September 6th, 2017

Getting Students to Take Responsibility for Learning


Group of students studying.

I’ve been writing for years that we need to teach in ways that encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning. Recently, it became clear that my thinking on this needed more detail and depth. I’ve been saying that it means students should be doing the learning tasks that make them stronger learners. They should be figuring out what’s important in the reading, rather than having the teacher to tell them. They should be taking notes rather than expecting to get the teacher’s slides and notes.

Teaching Professor Blog It was a question in a workshop that made me realize my answer wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. “In a formal learning situation, like a course, what responsibilities do students have?” After further reflection, my answer to that question is that the responsibilities exist across three areas.

1. Students have responsibility for: One word says it all, LEARNING. Teachers have lots of responsibilities when it comes to promoting and supporting learning and we can do all sorts of things that facilitate the process, but at the end of the day, it’s the students who have to learn the content. We cannot learn anything for students, as much as we’d like to and as hard as we sometimes try.

2. Students should have responsibility for: All those learning-related tasks that expedite learning and develop learning skills. And it’s these responsibilities that students are most reluctant to accept. They’d much rather have the teacher summarize the lecture, solve the problems, provide the PowerPoint slides, and award credit for effort. In many cases, it’s more than just a preference. A lot of students believe it’s the teacher’s job to provide study guides, review sessions, and exams that aren’t too taxing.

Unfortunately, a wide-range of teacher behaviors tend to support these student beliefs. Teachers make the decisions and do the learning tasks that should be done by students. If students don’t want to make decisions related to learning or we worry they won’t make very good decisions, we go ahead and tell them what to do. We specify word-counts, font size, number of references, and deadlines. We require attendance, participation, and strictly enforce deadlines. In our commitment to help students succeed, we do for them what they should be doing for themselves.

If students are serious about learning—even if they simply want to pass the course or their only motivation is a good grade—then students should have responsibility for coming to class prepared, taking notes, voluntarily participating, confronting their preparation and their performance, and developing their skills as learners.

Most of us do tell students that these are their responsibilities, but some (often it’s many) students do not believe us or chose to ignore what we say. The alternative is to develop policies, practices, activities, and assignments that hold students responsible for these learning-related tasks. And the pedagogical literature is replete with ideas. This collection in Faculty Focus Premium highlights more than 20 strategies and approaches from a variety of journals and other resources. Preview here »

3. Students could share responsibility for: How the class is set-up and will be run, creating and maintaining climates conducive to learning, decision-making regarding how they will be learning and how that learning will be assessed, and providing feedback that helps their peers improve.

These are areas where faculty typically make decisions but where decision-making could be shared with students. The key is shared decision-making, but with the teacher in charge of what and how much is shared. Students, new to the content and new to college level learning, cannot be expected to automatically make good learning decisions, especially if they are used to teachers making those decisions made for them. It takes time, effort, and experience to become an independent, autonomous, self-directed learner.

However, as you can see in the collection of resources, there are faculty who involve students in syllabus construction. They let students propose policies. They give students the opportunity to suggest additional course goals. Students are given some assignment choices or allowed to determine the relative weight of say, exams and quizzes. Students can set assignment deadlines, sometimes within specified time windows. Other faculty invite students to identify peer behaviors that contribute to or compromise their efforts to learn. If work is completed in groups, students can provide feedback, sometimes evaluate the contributions of group members. Peers, using rubrics and with some constraints, can “grade” each other’s quizzes.

When we relinquish some control and empower students to assume responsibility for learning-related activities, their motivation and self-directedness increases. That shared decision-making often motivates students to start taking on even more of those responsibilities essential for learning.

A question for readers: In what ways do you encourage students to take responsibility for their learning? Please share in the comment box.


  • briancowan

    Someone finally understands the true meaning of “learner-centred”. Although a bit more draconian, I believe the learner is the only one truly responsible for learning. Professors and instructional designers can help, but no matter how good or bad they may be at helping, the learner bears all ultimate responsibility. Attributed to Aristotle is the saying, “There is no learning without pain.”

  • pangai

    Too often, school is overemphasizing the students’ viewpoint, which encumbers teachers.This has parallels in retail. A customer comes in, brings a product in that he or she damaged, has no receipt and demands a cash refund. The manager says “no” the customer calls corporate, and corporate yells at the manager for no giving the person the money, even though this is against policy.

    I worked at one school that had a specific late policy. A student was a week late with her paper. I deducted points for being late (in accord with the school’s policy). The student complained to the administration, and the Dean asked me to reconsider. Because I was not tenured, the order was passive/aggressive. In addition, we adjunct professors are primarily judged solely on student feedback, and those that are “too hard” (i.e., have higher expectations) are often not re-newed. School administrations too often kowtow to students requests, which is why we now provide just about everything for their papers except write them for the students. Unfortunately, this has carried over to the post-college world.
    I could not agree more with the article. In fact, the administration sent it to me (the administration is actually good about that, sending us information it believes could be helpful), but I believe that more school administrations should be the ones to read this and address it.

