March 3rd, 2009

The Meaning of Learner Empowerment


Sometimes when words get bandied about, their meanings become less precise and that loss of meaning is overlooked because we all think we know what the term means. Case in point: empower, as in empowered learners or empowering instructors. Some faculty object to the verb empower because they think it means students taking charge and making learning decisions best left to teachers.

Those who do research in this area offer a different and more precise definition: “To be an empowered learner means to be motivated to perform tasks, and more specifically an empowered person finds the tasks meaningful, feels competent to perform them, and feels his/her efforts have an impact on the scheme of things.” (p. 36) That sounds like something teachers would love to see in any student!

This particular research team also makes an interesting distinction between “empowered” and “empowering.” Drawing on several definitions, they say that being empowered refers to an internal condition that an individual experiences, similar to experiencing motivation or anxiety. Empowering refers to those situational factors that help others feel empowered. This means that empowering instructors are those who help students see the relevance and importance of learning tasks. They design tasks that students can perform, but not tasks without challenge so that as students work to accomplish them, they experience some success and realize their competence as learners. In other words, instructors can do things that change students’ perceptions of themselves as learners. “Being an empowered learner is likely a result of internal factors such as personality and the empowering behaviors of teachers.” (p.37) How can empowering students as learners not be a goal of education?

Reference: Houser, M. L. and Frymier, A. B. (2009). The role of student characteristics and teacher behaviors in students’ learner empowerment. Communication Education, 58 (1), 35-53.

—Maryellen Weimer