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From the first day of school, students begin to realize that they have a role in the classroom. They pick up on cues from the teacher, other students, their parents, and even society. How they interpret these cues is a factor in how they approach how they act in the classroom.

Silhouette of teacher reading to two children

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As teachers, we gauge how students act in the classroom. We tend to mentally categorize students into those who do the work and those who do not. For many this means students are either motivated or not. Motivation is often defined as a finite trait. Some kids have it and some don’t. But this thinking maintains the status quo.

So, what if instead of categorizing, we analyze the way students might interpret their role in the classroom?

In other words, some students think their role is to “do” school—do what the teacher says, do the work, take the tests. Other students begin to “understand” school—listen to what the teacher says, complete assignments to the best of their ability, study as needed. And, a few realize that their role is to “own” their learning—take risks to push themselves, struggle to gain greater knowledge, reflect on what works for them and what doesn’t.

Teachers have the greatest influence in how students act at school because we control how students interpret their role in the classroom. If we want to alter those interpretations, we need to recognize why they are adopting those roles in the first place.

Let’s take a deeper look.

Interpretation #1

“I’m doing the work my teacher tells me to do.”

Silhouettes of three students working at desks

© Shutterstock/Lorelyn Medina

Students who think their role is to do school attend class and do the work, but they don’t have a clear purpose for why they are there—aside from the fact that they are supposed to be there. School is something that happens to them. They are not active participants, and their motivation suffers.

Students who are doing school:

  • Can state what their task is but don’t understand why they are doing it
  • Either “get it” or “don’t get it”
  • Don’t earn grades but are given grades

These typically are more passive students, the ones who are just going through the motions. They believe their role is to do classwork but not that their role is to learn.

This happens in classrooms that emphasize content knowledge over skills acquisition, that give students one opportunity to learn and not multiple opportunities until they learn, where homework is for earning points or grades not for continued practice, and where the test is the be-all, end-all culminating activity for every unit. These cues give students the impression that school is about doing things.

These students are motivated by their desire to do what the teacher says.

Interpretation #2

“I understand how to do the work and get good grades.”

Silhouette of students raising hands in classroom

© Shutterstock/Hans-Joerg Nisch

Some students are better at understanding school. They attend classes and finish all of the assignments because they know that this is how they get a good grade.

These students are focused on content knowledge and usually have the right answers when asked to share information and facts. A student who understands school does well in almost all classes because they know what is expected from them.

Students who understand school:

  • Can state what they are doing and make connections to the information, facts, or topics addressed
  • Tend to get good grades and feel like they are “good at school”
  • Begin to struggle when faced with more complex or analytical tasks
  • Earn their grades

These are students who feel successful in school but have little clarity about intrinsic learning. They would struggle to explain the skills they are learning, why they are learning these skills, or how they will use these skills in the future. In other words, they are missing the thinking piece that is going to advance their learning.

This happens in classrooms that emphasize the current content being taught. There is no explicit connection being made to previous learning or how today’s learning will connect to future learning. There is usually one correct answer being sought. Incorrect answers are dismissed and not used as a catalyst for discussion and deeper learning. Student performance in class, on homework, and on tests are on a point system that leads to a grade. These cues give students the impression that school is only about the grades.

These students are motivated by their desire to get good grades.

Interpretation #3

“I know what I am learning, why I’m learning it, and how to get help when I need it. I’ve totally got this.”

Silhouette of three dynamic students

© Shutterstock/majivecka

A student with the attitude that their role is to own their learning knows that in order to truly learn they must be able to articulate answers to the questions: What are you learning? How are you learning? How well are you learning? What is your role in class?

Students who own their learning:

  • Can clearly state what they are learning and why
  • Can articulate how they learn best
  • Can explain, with evidence, when they are learning and when they are struggling
  • Can apply these skills in authentic settings
  • Can transfer these skills into future situations

In other words, students who own their learning utilize opportunities to be activists for their education. They consistently manage their role in their learning, recognize why this is crucial, and utilize strong metacognitive skills. Students feel responsible, empowered, and in control of their learning.

This happens in classrooms that emphasize skills acquisition over content knowledge, that explicitly share how the learning connects to previous and subsequent learning, that give students multiple opportunities to learn and not just one, that expect students to reflect on their learning and identify their strengths and areas for growth, and that focus on the metacognitive aspects of learning. These cues give students the impression that they have a big role in their learning—they own it.

These students are motivated by their desire to keep learning more.

How Can Teachers Help Build an Ownership Mindset?

When we own something, it’s ours. It belongs to us. No one else can ever take it away. Isn’t that how we want students to feel about their learning?

Student ownership is best defined as a mindset, one that all students can develop. All students. Every last one.

Building an ownership mindset starts by recognizing the roles your students have adopted and then analyzing the cues you are giving, intentionally and unintentionally, that are producing these interpretations. Once you understand this, you can begin to support your students with the strategic learning practices that help them build an ownership mindset—by helping them understand they have the authority, capacity, and responsibility to own their learning.

Confident student in classroom

© Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

You do this by ensuring that your focus is on the students and their learning, that every decision you make is about the students and their learning, and that you inform the students of your decisions about their learning.

True success in education requires that students go beyond just doing or understanding school—they must own their learning. When students move beyond simply doing or understanding school and start to really own their learning, they become more motivated and begin achieving to a higher degree. When students say things like, “I like this class because I get smarter every day,” that’s the best motivation of all.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • Students pick up on cues from the teacher, other students, their parents, and even society that they use to interpret their role in the classroom.
  • Some students think their role is to “do” school. Other students begin to “understand” school. And, a few realize that their role is to “own” their learning.
  • Students who are supported to take full ownership of their learning will, in tandem, build intrinsic motivation.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?
We can.

Let us show you how

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