Helping Students take responsibility for their learning

In reading Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher, I have come to understand that instructors must never take on the sole responsibility for student motivation, as students must possess the intrinsic desire to learn.

That said, there are some steps that Brookfield suggests in Chapter 15 to help students take responsibility for learning in the classroom, throughout their careers and over their lifetime.

  • Build self-confidence through personal disclosure pertaining to your own struggles to grasp the concepts the first time. Recognize the knowledge that students bring to the classroom by conducting activities that allow them to “show off” what they already know. Provide peer examples of self-initiated learning to class; have previous students talk about how they completed projects. Encourage peer learning so that students can discuss other perspectives on the learnings.
  • Understand you own instinctive preferences. What learning style works best for you? Where did you struggle when learning the material for the first time? When should you trust/ignore your instincts? What types of setbacks could there be when learning the concept and how could you address these? Gather student feedback throughout questionnaires. Have previous students “pay-it-forward” by giving advice to the new students. Conduct an “I learn best when…” brainstorm on the whiteboard to understand student preferences.
  • Develop informational literacy by helping students become more resourceful. Teach them how to search for information in the same way that they may have to do on the job.
  • Have students Design learning projects. Appreciate that there are many ways in which one could learn about a subject and allow students the flexibility to select their own approach to learning. You can also have students give feedback on what types of questions they would like to see on assessment and take these in to consideration when developing evaluation items.

Be aware that “taking responsibility for their learning is one of the things that students resist the most” (Brookfield, p. 210). We want to help and guide students to success, but solving every problem or challenge a student may have is not a helpful approach, despite best intentions.

In the Harvard Business Review book “What makes a Good Leader” managers are encouraged to not allow employees to “put monkeys on their backs”. Instead, they are encouraged to throw problems back at employees to solve and to not take them on personally. The same principle must also be applied in the classroom.

Goleman, D. (2011). HBR’s 10 must reads: Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


About robincookbondy

My name is Robin Cook Bondy and I live in Ladner, BC with my husband and three sons. I am a communications and public relations professional pursuing further education in the area of adult learning.
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