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Convincing students to be more accountable for their learning is not a new challenge; teachers have long complained about the problem. Now, with a significant portion of students engaged in remote learning, the challenge is even greater.


Certainly, when students and teachers are together in physical classrooms, teachers have at their disposal numerous options for gaining compliance from students. Incentives for cooperation and consequences for failure to follow directions and expectations are readily available. In remote learning contexts, the “levers” to control behavior are fewer and less powerful.


Yet, close examination reveals that teacher efforts to direct and control students and have them accept more responsibility for their learning have never been highly successful. In remote learning settings teachers experience even less control and often struggle even more to gain the behavioral compliance and learning commitment they seek.


Nevertheless, this struggle is not inevitable whether instruction is occurring in person or remotely. When we rely on external, or extrinsic, rewards and sanctions to regulate student behavior and stimulate learning, some level of resistance and noncompliance can be expected. Students may resist the imbalance of power they experience. Compliance-based engagement rarely inspires students to do more than required. And, little attention is often given to students’ perspectives on and connections to what they are asked to learn.


On the other hand, when the approach to engaging students originates within, or intrinsically, students’ motivation to learn takes a much different form. When students understand the purpose and importance of what they are asked to learn, they are less likely to resist. When learning taps the natural interests of students or is generated with students, their enthusiasm often soars. Further, when students experience reasonable levels of autonomy, or choice, about their learning and work, they are more likely to take ownership for it.


While extrinsic rewards and the threat of consequences can stimulate early cooperation, they rarely work long term. Conversely, intrinsic approaches tend to work even better as they are utilized more. Of course, intrinsic engagement requires that we know our students well, understand what is important to them, and what might get in the way of their willingness to be more accountable for their learning. Yet, armed with this and related information, a world of possibilities opens for our students to engage more frequently and deeply, persist longer in the face of struggles, and become more serious about and committed to their learning.


So, what are some of the most powerful intrinsic “levers” available to motivate learners and position them to be more accountable for their learning? Four of the most common and potentially powerful levers are:

  • Autonomy. When we give students opportunities and space to make choices and develop goals and plans for their learning, they naturally make a greater investment in it. Of course, the nature and scope of the autonomy we offer to students will vary by age, maturity, learning challenge, learning context, and other factors. Just be certain that the autonomy you offer is meaningful to and manageable by your students.
  • Purpose. Having a purpose for learning is a powerful force for momentum and accountability. When students feel a strong sense of purpose related to what they are learning, motivation is rarely a problem. We may need to spend some time early in the teaching and learning cycle to develop an understanding of and connection to the purpose, but once it is in place many behavioral and learning issues fall by the wayside.
  • Mastery. When students see the potential to be successful, effort and persistence take on new significance. Conversely, when students do not believe that mastery of what they are asked to learn is within their reach, we can expect minimal effort, distraction, and even resistance. To make a crucial difference we can position learning to make success a reasonable possibility and coach students to see their potential for success.
  • Connectedness. Feelings of acceptance, belonging, and respect matter in learning. When students feel safe emotionally and physically, when they are noticed, and when they feel included, many potential barriers to learning are removed. In fact, when students feel that they are a valued member of the learning community they will often take risks, make contributions, and collaborate at levels we may never have imagined.


Teaching, whether in person or remotely, can be challenging. Nevertheless, there are powerful strategies we can employ to make the task less daunting and position our students to choose to be more accountable for their learning and other behaviors.

Thought for the Week

By lessening separation and fostering connections, we can create a space in which every student feels accepted, understood, respected, and empowered to succeed.

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