Tuesday / April 23

5 Steps to Partner With Students in Learning

This post was originally published on Finding Common Ground.

In a partnership…students work alongside teachers to own their learning and reach worthy goals.  Is that really possible? It all depends on us.

Students come equipped to discover, explore, and with innate talents for learning, and it’s our job as educators to tap into that, moving students from being receivers of our knowledge to seekers of their own knowledge. They also come to school equipped to discover and explore, and it is our job to tap into their innate talents for learning.

As our partners, students move from being receivers of our knowledge to seekers of their own knowledge. 

When we reflect on our students as owners of their learning and partners with teachers and leaders, we can see glimpses of what is possible. However, many of our students glide by as passively compliant. They are present, not causing trouble, but not fully engaged either. Teachers work tirelessly to put plans for learning together and to execute those plans only to find that many students aren’t equally invested. What we have to do is flip that scenario on its head.

How, you may be asking?

Examine Our Beliefs

Step One: We must examine beliefs about students’ capability and our own views about in allowing and empowering students to own their learning. What do we really believe about kids?  Do we believe that kindergarteners can own their learning? What about middle school students, seniors in high school, or nine year olds? Do we as educators really want to give that much power?

Current research on student engagement may cause us pause and encourage us to restructure the status quo. For example, the 2013 Gallup Student Poll, which asks students in grades 5-12 to respond to a survey on hope, engagement and well-being, reports that only 55% of students rated themselves as being engaged in school. While 28% of the students reported that they were not engaged and 17% reported being actively disengaged. When nearly half of the students surveyed stated that they are less than engaged, it is time for us all to sit up and take notice.

Invite Students to be Partners

Step Two: Once we have examined our beliefs about students and learning, we must invite students to be partners in learning. This cannot be achieved with a subtle gesture, we must ask, listen, share, ask again, establish new norms, and together craft a classroom and school environment that allows students to have a voice in their own learning.

Many educators worry about the school and the classroom falling into chaos with the power shifted toward students. We aren’t talking about an “anything goes” environment, but we are talking about students actively making decisions, crafting a classroom belief system, engaging in discussions about what worked and didn’t in class today, and allowing the power to be shared in a partnership model. If we can shift from seeing students’ deficits to relying on their strengths, we can establish the types of relationships that propel us forward as partners in learning.

Start the year or your day tomorrow by determining what you and your students believe about learning. Many students believe that learning means raising their hand to answer a question, doing what the teachers says, and waiting for the teacher to give them the next lesson to learn. We know that learning is different from that…but do our students? Do their parents?

Tip: Establish a classroom belief statement or credo, designed to elicit beliefs about what it means to be a learner and to be partners in learning.

What do you and students value?

Do you value students who are persistent or those who finish on time?

Do students believe that good learners fail sometimes?

Is it okay to make mistakes?

Are students allowed to say that learning didn’t happen for them today and request a different experience for tomorrow?

When students and teachers engage in conversations about what beliefs and behaviors are valued in the classroom, the climate can take a dramatic turn for the better. We encourage you to ask, to listen, and to respond by partnering to establish a belief system that will serve you all well for the school year and beyond.

Let Students In on the Learning

Step 3: Teachers today are dealing with great change in the education world from new standards to new assessments to new evaluation systems. In a time fraught with change, we pose two critical questions: “Are we, as teachers, clear about what students must learn each year?” and more importantly “Are our students clear about what they are expected to learn?

Why are these questions so critical?

Students cannot be owners of their learning and partners with us if they are unclear about what they must know and be able to do. Teachers cannot communicate clearly with students unless they are first clear about the learning expectations. What is the pay off if teachers are clear and work to help students be clear about learning? Teacher clarity alone has the potential to double the speed of learning. If students are clear and able to manage their own learning progress, the rate of learning can be tripled (Hattie, 2012). Taking time to be clear is clearly worth the effort!

Build Learner Capacity

Step 4: Teachers work to employ strategies within the classroom to make learning more meaningful. Many effective strategies such as using a Venn diagram or Cornell Notes have become common place among many teachers. The question we pose is, “Are students transferring the strategies used in the classroom into their own toolbox for learning?” As teachers we must become intentional about asking students to try, reflect, refine and amass strategies that work for them as learners. If you asked a student in the classroom today, what strategies work best for you as a learner, how many would be able to give a thorough answer?  Many may say, “I sometimes reread my notes.” Or “I find that talking with others helps me sort out my thinking.” This is a start but not a reflection of students deeply knowing and cataloging what works for them as learners. We propose that teachers spend time teaching, asking students to use and reflect upon strategies for learning, and build a toolbox of strategies.

Prove and Celebrate Learning:

Step 5: Finally, we encourage students and teachers to take time to prove learning. What does this mean? When students receive an 80% on a post assessment, what is communicated to them with the score? Have they reached mastery? Have they met the learning goals? Which ones?

Too often we leave students in the dark about their accomplishments as learners. Grades provide little information about what was actually learned. What if students reflected on their learning by aligning the learning goals as well as their personal goals with evidence in the form of their own work? What if we took the time to deeply reflect on what we learned before we race on to new standards? Would it change things?

Monitoring progress is a powerful motivator, and if students are given the time to understand the progress they made, they are empowered and inspired to make more and more progress (Hattie, 2012). They can then set future goals, celebrate their hard work and effort, and understand that they are growing, learning, and not just attending class.

Is it totally out of the question to partner with students? Is it too far? Or is it just what we know kids today need? We now have the research on what works best (Hattie, 2012, 2009); how have we responded? We encourage you to jump in with both feet.


Gallup Student Poll. (2013). Gallup, Inc.            student-poll-overall-report.aspx. Retrieved 08/23/14.

Hattie, J. A. (2009).  Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to

            achievement.  New York, NY:  Routledge.

Hattie, J. A. (2012).  Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on teachers.

             New York, NY:  Routledge.

Written by

Mary Jane O’Connell brings a unique practitioner’s perspective to her work with educators. She has seven years of classroom teaching experience and over twenty years of experience as a building principal in year-round schools ranging in size from 450 to 980 students. Since 2007, she has served as a consultant working with teachers at all levels, building administrators, and central office staff in a variety of urban, suburban and rural settings. Mary Jane has presented numerous seminars throughout the United States and volunteered for two weeks in Zambia to work with college professors desirous of improving their teacher-training programs. It is particularly rewarding when there is an opportunity to establish a relationship and partnership with others that leads to significant increases in student learning.

Kara Vandas is an educator at heart and has an enduring passion for learning and supporting and fostering learning for others. She began her career in education at a private school for high-need and at-risk youth. Her desire was to enable students to see and realize their true potential. Kara spent several more years in the classroom in public education as a middle and high school educator and then transitioned to coaching and professional learning positions that allowed her to support teachers and leaders. Her current role as a consultant takes her around the country to partner with schools and school districts. Her work has also taken her outside of the US as well to Ecuador and the US Virgin Islands.

Mary Jane and Kara are the authors of Partnering With Students: Building Ownership of Learning.

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