Outside the Classroom

Adventures in Distance Learning: Establishing Student Ownership

I know it may seem impossible, but you can find ways to be effective even when you’re schooling in what feels like chaos. My household’s norms are a tumult of remote work, a kitchen remodel, distance learning for 3rd and 5th graders, and a 70-lb dog who never mutes his mic. However, two months into this anomalous school year, we’ve applied hard-won experiences and a healthy dose of research to find a few helpful approaches.

One tactic seems to make every how-to list: Establishing student ownership of the learning experience. Thankfully, this can happen naturally, given a little guidance. I’ve found that the opportunity to touch base with my kids after each session or activity—rather than a catch-all “how was school?” at pick-up—encourages them to evaluate their learning in real-time, not just when they get their test grades.

Hashtag Goals

Since they’re being asked to direct more of their own learning, showing students how to set goals will help them develop the agency necessary to take responsibility in this new setting. One effective method is to teach them to structure a main end goal with several progress-related goals along the way. Progress-related goals are imperative if you have a kid like my son, who takes one look at an intimidating end goal and loses all confidence and motivation. Accordingly, Deborah Rayow, Edgenuity’s Vice President of Instructional Design & Learning Science, suggests that framing learning goals along with the work that students need to produce in service of those learning goals can help in establishing student ownership.

“This will help students own their learning more effectively,” Rayow says, “because they know what they’re supposed to be learning and what’s most important.”

It also provides a framework for having goal-based discussions and conferences with students, which cements your role as a member of their learning community.

She offers these categories for framing goals:

  1. What do you need to know by the end of the week?
  2. What do you need to be able to do by the end of the week?
  3. What do you need to produce this week?

A Team Effort

parents with child iconRayow recommends teachers frame whole-class meetings around those goals as a way to reinforce their importance, “showing [the class] that you see the goals as primary, and you have planned your group lesson around them.” Shared goals will also help in establishing student ownership and community, helping build the social connection necessary for students to engage.

Over the last six months, social distancing took its toll on my extroverted third grader, and a Zoom class full of strangers wasn’t inspiring much engagement. After dragging her through the first few weeks of assessments and norm-setting, something had to change. We instituted a system of schedule-related goals for her asynchronous learning time, which helped her develop more ownership over her work. Once that mindset and behavior were in place and her teacher had established their class-wide goals, my daughter jumped at the chance to engage with her classmates in breakout sessions. After that first month of monosyllabic resentment, hearing her brag about her group finishing the assignment first told me she was finally owning her learning.

mouse and gear iconSome online curricula and learning solutions have features and functionality designed to support distance learning, making this whole process easier for teachers, students, and family members. If the curriculum itself supports establishing student ownership, as well as the productive struggle and confidence-building, that takes some of the work off teachers’ and family members’ plates, leaving them with more time and energy for building relationships and community. And when instructional routines also support principles of social and emotional learning, students are better equipped to effectively engage in learning from anywhere…though it would help if we could get the dog to stop barking in school.

About the Author


Kallie Markle

Hailing from the wilds of far Northern California, Kallie Markle earned BAs in Literature and Philosophy from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has worked in various marketing roles and has written for National Parks magazine, where she learned to appreciate redwoods and deserts equally. She’s grateful to have joined the world of education just in time for her oldest child to surpass her in mathematics mastery.