How to engage students in their own learning process

3 Jan

The fundamental idea of student engagement in education us, being the focus of hundred papers and even more on the blog posts. We know that students’ engagement leads to better educational outcomes, and how students engage better in their learning if they find the information interesting and the learning meaningful. But, sometimes building instruction that meets the interests of a classroom full of students seems impossible.

One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.

In formal education, whether K-12 or Higher Ed, students’ behavior is too often emphasized over the affective and cognitive parts of their engagement. I understand how much easier it is to measure the visible behaviour, but am worried it leads to a shallow view of learning – which is so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour.  Emphasizing behavior easily leads to the approach where learning is seen as successful completion of various learning products (essays, projects, worksheets etc.).

Learning is a complex experience, and we all engage in different kind of learning experiences in our everyday lives. These experiences have an effect on formal learning, the learning that happens in the classroom, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of informal learning experiences. Already preschoolers arrive to school with preconceptions and filters that strongly affect their learning experiences. These different perceptions about learning also explain why engagement is so different for each individual student, and why some students choose to engage deeply, and others just on the surface level.

The picture below shows how learning engagement and learning approaches develop in the context of formal education.  This picture is modified from  Ramsden model of student learning in context (2003, p.83)[2].

Learning approaches filtered

The easiest way to increase student engagement in any given level of education is to provide students with choices for their learning activities: how to obtain necessary information, and for task/assignments and formative assessments. This also creates a student-centered learning environment:

  • Information can be obtained from reading, or listening a lecture, watching a webinar or demonstration etc. The information sharing (or direct instruction) is also the part where students’ preferences for getting information are seen to have an impact on their learning and engagement.
  • Students are more engaged in their assignments when they get to choose from a selection. It is also harder for a student to explain why s/he did not finish the homework s/he got to choose. But the choices must be real, not just the topic of your essay. The best practice is to have students justify their choice for an assignment or assessment, because this reveals the filters students use to choose their approach in learning and engagement.
  • Formative assessment (especially in the form of timely and individualized feedback) seems to be an under-utilized practice in education, both in K-12 and in higher education. During the last year I have gone through classes in my studies where the feedback was virtually non-existent and summative assessment was provided after the class was over. How did that support my learning as a scholar-practitioner?

In order to provide a balanced learning experience and increase students’ ownership in their learning process students should also be provided with ample opportunities for self-assessment and self-evaluation.  These cannot be tied into the grade, because the purpose is to engage students in a dialogue about their learning process and their goals, but the self-assessments provide excellent talking points for the teacher and the student, especially if the student either over-or underperforms in the assessment when compared to their self-assessment.

I hope these ideas help teachers to advocate for students to be seen as co-authors of their own education. I am not promoting fully student-directed models of education, because I believe in core curricula, but I am trying to emphasize the fact that students’ learning outcomes –in any given educational model – are greatly improved when students are seen as active participants in guiding their own learning process.

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.

[2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer

10 Responses to “How to engage students in their own learning process”

  1. Mark O'Meara January 3, 2015 at 9:12 pm #

    This is a really interesting post, Nina. Thanks for sharing your thinking. I have had recent experience in a very open-plan and student-directed setting, where students had to set their own goals, choose their own activities and ways of showing their learning. I know this is controversial, but my experience is that only a small number of students found this choice motivating. I don’t know if this is a major factor but many students were from low socio-economic families, but many of them simply did not bring an intrinsic academic curiosity to the learning space.

    Although I grew up in a time of information scarcity, I find that unlimited choice doesn’t equal engagement or enthusiasm for me. My local library has tens of thousands of books, but I only spend about an hour there each week. Google Play as tens of thousands of films, but I on;y rent one now and then.

    For some people, and I think this applied to students as well, it is also engaging and exciting to be part of a well-structured learning experience that came from someone else’s knowledge and perspective, especially if that person is well informed.

    I’m not arguing against student choice, but my recent experience is that – like so many things – it is effective in moderation. My view is that it is possible to leave students with too much of the responsibility, and I am happy to step up and be an active guide rather than simple companion on their learning journeys.

    • Nina January 3, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience! I don’t think your experience is too controversial, because while learning might be student-directed in such environment, the expectations of creating goals and producing evidence of learning, and the fact that it still is about formal learning (i.e. students are being “schooled”) all function as filters for students to approach their learning. From your description I assume that some of them preferred to engage only on surface level (or maybe on strategic level: good grades, no interest in learning — these are the bright students who know how to play the system).

      I agree with you wholeheartedly: choices must be presented within an appropriate set of rules. Some of your students felt the boundaries were too far away, and maybe they were not sure what exactly was expected of them. Rules and boundaries are important because they increase the feeling of being safe. People without a deep passion for finding/learning something need more guidance, and a good teacher like you to point them towards the right direction. That’s what learning facilitation is about!

      • Mark O'Meara January 4, 2015 at 12:30 am #

        Spot on, with all your points.

    • Adrian Bertolini January 14, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

      The other thing that I coach schools on is that they need to develop the skills of their learners to be able to operate in a learner centred environment. I often find that schools jump into open plan learner centred learning environments without having set up the scaffold of supports to develop their learners to be successful. It is like throwing their learners into a game of soccer without telling them how to play, the rules or how they can be successful in the game. It is a shift for teachers because they need to bring a lot of rigorous and deep thinking before the learners are in front of them!

      • Nina January 14, 2015 at 7:08 pm #

        Thanks Adrian! Supporting students’ growth to being confident and successful learners should start in kindergarten, or before that! Self-regulated learning is demanding for teachers, because the prescriptive instructional design doesn’t fit into the picture anymore. Lots of professional development will be needed!


      • adrianbertolini January 18, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

        It is exactly what we do … developing teachers to think from, plan from, and operate from developing self-regulated learners as a normal part of a school environment. Keep up the great blogs!

  2. plerudulier January 3, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection .

    • Nina January 3, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

      Thank you! 🙂

  3. ahmerbashir February 20, 2015 at 3:58 am #

    Reblogged this on Path of a Learning Teacher and commented:
    This information is useful, I am learning to teach. I am re-posting so I can read it in future 🙂


  1. Add 5 Elements to Online Education | NotesFromNina - March 29, 2020

    […] delivering information. It is taking time to have a dialogue about learning and helping students to engage in their own learning process! In classroom the dialogue happens more easily, while in distance education we must actively seek […]

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