Accelerate Learning by Empowering Students

Explore ways to accelerate learning by empowering students with key study skills and then by exposing them to rich, rigorous learning experiences where they can achieve success by applying these important skills.

Grades K-12 15 min Resource by:

In our previous article within this collection, Accelerate Learning by Making Connections: Build Trust Through Relationships, Community, and Connection, we explored how building relationships allows students to feel safe and seen, and it also creates the environment necessary to accelerate learning. While this establishes a critical foundation for growth, it is not enough by itself. Once our students feel safe and accepted, we must then empower them to own their learning. This will improve their academic performance and provide them with the skills necessary to be successful beyond school.

Developing empowered learners requires a shift in classroom philosophy, from compliance and engagement to empowerment. This is not to disregard the importance of compliance and engagement. Our students will need to follow certain protocols and procedures, and we will definitely want them to be engaged in their learning. However, George Couros pointed out an important difference between engagement and empowerment: “Engagement is more about what you can do for your students. Empowerment is about helping students to figure out what they can do for themselves.” This description identifies the significant shift from a teacher-centered approach to learning to a student-centered approach. Similarly, John Spencer said, “The moment you add student ownership to student engagement, you have empowerment.” In an empowered classroom, students are involved in decision-making, proceed at their own pace, and are allowed to follow their own interests and inspirations. This is an environment that increases motivation and ownership—two catalysts for accelerating learning.

So how can we take our classrooms to this next level? How can we shift our classrooms from an engaging, teacher-centered learning environment to one that is driven by empowered students? Along with establishing a supportive environment, we must take two additional steps:

  1. Help students develop success skills.
  2. Provide rigorous, student-driven learning opportunities.

These two elements work hand-in-hand with each other and reflect the guiding philosophy of AVID’s founder, Mary Catherine Swanson. She believes, “Rigor without support is a prescription for failure. Support without rigor is a tragic waste of potential.” This philosophy emphasizes that to accelerate learning in our classrooms, we need both of these elements. As the teacher, you are a critical part of this support system, and you will need to monitor and identify gaps in learning as well as build scaffolding that ensures proper support. However, you will also want to help students develop the skills necessary to support themselves when you are not there to directly support them: skills for self-support, self-guidance, and overall independence.

In addition to success skills, the second element—providing opportunity—is equally important. Accelerated learning does not happen when students spend countless hours on rote-based computer programs or work through mountains of worksheets. Although students need opportunities to practice foundational skills, much of this work focuses on low-level thinking skills. If students are only offered this type of work, their potential will be capped at memorization and basic skill building. In order to truly accelerate learning, we must challenge students with rigorous, high-level learning experiences, where they must make decisions and put their skills to use. In other words, we must follow the guidance of Mary Catherine Swanson and empower our students with skills that support success and then challenge them with rigorous learning opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at these two key components of acceleration and student empowerment.

 1. Help Students Develop Success Skills

Before we can help students develop success skills, we must identify them. The University of Chicago’s UChicago Consortium on School Research has done significant work in this area. Their report, The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance, outlines five categories of noncognitive factors that impact student academic success. These skill areas apply to every grade level and content area.

  • Academic Behaviors: These behaviors include going to class, doing homework, organizing materials, studying, and participating in class.
  • Perseverance: This includes tenacity and grit, self-discipline, and the ability to see delayed gratification in the work being done. A student with strong perseverance typically gets things done and turns in school work.
  • Mindset: Students with a positive learning mindset believe that they belong, they can succeed, and their work has value. This positive mindset leads to perseverance.
  • Learning Strategies: These are the skills most directly tied to academic activity. They include study skills, metacognitive strategies, self-regulation, goal setting, planning, and the ability to seek help when needed. When students apply these strategies and skills, they are often academically successful.
  • Social Skills: This set of skills includes interpersonal communication skills, collaboration skills, and the ability to show empathy.

The report points out that these are not fixed traits, but rather skills that can be shaped by a classroom environment. In fact, the research shows “that classroom environments and instructional strategies can intentionally build strong academic mindsets and that teachers can explicitly teach and model learning strategies that improve student behaviors, perseverance, and performance.” Therefore, as classroom teachers, we can build upon the positive relationships and environment we’ve established and facilitate skill building in these five areas. These skills can empower our students to become more successful learners.

To make this happen in your classroom, students must believe in themselves and their ability to succeed. Therefore, consider how you can build up student confidence while you are teaching the success skills.

