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Empowering Students to Take Ownership of Learning

Kim Haynes


empowering studentsGiving power to my students? Won't that mean school days full of texting, non-educational movies and zero learning? Maybe not ...

Empowering students is not the same as abdicating control of your classroom. The ASCD’s journal Educational Leadership defines student empowerment as “student ownership of learning.” That is a good way to look at it – helping students take control of their own education. But how do you do that?

Let Students Choose

Homework Assignments

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Give them a page of math problems, but let them choose any 10 to complete. If you usually do written book reports, allow students to write a traditional report, film a book review, or create a comic-book-style summary of the major events. You can’t do it for every assignment, but why not try it occasionally?

Tests (within reason)

Make up an essay test with three different questions and let students choose which one to answer. Or create a test with 20 short answer questions and ask them to pick 10. Some teachers even let their students choose between a long multiple-choice test, a short multiple-choice test plus a brief essay, or a long essay-only test.

Need Differentiated Instruction professional development in your school? Contact the K-12 Teachers Alliance to plan your training.

Engage Students in Evaluations


Take five minutes at the end of a class period for students to respond to the following questions:

  • What did I learn today?
  • What do I still have questions about?
  • Could I use this knowledge to take a test, complete an assignment, or accomplish something in my life?

This makes them responsible for their own learning in a very concrete way.

Self-Review / Peer Review / Teacher Review Cycle

Take an essay, lab report, or other comparable assignment. Create a rubric for it. When the assignment is due, provide students with the rubric and ask them to grade themselves. Then give each student another copy of the rubric and have them evaluate a classmate’s paper. Then collect the assignment and use the rubric to evaluate it yourself.  Have students compare the three completed rubrics – the self-evaluation, the peer evaluation, and your evaluation – and ask questions.

This can help students recognize where they may be too hard (or too easy) on themselves and it may help you recognize attitudes in yourself that impact your grading. Average the results of the three rubrics to get a grade so students realize their self-evaluation actually matters.

Student Feedback

Consider having students evaluate you, the course, or a specific assignment. Maybe students really liked a book you planned to get rid of, or maybe students felt they rushed over material they needed more time to study.

While you will always get jokers who suggest no homework or pizza every Friday, you may find some interesting ideas as well, and students feel heard.

Put Students in Charge

Learn Students' Goals

Ask students what they want to get out of your course or this school year. Students may be uncomfortable – they are used to being told what to do – but if you push past their joking to get real answers, you might discover that some students genuinely want to learn, and even those without a passion for your subject may be motivated by goals like raising their GPA or getting into college.

Solicit Input on Class Activities & Homework

Next ask them: how do we get there? Invite their input on class activities, homework schedules, etc. Write down suggestions without arguing with them.

Once students have had a chance to share, you can provide an alternative perspective: “Yes, I’m sure you’d like to have no homework all year, but we have to get through this textbook and there isn’t enough class time, so we have to have homework.” Maybe you can find a compromise.

For example, Sarah was a high school honors English teacher. The class required reading a lot of novels, but her students felt overwhelmed. After gathering student feedback, Sarah was able to adjust her schedule. Rather than homework every night, she gave students due dates once a week when larger sections of the novel were due. This allowed students to plan their workload and still kept the English class on track.

Broaden Students' Sense of Responsibility

The fastest way to empower students is to make their work matter in the real world. Try service learning or project-based learning. By creating an environment where their effort will impact other people, you can help students recognize the tremendous power they can have, even while they are still students.

Having students write an essay on “why I shouldn’t do drugs” is boring and the kids won’t care. Turn that essay into an assignment to film an advertisement that will be posted on the Internet and screened at a school assembly and watch the difference in student attitudes!

At times, empowering students can feel like a risky move. But if you can bear with a little bit of chaos, you may end up with more engaged, interested, and empowered students as a result!

How do you empower students in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

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