Building a Culture of Educational Responsibility and Ownership Through Blended Learning
As an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor in an Intensive English Program at the University of California, San Diego, I interact with adult international students from a wide variety of cultures. Culture clash is a daily reality for my students, but perhaps no area is a bigger source of frustration and friction than educational expectations across cultures.
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Academic culture values independence. It might not seem so from every step of the educational process, but by the time students arrive at a college or university, they are expected to have a certain level of academic self-sufficiency which has been gradually supported and built throughout their years in elementary school, middle school, and high school. The end goal is independence.
Not all of the students at my institution have had the benefit of being educated in a way that fostered a personal responsibility for learning. For example, I regularly have adult students show up to class without writing utensils, required texts, or paper, and I have lost count of the times that I have heard “I didn’t know I had to study” and “I didn’t understand the project, so I didn’t do it” (expressed only after the project deadline, of course!). This is a major problem if these students are going on to a college or university after they finish my class!
Using an LMS to Foster Educational Responsibility and Ownership
Building a culture of educational responsibility in my classroom was a challenge for me when I started teaching. How could I get students to take charge of their own learning when I couldn’t even get them to see the value in doing their homework or taking notes? I tried many different methods, and I found a lot of ways that didn’t work.
When I started using the Schoology learning management system (LMS) in 2013, I was able to create a digital learning space that supported me in the ways I needed so that I could support my students. Over time, I have found that the more I focus on building student educational responsibility, the more successful my students become in learning how to learn on their own. There are many tools you can use in this effort, but Schoology is one of my favorites for several reasons.
My LMS Helps Me Help Students To:
Set Learning Goals
I use the quiz feature to create pretests. When students finish, they can see their mistakes (as well as the correct answers), and we use this information to identify strengths and weaknesses. From there, we create goal statements so that we can check back at the end. Because the feedback is unique to each learner and nearly instantaneous, students are able to translate it easily into learning goals. (Example: I missed 4 questions about present perfect vs. past tense. I want to learn the difference between them.)
See the Process of Autonomous Learning
To do this, I use the overhead projector to display the Schoology page (viewed as a student), and I think out loud about what I might do to meet my goals. I visit various areas within the course, and speculate about the best use of my time in relation to my goals. I ask questions and use the tools available, like discussion boards, linked class materials, textbook reference notes, and linked outside sources to look for answers. When I model the steps for autonomous learning for the students, it once again gives them the tools they need to be successful in this process on their own.
Meet Academic Expectations
It’s difficult to be thrown into a system with completely new (and often, unspoken) requirements. I design my assignments with instructions, descriptive rubrics, embedded pictures of examples with annotations, attached documents with past student examples, links to more resources, and more.
The immediate benefit to this level of explanation is that the onus is on the student to independently meet the expectations, and there is a pretty quick drop in the “I didn’t know” or “You didn’t tell me” excuses. However, in the long term, these tools also subtly teach students about the kinds of information they need in order to be sure they understand expectations, and eventually, allow students to take charge of their own learning.
Be Responsible for Required Learning
Unfortunately, we rarely encounter a setting where we are learning for learning’s sake alone. My institution, like most others, has specific learning outcomes that students must meet. With the Student Completion settings on folders, I can prescribe mandatory checkpoints within units to ensure that my course objectives are being met. The transparency of the SLOs and the checkpoints trains students to check themselves in the future.
Badges, shout-outs on the updates page, and other such rewards also allow for positive reinforcement in this process. Also, the fact that students can see their grade in the class at any time (and they do check all the time) usually motivates them to keep working.
Go Beyond the Required Learning
Students in my program come in with a variety of goals that may or may not be the same as the course objectives or the goals of the other students. In the past, I have been overwhelmed with the number of “Special Requests” from individual students. Now, using Schoology, I have the freedom to let students pursue their own objectives in class once the required learning objectives have been satisfied. This extra learning ranges from more extensive projects that use the class content in meaningful ways to projects that may seem outside the scope of the class but that have some relevant connection.
When the students create their own content like this, they are taking control of their learning. Additionally, Schoology gives me a space to provide links to extra resources on the web that students can access to get started on learning goals that go beyond the scope of the course.
Empower Students to Help Each Other
Peer learning is a great practice because it benefits everyone involved. The student who is teaching has a chance to solidify their foundation and to practice the skills they already learned, while the student who is being taught gets the personal attention in the areas they need help in.
Schoology offers a digital space for peer learning through discussion boards. In my classes, I have used the discussion board as a Question and Answer (Q&A) space, where students can pose and answer questions about the class content.
In a culture of academic responsibility, students are responsible not only to themselves, but also to their learning community. Bringing students together can build deeper ties between them and can help alleviate some of the anxiety they have related to the learning process.
Other Benefits of Encouraging Student Independence
Ownership and responsibility are two facets of the effort to build independence in students. When students make the learning objectives of the course work for them, and when they take charge of their learning, they will be successful in our academic culture. However, we cannot start by throwing the students into an academic model for which they are not prepared; instead, we need to help students transition into a model of self-reliance by supporting their independence and giving them the tools they need to control their learning. As I have progressed in this effort, I have noticed several other benefits.
- Students have been more engaged in the learning process. Not only has the increased engagement led to more productive class time, but it also has strengthened students’ mastery of the learning outcomes and supported their gains of necessary academic skills, such as *gasp* writing down the homework and studying at home.
- Because this process allows students to personalize their learning, I, as the instructor, have had more freedom to give individual attention to students. I can do both remedial work with struggling students and supplemental work with advanced students, without boring the other group. This used to be a difficult issue for me because, often, my students have not come to class with the same amount of background knowledge about our content.
- There has been a marked increase in student satisfaction. Today’s student expects that every class will address their specific goals—a goal which, before, was overwhelmingly difficult (if not impossible) for an instructor to manage. In the past, students have noted on my evaluations that the class content didn’t meet their expectations (which is frustrating, since the content was exactly what was stated on the syllabus). Now, the burden is on the students to follow the direction they want to go within the limits of the class, and I have stopped seeing this complaint on my evaluations.
No matter what age group, content area, or proficiency level we teach, an often unspoken goal we all have as educators is to create lifelong learners who can independently pursue their own educational goals. This is my story, but it’s not the only one.
What do you do? How do you promote educational responsibility and ownership in your students?