Encourage students to talk about themselves as learners

Encourage students to talk about themselves as learners


The most effective way to elevate student achievement is by empowering students to take ownership of their learning (Crowe & Kennedy, 2018). But what does that really mean? Ownership combines activities that support motivation, engagement, and self-directed learning — such as when students define a “why” for their learning, monitor their own progress, understand their level of mastery, set and achieve their own goals, and reflect on how they learn best. Central to these activities is making students aware of how to measure their learning and demonstrate evidence of their progress.

Individual student reflection is an important part of this practice. Students need to understand how they learn best and how to leverage their strengths, talents, and interests to overcome any learning challenge they face. When students understand what they need in order to be successful, they can advocate for themselves and be proactive about their work. Reflection is also part of monitoring progress. “Am I making enough progress towards my goals? Do I need to modify my plans? What new strategies can I try?” Learning happens when students reflect on both their successes and their failures. As British professor Dylan Wiliam notes in Edutopia, “The amount of feedback we can give our students is limited. In the longer term, the most productive strategy is to develop our students’ ability to give themselves feedback” (Pandolpho, 2018).

The impact of these activities is magnified when students are able to talk about themselves as learners. Verbalizing learning profiles, reflections, and goals offers students time to process, refine, and clarify their thinking. It also supports the notion of “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. When students talk about themselves in asset-based ways they set a positive tone around expectations and accountability — and position themselves to realize what they want to be true.


  • Research shows that students who are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning are better able to identify and work toward learning goals; are more likely to believe that it is within their control to succeed in school; and demonstrate life skills such as initiative, self-direction, and productivity (Stenger, 2014).
  • Students who take ownership of their learning are able to deeply engage in learning activities, are more personally invested in their schooling, try more difficult tasks, have higher engagement with their academic work, demonstrate more persistence despite setbacks, and have higher achievement across academic areas (National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, 2014).
  • At a school where students completed end-of-class surveys to reflect on their learning, 67.3% of students demonstrated a positive change in their own academic performances, and 74.8% showed a positive change in their academic motivation (Cavilla, 2017).
  • Sixth grade math students who set their own goals or were assigned goals had the highest achievement on their assignment and highest levels of self-efficacy compared to the group without goals. Students who set their own goals reported higher confidence levels compared to students whose goals were assigned to them (Schunk, 1985 summarized in Schunk, 1990).
  • To practice self-determination, K-3 students with learning disabilities set their own goals, made a plan to achieve their goals, and reflected on what they learned. As a result, 55% of students achieved their goals, and 25% made significant progress on their goals (Wehmeyer et al., 2000 summarized in Palmer & Wehmeyer, 2003).


  • Reflection activities are key. Establish regular prompts and have students reflect on their learning. Cavilla (2017) observed positive changes in students’ academic performance after administering a version of the following survey:
    • “How has this activity changed the way I think about this concept?
    • Did I truly do everything I could to succeed in this task?
    • Does the end result of this assignment live up to my personal expectations?
    • Do I feel that my work on this assignment has the potential to influence others?
    • If I were to revisit this assignment in the future, what would I do differently?
    • How has this assignment fueled my thirst to learn more about this topic?” (p. 12-13)
  • Support students to develop a learner profile that helps them identify insights about how they process information, express their understanding, and engage with content. Include details about their talents, interests, and aspirations.
    • Kathleen McClaskey has taken this concept a step further to include a Personal Learning Backpack, which includes tools, apps, and resources to support a learner profile, as well as a Personal Learning Plan that includes learning goals and aligned action steps (2020).
  • Help students set learning goals. Example goal setting questions used in the Palmer & Wehmeyer, 2003 (p. 116 – 118) study mentioned above in the Why? section include:
    • What is my goal? What do I want to learn? What do I know about it now? What must change for me to learn what I don’t know? What can I do to make this happen?
    • What is my plan? What can I do to learn what I don’t know?  What could keep me from taking action?  What can I do to remove these barriers? When will I take action?
    • What have I learned? What actions have I taken?  What barriers have been removed?  What has changed about what I don’t know? Do I know what I want to know?


Cavilla, D. (2017). The effects of student reflection on academic performance and motivation. SAGE Open, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017733790
Crowe, R. & Kennedy, J. (2018). Developing student ownership: Supporting students to own their learning through the use of strategic learning practices. Learning Sciences International.
McClaskey, K. (2020, August 2). Part 2 of 3: Empower the learner – Building the skills of agency and self-advocacy using the UDL lens. Make Learning Personal. https://kathleenmcclaskey.com/tag/personal-learning-backpack/
National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools. (2014, March 31). Developing student ownership and responsibility in high schoolshttps://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED561245.pdf
Palmer, S.B., & Wehmeyer, M.L. (2003). Promoting self-determination in early elementary school: Teaching self-regulated problem-solving and goal-setting skills. Remedial and Special Education24(2), 115-126. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325030240020601
Pandolpho, B. (2018, May 4). Putting students in charge of their own learning. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/putting-students-charge-their-learning
Schunk, D.H. (1985). Participation in goal setting: Effects on self-efficacy and skills of learning-disabled children. Journal of Special Education, 19, 307-317. https://doi.org/10.1177/002246698501900307
Schunk, D. H. (1990). Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 25, 71-86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep2501_6
Stenger, M. (2014, January 17). Student ownership and responsibility are key to academic success finds new research. informED. https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/other/student-ownership-and-responsibility-are-key-to-academic-success-finds-new-research/
Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S., Agran, M., Mithaug, D., & Martin, J. (2000). Promoting causal agency: The self-determined learning model of instruction. Exceptional Children, 66, 439–453. https://doi.org/10.1177/001440290006600401