  • Sarah Burridge

    While I agree with this I feel we can’t overlook the fact that students need some guidance when it comes to learning to learn. Often, in my teaching (which has encompassed both secondary and tertiary) I find students don’t know HOW to learn. They frequently default to writing out their notes which is not terribly effective or efficient. Students obsess over knowing content, often without truly understanding it. It’s important to discuss responsibilities but it needs to be in conjunction with the appropriate support and scaffolding.

    • Dr. Solis

      Your point is more reason why authentic assessment, project-based learning, portfolio assessment, etc. are more effective at helping students understand content over just knowing content (i.e. lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy). In my 17 years of teaching in higher education, I stay from traditional tests because they really don’t measure a students “understanding” of content/concepts. Instead of traditional tests, I have group projects, individual projects, presentations, creation of multimedia content, and other forms of alternative assessment to focus on learning and students taking responsibility for their own learning. Excellent post!

      • Sarah Burridge

        Thank you! I wholeheartedly agree with your comment re traditional tests. Interestingly in your alternatives you mention creation of multimedia content. The creation aspect is crucial. When students create artefacts that demonstrate their understanding they are operating at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy but also this is where the magic happens. I know that’s not exactly evidence based but in my teaching career and in my own study, this is where deep learning happens.

    • Dr.T

      I agree with both MaryEllen and Sarah’s comments here. I do think it is part of our role, our responsibility, to teach them how to learn more effectively. Becoming a more effective learner is a central learning objective in all of my courses, even my upper division courses. I spend time helping them to see the relevance between becoming a better learner and having a better life and being a competent professional. This also links to promoting student metacognition about their own learning — what strategies they are using and whether or not those strategies are effective. I have developed instruments (and there are some others out there I use such as the Revised Study Process Questionnaire) that are part of early assignments and that promote student reflection on how they are learning and what strategies they are using. These are included in our book, “Why Students Resist Learning” if anyone is interested in seeing them there.

  • Gail Cullen

    One way I have involved students in the decisions for a class is to have a brainstorming session in the first class meeting about how we will achieve the course objectives.

  • Miriam Kahn

    Teaching an online course for grad students, I have learned to let them lead their own discussions, to give them the freedom to discuss what they found challenging or frustrating each week. You’d be surprised how much you learn when you don’t have to read the same thing over and over again (yawn).
    The other thing I do is provide a wide variety of readings and let the students pick what they want to read, aside from the textbook. It’s a learning experience for both professor and students.

    • Lesley Singer

      I also teach on-line and I like your idea of the discussion. I have my students work in groups and I have a peer review mark included . i find it a challenge when there are students who just want the certificate but don’t put in much effort and that is hard for group work when students are not face to face

  • David McIntosh-Peters

    I think most instructors would agree that for effective learning to occur, learners must take responsibility for their own learning, all of their learning. They should come to class prepared with all they need to succeed. The difficulty that remains is making that a reality. As a former public school educator at a Title I school in a major metropolitan area, I experienced quite a bit of difficulty motivating students to own their learning. Many of my students made open confessions that they just needed to pass, or get a decent grade, or graduate. They wondered aloud at times why I cared so much, especially since they were not going to college. For some of them, social studies had nothing to do with the job they were going to get upon graduation or their ability to enroll in a specific branch of the military. Fortunately, a group of committed educators at this local school was able to challenge many of these students to push beyond where they have been and even where their parents have been educationally and strive for something more. As a result, we began incubating a body of students (and moreover a student culture) who began dreaming of a brighter future.
    One very committed college counselor in particular, saw to it that each 12th grade student visited with him so that together they may create a “letter of understanding” that called on the student to embrace responsibility for their own learning. This same counselor also began looking for mentors both in school and in the community at-large, who could partner with students to discuss potential and real pitfalls, as well as other hindrances to their learning process. Essentially, he systematically created a “wrap-around” team of cheerleaders who had the students’ best interest in mind. Over the course of the academic year, we were able to see an uptick in the number of students who were “owning” their learning and encouraging other students to do the same. The results were reflected mainly in the classroom environment where discipline became less of an issue as students motivated, challenged, confronted, and encouraged positive behaviors. We concluded that although there was some degree of success, the practice that we began that year needed to begin earlier in the students’ educational experience so they could effectively take control of their own learning.
    I guess my overall point is that when students do not come with the requisite attitude to take responsibility for learning, educators must still find a way to nudge them in that direction, even if it means sending them back for notebooks, pens, materials and even being generous with failing mid-term grades in an attempt to capture their attention.