Perseverance and mindset are two skill areas that work in tandem and are closely connected to student confidence. When students have a positive mindset, they are generally more confident and believe that they have value and can succeed. This confidence, in turn, leads to a greater degree of perseverance. This makes sense since students with a positive learning mindset believe that their hard work will pay off in the end. In fact, this cycle can become a positive, self-fulfilling prophecy. Students believe they will succeed, so they stick with a task until they are successful. This reinforces the feeling that hard work pays off, which motivates students to work hard again the next time. Success leads to success, and students see that their hard work and determination are rewarded.

There are several ways to initiate this cycle of confidence, perseverance, and growth mindset in our classrooms.

  • Create community and connections. As outlined in the AVID Open Access article, Accelerate Learning by Making Connections, the first priority is creating a positive and supportive environment. When students feel safe, they will be much more apt to take the risks necessary to learn and grow. When students take risks and are rewarded with success, they will be more motivated to continue taking risks. Even when they fail, if students are learning in an environment that rewards risk rather than ridicules failure, they will be encouraged to try again.
  • Define students by their strengths, not their deficits. All of our students have strengths and skills, and we should celebrate these attributes. When we praise the successful use of student talent, we reinforce the continued use of those skills. On the other hand, if we only point out failures and shortcomings, students become defined by their deficits rather than their strengths. While we must identify, address, and support academic needs, it is critical that these deficits do not ultimately define the student. When students see their assets first, they gain the confidence needed to carry them through the times when relearning is necessary.
  • Set students up for success. While productive struggle is essential to growth, we want students to ultimately succeed. If they struggle but never succeed, they may give up. On the other hand, struggle followed by success builds confidence and grit. However, we don’t want to simply lower the bar so that students can succeed. Instead, we should target the zone of proximal development where students can succeed through hard work. We should keep the rigor high while preloading the learning experience with the skills and knowledge that are essential for achieving success. These scaffolds often include basic concepts, key vocabulary, or prerequisite skills. This preloading is particularly important if we identify that students have skill-area gaps in prerequisite prior learning. When prerequisite skills are learned before they attempt rigorous tasks, students will be more likely to succeed.

To be academically successful, students need skills for “how” to learn. These are versatile strategies that can be applied to many different learning situations and increase the rate of success. The previously cited research brief from the UChicago Consortium of Research reinforces this point, stating, “Helping students cultivate positive academic mindsets and effective learning strategies are the best ways to foster positive academic behaviors and academic perseverance.” In other words, we can best empower students for academic success by helping them develop the winning combination of confidence and study skills. Here is a list of some of the key skill areas that students will need.

  • Organization: When students are better organized, they are more likely to be successful, especially when working on complex learning tasks. After all, if they can’t find their work, they can’t complete it. Explore the AVID Open Access article, Develop Your Students’ Digital Organization Skills, for ways that your students can manage eFiles, create and use eBinders, and build and share ePortfolios.
  • Study Spaces and Routines: When students walk out your classroom door, you will no longer be there to guide the learning experience. Therefore, it’s important that students know how to create a successful learning space and routine on their own. Explore five strategies for this in the AVID Open Access article, Establish Digital Study Spaces and Routines.
  • Time Management: Similar to managing study spaces and routines, successful students are able to effectively manage their time. Explore the AVID Open Access article, Develop Your Students’ Time Management Skills, for tips and strategies that you can share with your students to help them work more efficiently.
  • Goal Setting: This process helps students own their learning. Through setting, monitoring, and adjusting study goals, students become more self-reliant learners. Use this SMART Goal template to help your students manage goal setting.
  • Study Skills: This is a broad, ongoing area of learning, and ideally, the teaching and learning of these skills is integrated into specific learning experiences. This integration gives the skill building authenticity and relevance. As additional learning occurs, more skills can be added, and previous skills can be reinforced and reviewed. Explore the AVID Open Access article for strategies that support independent study, research, and seeking help. You might also want to explore related articles that address skills needed for successful focused note-taking and digital reading and viewing.
  • Metacognitive Strategies: Self-reflection is an important part of being an empowered learner. Through reflection, students can evaluate their progress and set appropriate goals going forward. Review this AVID Open Access article about student reflection to find strategies and templates that students can use to frame their thought process. To explore further, visit the full AVID Open Access article collection about student reflection.
  • Self-Regulation: Rigorous learning can be stressful and complex. Therefore, it’s important that students know how to manage both their social and emotional needs as well as academic strategies. We can help by providing self-regulation strategies, including brain breaks and mindfulness activities. Cherie Spencer, Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator at Galveston Public Schools, offers her perspectives in the Tech Talk For Teachers episode, Caring for Students During Pandemic Learning. In the article, How to Guide Students to Self-Regulated Learning, Stephanie Toro points to research suggesting that direct instruction is the most effective way to empower students with long-lasting, academic self-regulation skills.
  • Asking Questions: Empowered students do more than provide correct answers. They also ask the questions that drive the learning. Explore ways for students to formulate questions in this AVID Open Access article.
  • Digital Citizenship: As more learning happens in a digital environment, students must expand their skills to meet the needs of these online experiences. Explore the AVID Open Access collection of articles, Help Students Take Ownership of Their Digital Lives, for ideas and strategies to share with your students.
  • Collaboration: You can teach students collaboration skills by first establishing the proper environment, then identifying and teaching the skills, and finally offering opportunities for practice and reflection. Learn more in the AVID Open Access article, Teach Students Digital Collaboration Skills.
  • Online Discussions: No matter the context or platform, students need guidance and practice communicating. When participating in online discussions, students will benefit from structured strategies and frameworks. Explore strategies that can increase the success of online discussions in the AVID Open Access article, Foster Substantive and Respectful Online Discussions.

