How to Empower Student Ownership of Learning in the Classroom

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Ownership of Learning

Empower Student Learning

Empower Students means students own their learning. When students own their learning, they know how to apply what they are learning in different contexts and take responsibility for their progress and success. If students don’t own their learning, accelerating their learning will prove more difficult. Student ownership is evident when students can articulate what they are learning, why they are learning, strategies that support their learning, and how they will use these strategies in the future.

The goal of students’ ownership of learning is to regain control over their own learning by giving them agency and choice. They must realize that they possess the knowledge (i.e., learning) that will allow them to be empowered and confident in controlling their own lives and engaging with their choices. When students OWN their learning, THEY are making their own choices, asking questions and making decisions on their own. It is about them making a roadmap for learning, with the support of another, helping them create their own map.

Ownership of Learning

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Empower Student Learning

According to the article “Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice”, the three key areas are academic knowledge, social and emotional skills, and transferable skills. These three key areas of support and empower student success, like the three legs of a stool. Without all three legs, the stool will not stand. However, with a strong foundation in each of these three areas, our students will have a stable base that can support and empower them throughout their college, career, and personal lives.

We know academic achievement is important, because it can provide a strong foundation, and is the mission of K-12 schools. But is it enough? Most teachers will tell you that academics alone is not enough.

Employers are looking for skills from employees, like the ability to communicate, collaborate, create and think critically. Because jobs are constantly evolving, employers want to hire employees with strong foundational transferable skills that will allow them to thrive regardless of how their specific job evolves. Because of their importance to future success, these core transferable skills should be woven into lessons in every subject area.

The last key area is social emotional skills. Now a days, social emotional skills are essential to student success, because they empower students to work through their struggles, manage their emotions, stick to a task, and understand how their behavior impacts others. Without the social and emotional skills of grit, self-regulation, empathy, citizenship, and self-motivation, students may never get to the point where they can successfully apply their academic and transferable skills. It is critical that we embed social and emotional skill building into all learning.

Set up lessons that empower students by giving them voice and choice in the learning process, as well as an opportunity to create. Project-Based Learning is one way to empower students’ learning.

Project-Based Learning

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Effectiveness of PBL

According to Nicholas Provenzano, author of Aspects of Effective Project-Based Learning, offers his insight into what makes project-based learning effective in the classroom. During his student teaching 10 years ago. He thought it would be a great idea to hold a mock trial in his class after reading Huck Finn. He wanted students to put Mark Twain on trial for being racist. At the time, there was some uproar across the nation on whether Huck should be taught in schools. We had discussed the topic in class, and he thought this would be an engaging way for students to explore both sides of the issue and make up their minds. He notices all the factors that led to a deep understanding of Project-Based Learning. He deconstructs PBL into the five parts that make it effective in the classroom. They are as follows:

1. Ownership

Ownership is key. For this project, the students were not listening to me on why Twain was or was not a racist, they were showing me and the rest of class what they thought. They were invested in winning their argument. They knew that their work was going to determine if he was guilty or not. Although I gave the assignment, students were in charge the rest of the way. It was their project and they wanted to do it. When students feel they own what they are doing, they will work harder. When the audience is larger, they want to impress everyone. These are not crazy ideas; they are the results of owning the work they are doing. Ownership is a major factor in the value of PBL.

2. Creativity

Creativity is another major part of PBL and is closely linked with ownership. Students were allowed to be creative in their work as a lawyer or witness. Witnesses needed to stay within character, but could add their own elements on the witness stand. Allowing the students to create gives them an increased sense of ownership.

3. Collaboration

Another part of PBL is collaboration. Students were working with each other trying to decide the best plan of attack. Witnesses would meet with their lawyers and discuss the questions they were going to ask and how they should dress. The jury worked on group projects researching the previous public opinions on Twain and his writing. Students were sharing ideas freely with one another. I had three sections of American Literature at the time, so I had three trials running. Lawyers would help students in the other classes and trash talk the opposing lawyers as well. It was all in good fun, but the collaboration had students working hard with one another to accomplish this goal.

4. Critical Thinking

Depending on how you set up your project, critical thinking is also an important part of PBL. With my Twain trial, students needed to think about both sides of the argument. Students needed to prepare their witnesses for potential cross-examination questions. They needed to anticipate problems each witness presented and be prepared to counter them. In a world where homework can be tedious and memorization rules supreme, PBL is a great way to get kids thinking critically.

5. Fun

Lastly, PBL can be fun! It seems obvious, but I have seen many projects that are tedious. They have kids go through the motions and leave little room for fun or creativity. Projects are a chance for students to break the regular routine of reading and writing in some classes. Most kids are excited to do a project, because they finally see it as a chance to express themselves in a format other than a test or essay. The fun comes from the freedom students feel. Working with their friends (collaboration), taking charge of their learning (ownership), solving real problems (critical thinking), and allowing students to create (creativity) all lead to students learning in a fun environment.

Project-Based Learning Components


  • Standards: Content Knowledge & Skills: The PBL Unit demonstrates a range of content knowledge clearly focused on conceptual development and integrated through workshops/lessons.
  • Authenticity & Relevance: Addresses a real-world challenge, need, problem, or concern: The PBL Unit is authentic and relevant for students and must address community-driven issues. Adults in the “real world” are likely to tackle the problem or question addressed in the PBL Unit.
  • Inquiry: The PBL Unit contains major phases of the challenge, and helps students organize their to-do lists without overly prescribing tasks.
  • Student Voice & Choice: The PBL Unit offers students multiple opportunities to provide creative solutions to the challenge, and allows students to contribute individually to the group according to their respective talents and skills.
  • Collaboration: The PBL Unit design intentionally supports group interactions through various strategies and allows students to engage in cooperative learning activities that promote productive interdependence, individual accountability, and positive interaction among the students.
  • Employability (21st Century) Skills:The PBL Unit incorporates employability skills, i.e. critical thinking, communication, collaboration, technology use, innovation, self-direction, persistence, which are assessed both formatively and summatively throughout the PBL
  • Community Partners: The PBL Unit involves community partners who have played an integral role throughout the PBL, providing feedback and/or contributing to the final evaluation.
  • Feedback & Revision: Students receive frequent and timely feedback on their works-in-progress from teachers, mentors, and peers, and are given time to use the feedback to revise and improve their end products.
  • Publicly Presented Product: The final end product is a culminating exhibition, presentation, or activity in front of an informed audience, which addresses an authentic challenge posed by the community partner.
  • Reflection:Throughout the course of the PBL Unit and afterwards, there are deliberate times of reflection regarding learning and progress.

The PBL Core Components make up the most important and crucial pieces of every PBL Unit. For PBL fidelity, it is important to embed each of these components into the PBL design process.


As I learn more about student ownership of learning, the more I can connect the dots. Teacher Clarity is still a work in progress. I will try my best to provide you with practical information in my blogs.

I invite you to explore my website and pick ideas that resonate with you.

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