Techniques for Helping Students Take Control of Their Learning

It’s a balancing act educators often face …how to structure interactions with students to provide appropriate levels of assistance, while encouraging them to take ownership of their learning. In preparation for an online seminar on this topic Dr. Ike Shibley, associate professor of Chemistry at Penn State – Berks, provided a few strategies for faculty to try.

Q: What are some examples of techniques that give students more control of their learning?

Learning goals (or competencies): By laying out the required expectations for a course the teacher no longer must “cover” everything; instead the students are responsible for ensuring that they can meet the expected goals.

Rubrics: Clear expectations regarding the grading criteria for any type of project (term paper, presentation, group work) allows students to decide how best to meet the expectations.

Attendance: Should we require students to attend? How does this fit with support and challenge?

Q: How do you determine if these techniques will work with certain students?

Shibley: Learning goals and rubrics are well-established, validated techniques, so I know they work with most students. The key to determining if a technique will work rests with the notion of providing adequate support.

An important criterion in providing support is to make the expectations as clear as possible. Unambiguous expectations will inform students of what is required of them, but they can plan their course of action to meet those expectations in their own way, according to their own preferred learning style.

Q: It seems that providing students with varying levels of support would require an instructor to know each student fairly well. How feasible is this in large classes? Do you have any suggestions on how to do this?

Shibley: Although individual attention usually provides the most support, the reality of higher education is that we can rarely achieve one-on-one instruction. By focusing on clear guidelines for students (learning goals, rubrics, assignment instructions) the teacher places the locus of control squarely on the students’ shoulders.

Teachers too often take responsibility for any learning by focusing most of their attention on what happens during class. I think the way to help all teachers, but especially those with large classes, is to encourage them to think carefully about what they expect of the students outside of class. The widespread use of classroom management systems such as Blackboard make it easier than ever for teachers to help guide student learning through well-crafted Web activities. The support is therefore available 24/7, and while the teacher is important in the design, the teacher can be home sleeping while students are learning. I think that’s cool … and efficient!