contributed by Amy Dell
As a fairly experienced teacher (five years in Spain and five years in the U.S.), I’ve learned one overarching lesson: Students will almost always meet whatever expectations you put out for them.
Whatever we think they can or can’t achieve becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and this applies universally. Some students just need to hear someone say, “I believe in you. You are capable.” Whether a teacher is positive or negative, subtle or direct, students pick up on encouragement or discouragement by our body language, tone of voice, or how we address one student or group of students differently. They will rise up to any challenge, or step down to any demoralization.
A teacher’s most important duty is to be aware of this power in their hands and use it to empower their students. I’ve taught middle and high school, history, Spanish, and psychology, in-person and virtual, but my goal is to always show students they are capable of more. Here are 10 ways I empower my students to become more independent in the classroom.
How To Help Students Become More Independent Learners
1. Withhold the answer
Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with the saying “Life is a journey, not a destination,” (though his exact words were different). Teachers applying this to education know that a student coming up with a right answer isn’t necessarily our goal- it’s the learning that takes place during that process.
I am adamant about giving students the tools they need to figure out the answer. It might be guiding them to a website, pointing them in the right direction in their notes, or sharing a tool that will get them where they need to go, as long as I don’t answer for them.
Even if a student answers incorrectly, if they can get the answer on the second or third try, they get satisfaction. Even more, they can take whatever tool or scaffolding method I gave them—a different way to look through the textbook for information, a new way to think about the problem—and use it the next time. We know that real learning happens when students struggle with or get something wrong. Real learning happens when they try to process, I provide the tool or scaffold, and they reach the conclusion on their own.
2. Assign groups strategically
Students can inspire each other when doing group work, as long as you create the right groups. Depending on the task I might put stronger students in with weaker ones or include students who will be more receptive to hearing others’ suggestions in with shyer students. When we are in the classroom, I can walk around to observe what they are doing and encourage them to guide each other. Students realize that I never spoon feed them answers, and can be trained to do the same with their peers.
3. Teach attention-to-detail as a skill
Before my students submit a written assignment, I require them to run a similarity check in Turnitin Draft Coach. The tool is integrated in Google Docs, so it’s easy for students to see if their text has been found online or in other students’ work. Draft Coach gives them a percent of similarity, and I let them know what percentage is acceptable for any given assignment. A student can run the report and realize they inadvertently took phrases word-for-word from the book or a website, which is why it’s important that they can run the report and revise their work three times per assignment.
When I first started using this tool, there were a handful of times where a student turned in something with upwards of 70% similarity. This created the perfect teachable moment. I asked them to explain what happened and discussed how they could do it differently (see tip #1, above). We discussed what plagiarism is, why it should be avoided, and how to use Draft Coach to prevent it.
It’s so much better to empower the students to take ownership of their writing and believe in their word choices than for me to run the report and hit them by surprise. The software is precise enough that if a student takes a full sentence and changes a few words, it gets picked up. In those cases, I can talk with the student and ask them to demonstrate their understanding in their own words.
4. Emphasize literacy as a foundation of learning
Help students see reading and writing not as disparate ‘skills’ but rather the foundation of almost all academic learning. Improving in these two areas can make a significant difference in almost every other class.
For example, because we use Google Docs, it’s easy for me to make comments on their writing. Whenever I type in a suggestion, the student gets an email notification that leads to my comment.
Alternatively, I can add comments to the document. For instance, I can highlight a sentence or a paragraph and ask a probing question to help the student rethink or rephrase, or I can ask them to add more detail or elaborate with questions like, “Is this all that you learned about this theory?” or “Is there more you can add to this section?” Communication within a Google Doc is easy, and it’s another great way for me to allow them to present their best work.
5. Improve collaboration skills and resourcefulness
Google Docs is also really useful for group work. My students were blown away when they first saw that when you share a document with someone, one person could type something and it would immediately show up on the other person’s screen. From a practical sense, the shared document provides the ability to collaborate.
Students no longer have to drive to each other’s houses, meet at the library, or stay after school; it solves equity issues and helps students feel powerful because they can keep on track and set up Group Meets themselves. It’s also helpful because I can see who is commenting and contributing; Google Docs gives me behind-the-scenes insight to see who did what.
6. Learn through Maker ‘tinkering’ and ‘play’
Want to get your students excited and empowered? ‘Tinkering’ through maker learning is one way to teach students to be more independent in the classroom. The nature of learning through maker education requires self-reliance, creative problem-solving, and resourcefulness.
You can also check out Quizlet Live, which actually forces students to collaborate. This team-based game lets me place students together in teams or creates randomized groups. Each team member sees the same question on their screen but receives different answer choices, and only one team member has the correct answer. Students have to talk and work together to figure out the correct answer.
Ed note: The following were added by the TeachThought Staff
7. Encourage a growth mindset
One place to start: How To Help Your Students Develop A Growth Mindset
8. Use Genius Hour (or a variation of it)
Here’s one place to begin: What is Genius Hour?
9. Ensure class policies allow for it
Make sure your grading system or other feedback loops ‘allow for’ learning to be more independent over time without punishing for it along the way.
10. Help them develop their own standards for quality
Helping students develop their own standards for completeness, quality, accuracy, relevance and so on is not something you’ll ‘finish’ this year. But helping them understand what this means and how to begin and how it might be useful to them in the life is a start,
The groups race to be the first team to answer 12 consecutive questions correctly. One wrong answer takes them back down to zero, so it’s high stakes and quite competitive. I absolutely love seeing students help each other, especially because the stronger students explain to the others and lift up the struggling students.
Between rounds, I can mix up the teams, so by the end students will have interacted with at least a dozen classmates. My students absolutely love when we do Quizlet Live. More than any other classroom game I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a lot) it empowers them as we build a stronger classroom community.
Amy Dell has taught grades 7-12 for the last five years in the Corona-Norco Unified School District in California. Before that, she taught English in Spain.
6 Ways To Help Students Become More Independent Learners