2. Provide Rigorous, Student-Driven Learning Opportunities

In order for our students to practice and master success skills, we must provide them with rigorous learning experiences. These experiences should be attainable, as well as complex and challenging, so that students are stretched in ways that allow them to grow both academically and personally.

This learning should also be authentic and student-driven. Students must see the work as relevant and important, and whenever possible, they should have some degree of control over their learning. When students feel empowered throughout the process, they “own” their learning. To design student-driven learning experiences, we must first determine how much student autonomy is appropriate in each situation. While we want our students to be actively involved in the decision-making process, they don’t need to make every decision all the time. The degree of decision-making that we turn over to our students will be guided by the age of our students as well as the specific activity or focus of learning. Whenever possible, however, we should transfer over the responsibility for learning and decision-making to our students. This ownership will empower them and accelerate their growth.

Here are a few approaches that you can use to empower students in the learning process. While there are many variables that can shape each option, the strategies are generally listed in a progression from introductory student choice-making to advanced ownership. Explore the AVID Open Access article, Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice, for more detail about the power of choice as well as this gradual release of responsibility.

  • Blended Learning: When students engage in blended learning, they have some control over one or more of the following elements of learning: pace, place, path, and time. Explore the various models of blended learning to begin providing voice and choice to your students. This is an effective way to begin releasing learning choices to the learner.
  • Creativity and Choice: When students are allowed to choose how they will demonstrate their learning, they have personal ownership in the outcome. Explore ways that you can allow students to create digital products showing what they have learned. These ideas can also be integrated into other learning models, like blended learning, inquiry-based learning, and project-based learning.
  • Inquiry-Based Learning: This learner-centered process allows students to ask the questions that will guide their learning. After asking the questions, they then work to find the answers. The more freedom that students have in asking the questions, the more ownership that they will assume in the process. Learn more about the ANSWERS Inquiry process.
  • Project-Based Learning: When fully implemented, project-based learning has the potential to provide a tremendous degree of student ownership. Students are presented with an authentic challenge or question that drives them to develop a public product that is ultimately shared with an authentic audience. Learn more about project-based learning.

Overall, we can accelerate learning by empowering students. By giving them the skills and opportunities to engage in rich, rigorous, student-centered learning experiences, they will be better students in our classrooms and better lifelong learners in the future.

AVID Connections

  • AVID Collaborative Study Groups offer students an opportunity to identify a specific question from a content area and collaborate in small groups to develop and deepen their understanding through inquiry and apply their new learning in order to enhance classroom performance using inquiry, note-taking, organization, collaboration, communication, and numerous other skills necessary for college readiness.
  • WICOR® is an instructional approach that places students at the center of their learning by empowering them to take ownership and agency of their thinking and learning. Each component includes strategies that engage both teachers and students. WICOR involves intentional instructional decision-making by teachers to provide students with opportunities to demonstrate what they know and what they can do with rigorous course content, which in turn builds skills and behaviors that support college and career readiness.

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