Helping students take responsibility for learning

Are students who get high grades in school better learners than those who do not? Not necessarily, writes Lyn Corno, Teachers College, Columbia University.

A growing body of research based on long-term, in-depth observation of classrooms with videotapes, open-ended interviews, and extensive field notes has uncovered elements of schooling that are subtle and often overlooked by other research methods. This research indicates that the desire to accomplish goals, in addition to an interest in and effort toward schoolwork, confidence in one’s own ability, and persistence in the face of difficulty are all important elements of success in school.

Students who approach schoolwork with the idea of mastering the material tend to differ in work style from students who want only to get good grades or display their competence. Learning-oriented students tend to be more attentive, to seek clarification of a confusing assignment, and to use studying strategies that lead to in-depth learning. Generally, they feel better about themselves as students. Students focused on performance rather than learning, on the other hand, often display feelings of inadequacy about their learning.

Corno reports that students manage their learning through the processes of motivation and volition. She reports that these two processes depend, at least in part, on environmental factors. She further believes that teachers can create classroom environments to help even very young children begin taking responsibility for their own learning.

Most children are motivated to do well in school, but Corno speculates that volition may not be well developed in students who underachieve in the classroom. Volition refers to the diligence or strength of will necessary to sustain efforts to accomplish something without external pressure. Recent research has described “volitional resources” as strategic activities students use to direct and control their own and others’ behavior with respect to goals.

Volition involves careful application of strategies for managing complex tasks or accomplishing goals. It can mean protecting the more important goals of learning from other school pressures. Students who perform well in school often construct a hierarchy of school goals and almost unconsciously take personal responsibility for learning. Volition includes regulating emotions so that learning goals can be met. They tend to find the “spoonful of sugar” in every task.

Self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learners understand their own thoughts and emotions enough to control them while learning. When a task is presented, most students realize that: (1) here is a task I have to do now; (2) there are other things I’d rather do; (3) therefore, a certain amount of effort is required for me to do this; and (4) if I try, I can probably get it done. In this way, students reason that they must “buckle down.” Whether the student is actually able to get the work done may depend on several factors, including whether he/she has the volitional strategies for moving the work along in an essentially unsupportive environment.

Researchers are addressing the question of how students become self-regulated and how they actively use cognitive, motivational and volitional resources in school. Corno reports on a few classroom studies that describe environments created by teachers that appear to promote a sense of responsibility for learning. These examples reveal some ways in which teachers have encouraged self-regulation, self-confidence or self-responsibility in students.

Chances to puruse interests without formal evaluation

Allowing a student time to pursue his interest in drawing with no pressure for progress and no threat of evaluation enabled one teacher to draw out self-regulatory behavior in a child who previously had been socially and academically uninvolved in school. The teacher relaxed standard assignments for a time and the student focused on drawing, for which both the teacher and other students showed enthusiasm.

The student put forth much greater effort than before and demonstrated increasing skill and satisfaction. Gradually, he was guided to pursue this interest within and across standard content areas. By capitalizing on this interest, the teacher temporarily circumvented a pattern of avoidance and got him involved in subjects through his drawing. This teacher believed that investing heavily in students’ own interests at the beginning of the year could pay off in their willingness to invest in teachers’ interests later.

Releasing the potential for revision

A two-year study of one classroom focusing on the process of learning to write illustrates how students can be encouraged to take responsibility for learning.

Classroom observation has revealed that even the most able students will rarely revise or work to improve an assignment without the teacher’s direction. However, in this classroom, the teacher’s insistence on a particular kind of interaction with students was seen to shift the impetus for evaluation and revision from the teacher to the students themselves.

According to the researcher observing this class, the self-regulation and revision process began when children chose their own topics and thereby assumed control of the assignment from the beginning. Throughout, the teacher made specific requests of students concerning the organization and flow of ideas, but did not take control of their writing. Her goal was to “release the child’s potential for revision.”

The researchers observed a progression in the process of students taking control of their work. It began with students writing with or for the teacher and progressed to writing to make the meaning clear to themselves. These revisions were less concerned with spelling, punctuation and grammar than with the communication of their ideas.

As the focus of control shifted from the teacher to the students, the task shifted from performance to mastery. Persistence in the face of difficulty was encouraged because the teacher built into the curriculum opportunities for revising early efforts. She systematically reinforced these attempts at revision with non-evaluative feedback and incentives.

Help was given sparingly, because if students received too much help from the teacher, it was difficult for them to take responsibility or feel pride in their accomplishments. She also backed away from correcting students’ work and substituted the support and encouragement of other students in the class. Students read their work to peers and the teacher encouraged them to provide constructive feedback. This peer support appeared to contribute to the spontaneity and quality of students’ revisions.

Peers as learning partners

Sharing learning with one’s peers may seem antithetical to the concept of self-responsibility for learning, but the conditions that foster self-regulation may include a particular kind of social interaction. Observing children in kindergarten through third-grade classes during time set aside for journal writing, one researcher discovered that when students were allowed to chat while they wrote, their spontaneous interaction changed their writing. Responding to peers’ work seemed to stimulate reflective thinking as the children discussed what they were writing with one another.

Peers may be more valuable than adults in inducing reflective thinking because of their common experience and world views, which lead to developmentally appropriate questions and comments. The undirected nature of the interactions also allowed peers to play a non-evaluative role that helped students find fun in their work.

Participant modeling

Young children make sense of their world mostly through social interaction. Watching others grapple with problems helps children solve the same problems for themselves. For students to take responsibility for learning new skills, instructional assistance must be gradually reduced. When children ask for help, requesting that they try it for themselves will encourage independent problem-solving. Allowing children to try and fail is a first step in self-directed learning.

In a suburban preschool, teachers attempted to create such an environment for children learning the computer language LOGO. Initially, teachers worked with students at computers and modeled what to do. Teachers gradually moved from modeling what to do to helping students evaluate what they were doing and how well they were doing it. Students worked in pairs to try their own ideas and develop their own strategies for LOGO programming. As children became more independent, their joy in their self-initiated work was evident.

The use of modeling with explanation during initial instruction, followed by a gradual push toward student independence with supportive feedback, is the foundation of participant modeling. It works because students can begin a new task by relying on the teacher’s expertise. Yet, as they begin to experience success, they gain the confidence to continue on their own. Gaining confidence in this way, along with the fun of initiating independent work with a peer, helps them to handle any difficulties that arise.


Corno states that any of these teaching environments can be created within a traditional classroom. While some subjects are perhaps better suited than others to these procedures and teacher-student roles, teachers may provide evaluation-free contexts for pursuing individual interest, allow frequent, constructive peer interaction over tasks and use participant modeling in any subject at any grade level.

Corno believes that self-regulation and responsibility for learning can begin at a much younger age than is often assumed. The central theme of these classrooms that encourage children to take responsibility for their learning is that students need less rather than more instructional mediation. This does not mean less teacher planning or monitoring, but suggests that teachers avoid “over-engineering” assignments and that they gradually release control of learning.

Teachers who wish to develop volitional strategies in their students need to support students and develop activities that enable students to challenge themselves and others while pursuing goals and becoming comfortable with criticism in the form of constructive feedback.

Corno calls for further classroom-based research that examines how variations in student-teacher roles and forms of instruction affect students’ involvement in learning and their academic achievement.

“Encouraging Students to Take Responsibility for Learning and Performance”, The Elementary School Journal, September 1992, Volume 93, Number 1, pp. 69-82

Published in ERN January/February 1993, Volume 6, Number 1.

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