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It goes without saying that we want our students to be motivated, take ownership of their learning, and practice persistence. Of course, we also want them to build knowledge and grow wisdom. However, these important elements of high-level learning do not usually happen by chance; instead, they emerge through the engagement of underlying elements that must be tapped and nurtured through the design of learning experiences, our instruction, and student responses.  

Unfortunately, in our desire to have students demonstrate these key learning elements, we can overlook the elements that lead to their development. Of course, some students will make important connections and build key skills and dispositions on their own, but it is a mistake to assume that most or all students will accomplish this task independently. Most students need our intentional focus and measured support to build the learning bridges they need to succeed.  

By designing learning experiences focused on underlying or driving elements, we can increase the likelihood that students will make connections and build the skills we seek for them. Here are five outcome examples and contributing drivers on which we can build: 

  • Want ownership? Offer choice. The process of making a choice implies favoring one approach, activity, or object over others. As a result, we form a relationship with the object of the choice. When students are given meaningful choices in what and how they learn, they naturally take greater ownership of the result.  

Learning design: We might allow students to decide how they will approach a learning challenge, what materials they will use, and how they will demonstrate or document their learning.  

  • Want students to gain knowledge? Encourage curiosity. Curiosity is how we learn much about life and the world around us. When what we learn is in response to something about which we are curious, we are also more likely to invest in learning and we are more likely to retain and use our new knowledge. 

Learning design: Students are naturally curious, but they may not initially be curious about what we want them to learn. However, we can stimulate curiosity by designing relevant questions that students find compelling, sharing a story or experience that students find engaging, demonstrating a useful application, or presenting a dilemma or mystery that students find difficult to resist.  

  • Want to build wisdom? Support reflection. Memorization and repetition can increase recall, but wisdom requires a deeper process. When we reflect on an experience or learning activity, new insights and understanding emerge. When we connect new learning to what we already know, we are more likely to understand its significance, appreciate its value, and can decide where and how to apply it in life. 

Learning design: When we want students to develop a deep understanding or achieve new insights regarding what they know or have learned, we can have them pause and reflect. We might invite students to think about the significance of what they have learned and how it might inform the way they think about a circumstance or challenge. We can buttress their reflection by providing open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask their own questions, followed by discussion and analysis.  

  • Want students to be motivated? Tap their interests. Interest takes various forms. It may emerge from a student’s natural inclinations, or it may reflect a student’s perception of utility or a useful purpose. Motivation is a willingness to invest energy and attention in response to interest. Engagement follows when motivation transitions into action. 

Learning design: We can begin new learning activities by tapping elements or experiences in which students are already interested. For example, we might draw on student interest in sports, technology, pop culture, or some other topic with which students already have a positive connection. We also might plan an activity or pose a question that will stimulate students to seek new knowledge or skills. Of course, we can build interest through extrinsic incentives or even threats of consequences for a lack of investment, but the impact will likely be temporary. 

  • Want more persistence? Have students set goals. When we identify a goal, we create a focus for our efforts. Meaningful goals function as magnets for attention, energy, and effort. The presence of goals also supports students to measure their progress and achievement. When students focus on accomplishment of the goals they themselves set and own, they also become more persistent in their pursuit and more resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks. 

Learning design: Students may be unfamiliar and inexperienced with goal setting related to academic learning. They are more likely to have experience with learning goals that others have set for them. To stimulate and model goal setting, we might share with students how we set goals for our instruction or our own learning. We can also tap student goal-setting experiences in other areas of life such as athletics, the arts, video games, or earning money. The key is for students to set goals that are meaningful, challenging, achievable, and owned by them. We can provide support by providing feedback, coaching, and sharing evidence of progress. 

Building knowledge and wisdom, stimulating curiosity and interest, and nurturing ownership and goal-setting skills are key elements in our work with students. However, these outcomes are dependent on our attention to—and leveraging of—the underlying drivers that lead to their attainment.  

Thought for the Week

Are we being honest with our students if we claim neutrality on important, difficult, and complex issues?

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