when using the Fair Use defense.
I have started to have my students build what we call a classroom Web site for their future classroom. We used WordPress last semester but have switched to Google Sites this semester because it is more flexible. I have all of my students build their Home page and an "About the teacher" page to begin with then have them create a page for each of the projects we do throughout the semester. Many of the projects they do are related to lesson planning and putting together materials to support their students' learning. We will end up with a nice archive of materials the students can use in future teaching situations and I hope they will see the value of having their own site for communication with students, parents, and community members.
Just yesterday I had a call from a former student who wanted to go back and retrieve a unit she had prepared and submitted during her student teaching semester. We were able to go back and find it. My hope is that students will begin to build their electronic bag of teaching materials.
I also think this relates to our ownership discussion. I ask my students to identify what I call their "teaching passion". What is it that they just can't wait to help their students to learn? My hope is that allowing them to choose the topics they work on in my class they will find more relevance in the projects and have more pride of ownership.
I wouldn't say that we have been totally successful with this ownership thing because most of my undergraduates are sophomores and just aren't ready to "think like a teacher" yet. They still have a pretty short vision of the future and are not thinking about creating something they would actually use some day.
Comment by Laura Gibbs on February 26, 2009 at 9:06pm
Someone who promotes the idea of student ownership of their own portfolios is Stephen Downes. The next time he writes something about that in OLDaily, I'll be sure to either blog about it or start a discussion here at Fireside. It's a topic that comes up pretty regularly whenever he comments on a portfolio initiative somewhere. He's the one who really got me to thinking about this issue in a way that goes beyond just my class. :-)
Comment by Connie Weber on February 26, 2009 at 8:45pm
I agree with you entirely, Laura. You are absolutely right. I can't imagine why students don't have online portfolios, ones in which they take a considerable amount of pride. I can't believe that what you're writing about is actually happening, it should go the way you said, with work portfolios that belong to the student.
Comment by Laura Gibbs on February 26, 2009 at 8:39pm
Hi Connie, I worry very much that the message of the educational system to students is that you own NOTHING... ultimately, all the work that students do goes into a giant trash can, real or digital, as the case may be. In the Desire2Learn (ha ha, so-called) course management system that we use at my school, teachers are encouraged to have the students do all the work inside the course management system which means - presto! - it is all deleted at the end of the semester, and the students can never retrieve it or use it ever again for anything. Teachers are officially discouraged to use any Internet technology other than the course management system... the only reason I get away with what I am doing is because I started before we had the course management system, so inertia works on my side!

There is nothing like standing outside a big lecture hall after a professor has returned assignments to the class - just stand outside and watch the students, one after another after another, throw their papers in the nearest trash bin, after checking the grade.

I really believe that students should have work portfolios that belong to THEM, where they get to keep it and have access to it long after the class is over, and that if they change schools, the portfolios go with them - the work that the students do should belong to the students.

That is my dream, anyway. Unfortunately, one of the big problems with student portfolio initiatives (and there are indeed many such initiatives at universities now) is that often they proceed from the assumption that the portfolios belong to the teachers, and not to the students at all...
Comment by Connie Weber on February 26, 2009 at 7:33pm
Hi Ken,
There's a lot I think I should try in getting things going in a new way. It's partly a function of the students, how they are in this age. Some of the really young ones act as if it's "about business," so "just tell me what to do and I'll do it" is a basic mode of operation. There's a bit of an attitude showing underneath, well, it's not an attitude but a way of being. I call the phenomenon the "resume child;" a friend of mine called it the "pedigreed child." Neither are flattering nor get after the true purpose of education.
I'm trying to do my part. How do I help the sometimes burnt-out child of the age? Granted I'm working with middle and upper class students, ones who are often "programmed" through the day, some with as many as 3 after school classes, many days a week.
Moving into Problem Based Learning seems to be one of the most powerful things I can do. I'd like to talk more about it when we get a chance. Just to note now, while taking an extensive dive into that format of learning, I decided to use rubrics, for the first time in my teaching! (It was basically a disaster, I should have left well-enough alone. The evaluation of the projects was already implicit, rubrics created an artificial, one-step-removed structure, and brought us perilously close once again to the simple-minded work-oriented culture, do it to be done. So I left that behind and once again move forth into uncharted territory. Gosh I wish I had a next door teacher friend who was doing it so we could compare notes.

Please share some observations on your book-projects and how they go. Sounds very promising.

The student ownership question, that is a central one. I want to keep returning to discussions about how it happens. It's all about intrinsic motivation, self-discipline... and about being unafraid to experiment, take risks, make mistakes. Is our education system geared around these things?
Comment by Laura Gibbs on February 26, 2009 at 6:34pm
Hi Ken, I don't do audio but I emphasize IMAGES very much: being able to freely use images in conjunction with their writing goes a long way to helping students overcome writer's block. For every story and essay that the students do in class, they include an image (along with bibliography for that image, including a hyperlink; teaching them how to use images from online sources responsibly is a big goal for me in teaching).

About ownership: I have moved away from discussions to make everything blog-based, because I found that having a blog that lasts all semester motivates students to have a greater sense of ownership than in a discussion, which sort of belongs to everybody and nobody at the same time. So now, instead of having disscussion per se, people do blog posts every week, and then comment on each other's blog posts. Especially given the nature of the classes I am teaching (they are basically all storytelling classes), this works out very well for me - we have a class Ning with blogs for everybody, but I only use the discussion forums for very pedestrian purposes, like students posting announcements about events they want to publicize, or selling their books at the end of the semester to next semester's students, stuff like that.
Comment by Ken Messersmith on February 26, 2009 at 6:08pm
I agree with you completely about the role of the instructor changing when you go online. My teaching load has been about 1/2 online and 1/2 face to face for the past couple of years. My online courses have all been graduate students who are nearly all full time teachers while my face to face courses are undergraduate teacher "wannabees". There is a difference in maturity level and experience.
I have had several discussions with colleagues who do not teach online where they asked how teaching online could be better than face to face teaching. I tell them what you noted, EVERYONE participates in an online discussion and students are face to take more ownership of the class. Class discussions are clearly deeper and richer online because everyone must speak their piece and everyone has time to think before they "speak". I love it when online students include hyperlinks to articles they have read or other supplemental materials they need to reinforce their point.
The downside to online discussions is it normally uses only one mode of communication, writing in text. There are a significant number of students who speak very articulately but have more difficulty in expressing their thoughts in writing. I encourage them to record their discussion and attach the mp3 file. Students do enjoy the variety but the technology does cause a few problems when you use voice recordings.

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