Student Ownership is More Than Engagement– It is Independence

As we celebrate the 4th of July, many of us are spending time reflecting on our freedom and independence as a nation. We espouse the rights and responsibilities for all people to make their own choices, to determine their own paths, and to forge their own futures. In America, you can be and do anything you want if you’re willing to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. While we celebrate patriotism and pride in our country’s independence, I can’t help but wonder why these ideals aren’t also a part of the culture in our schools. What if we offered opportunities for students to be independent learners? What if we challenged students to identify their own needs, set their own goals, and find their own way? Some may say that it would turn into anarchy, or that test scores would be dramatically affected. But, in fact, researchers have found that what you would get is the opposite of anarchy. Independent learners are more focused on their goals, have higher rates of high school completion, and are more prepared for life after high school.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with researchers at The Ohio State University to investigate student ownership. Here is an excerpt of our findings:

 At this time, when teacher performance is being measured as a function of student performance (Ballou, Sanders, & Wright, 2004: as cited in Chan, Graham-Day, Ressa, Peters & Konrad, in press), teachers may be reluctant to actively work on increasing student ownership of the learning process. Teachers may fear giving up some of the control of goal setting, progress tracking, and assessment. However, granting students an active role in their learning can increase school completion; teach students valuable skills, like setting and attaining goals; and help students develop independence (Uphold & Hudson, 2012: as cited in Chan, et al.). Additionally, when students have the opportunity to engage in self-assessment, track their own progress, and communicate their learning, the effects on academic performance can be profound (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Stiggins & Chappuis, 2008: as cited in Chan, et al.).

In Ohio, as more teachers engage in formative instructional practices (FIP), the importance of student ownership of learning has become more evident. We often describe it as student engagement, but ownership is much more than engagement; it’s independence. As one of the four core components of FIP, the goal of student ownership of learning is to foster the development of independent learners who can self-assess, set goals, and close gaps. It’s not enough to have a classroom full of busy students who are “on task.” We need to push this further and create classrooms full of busy students who understand the task, know why they are engaging in the task, and know how it fits into the bigger picture of their learning goals.

In a country that values freedom and independence, we have an opportunity to foster these same values into the lives of our learners. Our classrooms are meant to serve as spaces that cultivate independent learners and student ownership of learning. As we take time this week to celebrate Independence Day, I challenge each of you to think about how you are fostering student independence. How can we create schools and classrooms where students truly own their learning?


Ballou, D., Sanders, W., & Wright, P. (2004). Controlling for student background in value-added assessment of teachers. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 29, 37–65.

Uphold, N., & Hudson, M. (2012). Student-focused planning. In D. W. Test (Ed.), Evidence-based instructional strategies for transition (pp. 55–78). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139–147.

Stiggins, R., & Chappuis, J. (2008). Enhancing student learning. District Administration, Jan, 43–44.

Chan, P.E., Day, K., Konrad, M., Peters, M. T., & Ressa, V. A., (2014). Beyond involvement:Student ownership of learning in the classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, in press.