How to motivate students to take ownership of their learning

EP05: Are you working harder than your students? Learn practical strategies for making the learning really matter to kids so they’re self-motivated in the classroom. You’ll discover how to inspire kids to give as much energy and effort in the classroom as you do!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.

We talked in the last episode about the importance of creating a reciprocal energy flow–gaining energy from kids instead of letting them drain you. This week’s episode is really a continuation of that topic, because if you want to get anything back from your kids, they’ve got to have some ownership over their learning.

Tell me if this is a familiar scene in your classroom: you ask a question, and the same 4 kids raise their hands every time. The kids aren’t listening to your directions and have no idea what to do for a task so you keep repeating yourself. You’re constantly trying to convince them that a topic is exciting and that the task is going to be fun, and they’re dragging their heels and only completing the work if you’re standing over them, praising, encouraging, threatening, yelling, bribing, or whatever trick you pull out of your bag that day.

If you can relate to that scenario, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Every teacher has been there, and most of us feel like that on a regular basis. It’s normal. But it doesn’t have to be that way! The more ownership of the learning you hand over to students, the more engagement you’re going to have.

How to give students ownership of their learning

So how do you do that? First and foremost, you’ve got to make the learning matter. If the tasks you’re giving your students are irrelevant, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get kids to participate, and you’re not going to get any energy back from them.

Kids need to have a meaningful purpose for their work just like we as teachers do! They need to believe that the tasks they do make a difference beyond the four walls of the classroom. Student engagement comes naturally when kids identify a need or problem in the world and create ways to use skills you’ve taught them to solve those problems.

Making the learning matter to kids: amazing example of a real world project

My friend Jenny teaches 3rd grade and blogs about it at Luckeyfrog’s Lily Pad. Last spring, her class completed an amazing project that I think is the perfect example of turning the learning over to students. They had already finished their standardized testing for the year and had a little bit more flexibility in the curriculum and scheduling. So, Jenny helped them identify a need in their community: they wanted to help people in a nearby town who were affected by tornados.

One of the kids got the idea to sell lemonade. Listen to all the skills these kids practiced: They estimated their costs, raised capital, asked the PTA to become an investor, created a Google form to organize parent volunteers and a doc to create a schedule, made persuasive advertisements, did a science experiment to find the right recipe, counted the money they made, and wrote thank you notes.

These students’ learning resulted in changing outcomes: their hard work wasn’t just to get an A on a paper—their work mattered to other people, to those victims of the tornado. Though it probably won’t be possible to do something like that for every lesson you teach, I encourage you to use stories like these as inspiration and make your students’ learning matter in any way you can.

If your students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they’re just sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough.

Here’s the thing. If your students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they’re just sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough.

Most kids aren’t excited about writing a paragraph when the only person who’s going to read it is the teacher (and he’s just going to mark it up and explain everything that’s wrong with it.) Try to publish kids’ work as much as possible, even if it’s just on a school website or class blog. Look for ways to give kids an authentic audience that they care about and will work hard to impress.

The learning matters more when you get kids connected with the outside world. Have your kids participate in a project started by my dear friend Pernille Ripp. It’s called the Global Read Aloud. Students all around the world read the same book and then discuss it with other classes via Skype.

Or, here’s another idea. You would be amazed how many children’s book authors are willing to do a Google Hangout with classes. Imagine how motivated some of your students would be to read a book if they knew they’d get to ask questions from the author afterward!

You’ll notice in all of these examples, not only does the learning matter, but the responsibility for the learning has in large part been placed in the hands of students. That’s a really important strategy for gaining energy from kids.

Get kids actively involved in their learning so they’re doing just as much work–or even more–than you are. When students take charge of the learning process, they are able to channel their excess energy into pursuits that matter.

As their teacher, you become re-energized from watching the learning process in action and interacting with kids who are enthusiastic about their work. The flow of energy in the classroom becomes reciprocal as you motivate them, and they in turn motivate you.

So how can you get started with empowering kids to take more ownership of their learning? The brilliant Alan November once posed a question that I think is a fantastic starting point. He said, “What are you doing in your classroom now that you could turn over to your students to do themselves?”

How to empower students to take ownership of their learning?

Can you do more student-directed projects? Can you involve students in the assessment process, giving them a chance to create rubrics and grading criteria and score themselves? Can you use technology to give students more choice in how they demonstrate knowledge?

Turning the learning over to students is probably the best way I’ve seen to increase student engagement. You see, engagement is not the same thing as compliance. Some of our “best” students are simply people pleasers. They sit up straight and fold their hands on their desks because they’re doing what we tell them to do, not because they’re truly invested in their own learning.

