Wednesday / May 29

How to Increase Student Investment in Learning

Are students as invested in learning as their teachers?

Why is Student investment Important?

When students are invested in learning, they report feeling engaged, hopeful, and able to navigate disappointments and failures to achieve their goals. When students become disenfranchised, they give up on learning and fail to invest in their own learning. These students simply dropout regardless of whether or not they continue to occupy a seat in the classroom. The personal cost and loss of opportunity not only rob students of a promising future, but also end up costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

The Gallup’s 2015 student survey, “Engaged Today: Ready for Tomorrow,”
reveals startling numbers of students who are not engaged, hopeful, or ready to enter the workforce.
The survey is administered free of charge to 5th through 12th graders.

Overall 50% of students are not engaged. These students are not involved, have little enthusiasm for school,
and do not feel they contribute to the learning environment.
Unfortunately, the statistics worsen and by 12th grade 66% of students report being disengaged.

52% of students are not hopeful. The findings also show 34% of students feel stuck
and 19% are simply discouraged. These students lack clear goals,
are unable to overcome obstacles, and lack the energy to achieve in school and the workplace.

Teachers and leaders at all levels have the power to turn around these dismal statistics.  It begins by looking at the learning experience from the student’s perspective and using what we know works bests to transform schooling for students and teachers alike. In essence, it requires educators to sit in the learner’s seat with new eyes and ears.

Changing the View

When we shift our focus from teacher behaviors to what the students are thinking and doing, we take the first giant step to shift our point of view. Consider a teacher reviewing Friday’s quiz who sighs in exasperation, “I taught it, therefore they should get it!” How would the teacher’s perspective change if the question became, “I taught it today, but did they learn it?”

The question invites the teacher to begin looking for the evidence of learning early on in the process. Many teachers are quite familiar with exit and entrance slips that provide clues to what students know and don’t know, and use them to adjust instruction. And yet, we can take this idea of “looking for evidence” deeper to see if students are invested in learning or simply compliant. Many of our learners are going through the motions and failing to be fully engaged, invested in learning, thriving, and challenged to reach their potential.

Learning from the Other Side

When a teacher or administrator takes time to look at learning from the other side, they mentally take a student’s seat and begin to see learning from the student’s perspective. Consider what one might learn by intently observing a student who leaves a classroom for specialized instruction and then re-enters (i.e. Title I reading, special education, or gifted and talented). What has been gained or lost for this student, and how do other students react or help re-orient the student? These are only a few questions that will be generated when seeing learning from the other side of the classroom. To gain greater clarity and specificity, students can be interviewed individually or in small groups to ascertain what is working and what is not. To have a more generalized assessment of the status quo, class discussions and student surveys can provide a helpful starting point to begin surfacing the learning experience and voice of students. The information gleaned from seeing learning from our students’ perspective can inform reality and actions forever.

Assessing Investment in Learning

The descriptors from the Student Investment in Learning Survey below can shine a spotlight to uncover which students are truly engaged, hopeful, and thriving—and which students are not and why a disparity exits. The table below provides a starting point to begin investigating the current state in a school from two vantage points—student focused observations and student focused interviews. It is possible to begin gathering information by observing student behaviors and listening to their conversations. Interviewing individual students or small groups to listen to their stories and perceptions provides the needed “back story” to fully understand learning from the student’s vantage point.

In the far left hand column are descriptors associated with John Hattie’s meta-analyses of the research that has been shown to double and even triple the rate of learning. The middle column provides a sampling of student behaviors that can be observed. The right hand column offers examples of questions to ascertain the student’s perspective regarding the learning experience.

Student Investment in Learning

 Characteristics of an Invested Learner  Sample Observation Criteria Sample Interview Questions
Engaged Learner Students are … Questions to ask students.
Our students can describe the relevancy of what they are learning.  They have opportunities to explore topics of interest to challenge and deepen learning.
  • accessing different & varied material.
  • exercising choice.
  • absorbed in their learning tasks, sticking to the task when it becomes difficult.
  • working on self-selected projects (individual or group).
  • How is what you are learning relevant and important?
  • What do you do when learning becomes difficult or challenging?
  • What is something you would like to explore? When can you do this?
  • What does it mean to learn something deeply?
Self-aware Learner
Our students can reference multiple sources of evidence they use to self-assess their learning progress and plan their next steps (i.e. work products, assessments, beliefs, strategies).
  • collecting artifacts to document learning.
  • setting personal goals.
  • using assessment results and success criteria to reflect on learning progress and plan next steps.
  • continually updating learning goals.
  • What is the learning intention and how will you know you have learned it?
  • What are your goals for this unit?
  • How do you use tests and quizzes to gauge your learning progress?
  • What evidence do you have to show you are learning?
Contributing Learner
Our students can share examples to illustrate how they positively influence and contribute to the learning of their peers and their teacher.
  • collaborating with peers to clarify learning or strategies used.
  • maintaining conversations that are learning-centered.
  • providing or soliciting feedback from peers or the teacher.
  • What do you do to promote learning for yourself and others?
  • How do you give effective feedback to your peers and your teacher?
  • What type of feedback is most helpful to you?
  • What do you do that interferes with learning?
Supportive Learner
Our students can explain how they support the development of positive, learning-focused relationships with peers and adults.
  • using appropriate and respectful words and actions that promote learning.
  • working effectively in pairs, groups or individually at various times.
  • reflecting on their own actions that promote a learner-centered environment.
  • How does your teacher show learning is important?
  • What do you do to support the learning of your teacher and classmates?
  • How do your classmates help you learn?
Strategic Learner
Our students realize that missteps are a necessary part of learning. They can outline strategies that work best for them and how they address errors or mistakes to overcome challenges.
  • discussing the effect of various learner strategies.
  • describing or exhibiting the characteristics of a growth or fixed mindset.
  • addressing error of mistakes are part of the learning process.
  • implementing strategies to overcome mistakes.
  • What learning strategies work best for you?
  • How do you learn new strategies?
  • What do you do when you are stuck?
  • Do you think learning should be hard or easy most of the time?  Why?
  • How do you define success?

Taking Action2016_08_30_11_40_39_n168C6_Student_investment_learning_chart_11x17_Final

Consider taking the survey now.  The survey provides a glimpse into what it can look like when students are fully invested in learning and working just as hard as their teachers and leaders. Increasing student investment in learning is a team effort. It requires a willingness to explore the learning experience from the student’s perspective and to begin digging into to the research to surface practices that can double and triple the rate of learning for all students.

You can also download the printable Invested Learner poster for your classroom.



Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2006)  The silent epidemic:  Perspectives from High School Dropouts.  Civic Enterprises.     Retrieved 08/23/14.

Gallup Student Poll: Engaged Today —Ready for Tomorrow  FALL 2015 SURVEY RESULTS  Retrieved 05/12/16.

Hattie, J. A. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

O’Connell, M. J. & Vandas, K. (2015). Partnering with students:  building ownership of

            learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.

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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