Empower Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning

by | Sep 16, 2020 | Tips & Tricks

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

I am a firm believer in treating high school students like the young adults they are. That means we must empower students to take ownership of their learning. Doing so builds confidence and empowers them to take ownership of their lives, which also includes their school work.

Too often, students are coddled, talked down to, or talked at. However, 30 plus years in education taught me that if we want to create independent, hard working adults we need to start early. That requires teachers to be honest, set high expectations, and trust students to be in charge while being content as the guide on the side.

Empower students through honesty 

Students want the truth

There are so many things in their lives that students cannot believe, so our honesty as teachers is paramount to their acceptance of us. Our credibility hinges on our honesty. Students want the truth.

Often students come to us and already know the answer, but are hoping for a different result. When students come to us for advice or opinions they need to know they will get an honest and straightforward answer. As a teacher, I told my students early on that if they didn’t want an honest answer, then they were asking the wrong person.

It will be rare that you will have a student show you work or ask for your opinion, and then argue and say they think it’s great. Invariably, they will say, “Yeah, I didn’t think it was going to work!” or “I knew you were going to say that!” 

For some reason, some teachers have a problem being honest with students because they are afraid of hurting their feelings. 

I once had a guidance counselor call and ask me to talk to a student about a college essay he had shown her. She didn’t want to tell him it wasn’t good enough to send, so she wanted me to. I did so in a helpful way, and we worked together to polish an essay he was proud of.

His feelings weren’t crushed. He appreciated help getting into a college he wanted to attend, and he learned college essay writing skills that he could use on other applications. To not be honest with this student would have meant hurting his future. 

When you sincerely want what is best for your students, they know that, and they respect your honesty and expect your honesty. If we are not honest with our students, we are doing them a disservice. They will have a skewed opinion of their abilities and a false sense of what they are capable of. 

Tough love 

Call it tough love, if you will, but students deserve to hear the truth. They may not thank you in the moment, but they will thank you later.

You can be honest without being mean. How you talk to the student is obviously important, and they need to know it comes from a place of caring about them as a person. Sincere kindness and concern go a long way.

As a journalism teacher, and publications adviser, I worked closely with my students, and they knew they could trust me to be honest. Of course, they didn’t always like what I told them, and in fact, some expressed frustration or anger in the moment. However, they invariably would work harder, and they appreciated it in the long run. Too often as teachers we forget that education is about the long game, not the short, fast rewards.

“Thanks for being a good teacher and also being honest. You taught me a lot about the real world, and you treated me like an adult.”

“You are straightforward and honest, and I appreciate that. You make me want to be better and try harder. Thank you for challenging me and not letting me backdown when something got hard.”

Empower students with high expectations

As teachers, we shouldn’t expect the impossible, but we should expect students to do their best. The problem is students have been told they can do anything they want for so long that the message that they might have to work for it or that it might be difficult has been overlooked.

Not settling for mediocrity may be the shove some students need to come alive for the first time. As their teachers it is our job to learn when to push and prod our students. Our high expectations help them reach farther than they thought possible.

Here is an example to illustrate my point. I had a B-C level student barely passing my journalism class because he tried to take the easy way out and didn’t put forth genuine effort. We butted heads for a while, but he discovered I wouldn’t back down and let him settle for mediocrity. In the process, he also discovered that he was capable of much more than he thought he was. 

His senior year, he won two state journalism writing awards. When he got to college he wrote me a letter thanking me for pushing him. He said he now realized I saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself, and thanked me for not giving up on him.

Students want to feel good about themselves because they have earned it. They want to grow and be pushed a little. Sure, they grumble at the time, but they also secretly know it is good for them.

For many students who have coasted through school, high expectations allows them to see what they are really capable of. It teaches them to have pride in their effort and hard work. If we are content to let them coast, we are not doing our job in helping them reach their full potential.

Trust students to be in charge of their learning

This idea makes some teachers very uncomfortable. They feel like if they are not large and in charge they aren’t teaching. I have been the lecturer and “sage on the stage” teacher, and I have been the guide on the side. 

Students can learn in both situations, but I think they learn more when they are trusted to behave like an adult and be in charge of their learning. This dynamic requires teachers to trust students and to build relationships in a different manner.

Granted in my newspaper and yearbook classes, being the guide on the side was easier due to the structure of the class with students holding leadership positions. However, this structure can also be implemented in other classes as well.

“Thank you for helping me realize that I can be a leader and giving me the opportunity.”

-from a student note

Project based learning is one perfect way to implement “guide on the side” teaching because it requires students to make more decisions about their learning and to be held accountable by their peers. 

However, giving students choices, creating independent learning opportunities, using students as experts in the classroom, allowing them to help you set up class expectations all lend themselves to putting students in charge of their own learning. 

When students are empowered to take ownership of their learning, they grow in multiple ways and discover things about themselves they would never discover in a lecture only classroom. These are the intangibles that they will use in life long after the content you taught has faded away. 

The result of student ownership

When you are able to empower students to take ownership of their learning, students stretch to see what they are really capable of doing. It encourages growth, and it teaches them to believe in themselves.

“You have taught me the importance of dreaming and having faith. You have shown and proven that if I can dream it I can do it. Thank you for believing in me.”

They gain confidence that goes far beyond your classroom. 

“You inspire me to be greater than I am and to achieve my dreams.”

Sure our classroom subject may be important to us as teachers, but for many students the subject itself isn’t that important. However, the life skills students will learn will far exceed the academic skills as far as payoff in the real world.

“I came to your class just wanting to take pictures, but I leave with a greater knowledge of myself and what I want to do with my life.”

Student ownership also results in a classroom culture that makes students want to be there. Because they have ownership, they develop pride in your class and in themselves. 

“For the times that you handed me back a story and said, ‘That was good,’ I don’t think you realized just how great that made me feel.”

For some students this may be one of the first times that an adult treated them with respect and allowed them to actually take ownership of their work and themselves.

“You treat us all like we’re adults and give us more freedom than other teachers; that is probably why we work so hard!”

Empowering students to take ownership of their learning is a gift that you can give them that will follow them for the rest of their lives.


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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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