There’s also a difference between being busy and being truly engaged. Sometimes kids know how to go through the motions without really learning, or are hard at work on a task that won’t produce any real gains.

Here’s an easy way to get insight as to who has ownership of the learning. When kids are truly taking ownership, they will be asking questions which drive learning. If the teacher is doing all the questioning and the students are just answering, it’s possible the kids are being busy or compliant but are not truly engaged. The goal is to get kids asking why, how, what happens if, and couldn’t we. When they are posing questions that matter to them and then pursuing the answers, you can be sure they are thinking deeply about the topic and are invested in their own learning.

When kids are truly taking ownership, they will be asking questions which drive learning. If the teacher is doing all the questioning and the students are just answering, it’s possible the kids are being busy or compliant but are not truly engaged. The goal is to get kids asking why, how, what happens if, and couldn’t we. When they are posing questions that matter to them and then pursuing the answers, you can be sure they are thinking deeply about the topic and are invested in their own learning.

I go into a lot more depth about empowering students to take ownership of their learning in my upcoming book that I plan to release this spring. It’s called Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What. You can follow the link to learn more about Unshakeable, and sign up to be notified by email when it’s available and get free sample chapters in advance before anyone else.

I like to end each podcast episode with with motivational quote for the week ahead that I call the Takeaway Truth. Here’s the takeaway truth I want you to remember this week:

Give kids a chance to talk, to construct their own knowledge, to give input as to what and how they learn, and you’ll find that their engagement levels shoot way up. In return, you’ll experience a new sense of motivation and energy as your students are giving just as much as they’re getting.

Next week: How to stop being overly critical of yourself as a teacher

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

Subscribe to the podcast/leave a review in iTunes

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah Doty January 19, 2015 at 10:32 am

I am enjoying listening to your weekly podcast. This one really spoke to me. After almost 40 years of teaching I have a class that doesn’t seem interested in anything. I have those few students who can answer all the questions, but the rest of the class just sits. I am teaching 1st grade and I have never had a class that is not interesting in reading or writing or science or …. I haven’t been able to get them interested in chapter books, picture books, any books. They don’t ask questions. I need some ideas. It is a real puzzle to me. Any bit of guidance you could share would be appreciated.


2 Angela Watson January 26, 2015 at 11:33 pm

Thanks so much, Sarah!

I think what you’re describing is a fairly common issues these days. As much as I believe children are born inquisitive by nature, I do think that the environment that many kids are raised in does not foster this curiosity and interest in the world.

So, we have to teach our students how to ask questions, and let them experience the satisfaction that comes from pursuing the answers. The more you do this, the more likely you are to see that first natural spark of interest which you can cultivate into a true love of learning. It is a process, for sure.

Keep encouraging those behaviors and attitudes whenever you see them, and model curiosity and a love of learning yourself. Incorporate humor whenever you can–that’s a great hook, especially for first graders. Get kids laughing and exploring through play whenever possible, and I think you will see them come alive in the classroom in a brand new way. :)


3 Arielle January 20, 2015 at 9:01 pm

You are truly an inspiration. Thank you for your insight and dedication. One day, I hope to be able to share my passions and ideas with the world!



4 Angela Watson January 26, 2015 at 11:24 pm

Thanks so much for those kind words, Arielle! You can start sharing your passions and ideas right now! Are you on Twitter? I’d love to connect with you more.


5 Molly K January 28, 2015 at 9:11 pm

I love your idea about using google hangouts to interact with authors. I just started a blog about theatre education and would love to take that same idea but connect with theater professionals. My question is how do you contact authors to arrange a hangout? Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated!

Molly K


6 Mandy Volodymyrenko July 7, 2015 at 11:44 am

Hi Angela,

I just recently started working with an organization dedicated to improving education through student engagement, achievement, and accountability.

One of the main themes that we coach, over and over again, in the district leaders that we work with and the teachers that we train is student ownership. I love that your blog and podcast reinforces that. I just started listening, and I am going to pass your podcast on to our partners as a tool.

Education is a new industry for me. I had no idea what to expect, and I was baffled and excited to learn what it really takes to shape the minds of our future leaders. It is so refreshing to connect with people who are dedicated to making a difference, regardless of the hard work it takes. I hope to learn much more from listening to your podcast and reading your blog. Thank you for your dedication!

Mandy Volodymyrenko (or just Mandy)


7 Angela Watson July 17, 2015 at 2:28 pm

I’m glad you reached out and introduced yourself, Mandy, and that the podcast has been a helpful resource!


8 Jenny Martinez January 11, 2016 at 8:01 pm

Thank you Angela for a very insightful podcast! Now I just have to get my creative juices flowing to get the students to take ownership of their learning.


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