Social Sundays: When students take ownership of their learning

I'm big on student ownership of learning.  There is a wealth of research to support this idea, but the main reason I love to put students at the center of their learning is that they are not limited by artificial constraints. This is never so apparent as when we do unit projects. (Full disclosure, here I am going to brag here about my students because they just blew me away when we were studying World War II.) But, I promise you there are ideas here that you can use in your own classroom, no matter what unit or area you are studying.

I introduced the unit project about 5 classes into our study of World War II.  When we do unit projects, I include a list of suggested topics and a list of suggested formats as well as planning materials. Both lists include a box that says "and..." Students are always invited to develop a topic not on the list or create a format of their choice.  I only ask that students clear the ideas with me first.

This past time that I was teaching World War II, I had two students ask if they could create a World War II museum. At first I mistook this for an exhibit, but no they intended to build out a museum space with room themes for each topic such as causes, the Pacific Theater, and on the home front. I rarely say no to students who are challenging themselves, so the project went forward with a discussion of how other students projects could be incorporated.  

As we got closer to the museum opening (i.e. project deadline), invitations for an opening night of the exhibit were sent.  Excitement was high.  But as the deadline loomed, some of my students were overwhelmed, which created the very teachable moment of project planning.  And let me preface this by saying that the students had already planned quite a bit, but the tasks were too broad. 

So, I gave them a planner.  

  • First, students wrote down all the tasks left to complete the project - not finish the poster board but instead draw figures, illustrate 3 timeline cards, final draft of biography, assemble board, etc.  Every piece they could think of was broken down.  
  • Then, we assigned an estimated time value 1 day/class, 1/3 day, etc. We looked at the remaining work days, and students assigned days to each task.  By this method, they could see the steps they needed to do and the feasibility. They also were made aware of what work would need to be done outside of class. The whole process was valuable.

The class ended up with a wonderful exhibit complete with descriptions for each item displayed, interactive projects for museum goers (write your own v-mail letter among them) and a professional looking product (programs included as well as refreshments at the "museum cafe").

And of course the evening was a big hit with the community.  Students answered questions and spoke confidently about numerous topics related to World War II.

What I love most about student-ownership of learning as demonstrated in this project is:
  • The students are highly motivated by a project of their design
  • The students learn more than they would have if I had given them a test or assigned a neatly packaged project with all the steps laid out.
  • The students practice breaking large projects into individual tasks
  • The students are deeply proud of their work.

My role in a this project (and in general) is to provide the supports: 

  • Grab teachable moments
  • Help students learn how to prioritize,
  • And provide usable guides for research papers and other components.

When projects go well, and many times they don't, I am reminded of my role as guide, cheerleader, and counselor. My students are full of dreams and ideas, the worst thing I can do is to limit them.

How do you support you students ownership of learning?  Share your ideas in the comments section.  And as always on Social Sundays, grab some resources and tools below to support you and them in your classroom.

Social Sundays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section.



  1. One thing I liked to do was, when reading a novel in my ESL Social Studies class, have my students be responsible for finding their own new vocabulary words and learning them. In each chapter, they had to select 2-3 words and then record the words in their vocab journals. We then did various activities to practice using the words.

    -- Susan
    The ESL Connection


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