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IMPACTful Thoughts: OWnership

By Karen Gaines posted 06-02-2020 17:01:09


You Say You Want an (Education) Revolution:  Student Ownership of Learning is the Key

 by Karen Gaines

Karen was part of the team of writers and editors of IMPACT.  Her main focus was on the Ownership pillar of PrOwESS.  She has been involved in AMATYC projects including NSF grants, Project ACCCESS, and the Student Research League.  She has spent 24 years at St. Louis Community College striving to help students in their quest for ownership of learning.




The familiar Beatles' song Revolution was popular at a time when social and political change was needed in our world.  The education system has needed the same kind of revolution for a long time.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines revolution as "a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something:a change of paradigm".The revolution in education that needs to take place is in the method used to achieve the main goal of education: to create learners.  The emphasis in education should be on student ownership of learning in which students develop a personal drive to learn and pursue knowledge.

If you stopped anyone in the hallowed halls of a school and asked what student ownership of learning means you would get a myriad of responses.  In most contexts ownership implies that something has been purchased (such as a house or car) and that the owner now has complete control over it.  When talking about student ownership of learning that interpretation does not hold up.

In 2009, Justin Wiley, a Master's candidate at the University of Hawaii, wrote a thesis that examined what student ownership of learning truly means.  Wiley suggests (and any personal searches will corroborate) that most educational definitions or uses of the phrase involve one or more of the following:  Ownership as Right and Responsibility, Ownership as Buy-in, and Ownership as Identifying With.

  1. Ownership as Right and Responsibility

This is the most frequently used definition.   Authors speak of students taking responsibility for their learning.  Often this involves a 'loosening of the reins' by the teachers allowing students to make choices in the classroom.  Allowing students to decide what course of action will lead them to the goal of mastering a subject is giving them the responsibility. 

      2.  Ownership as Buy-in

This definition is when an author "is referring to one's commitment, involvement with, or loyalty toward something" (Wiley, 2009, p.  29).  The ownership is not necessarily because the person helped in decision making, but still he or she agrees with the plan and are willing to move forward.   The problem with this definition is that it simply means a person has made a decision, which he or she will abide by, but may not feel passionate about it.

   3.  Ownership as Identifying With

This definition is when an author believes that "'ownership' of a thing suggests pride over, intense commitment to, or a personal connection with that thing" (Wiley, 2009, p. 31).   While many aspects of this definition of ownership overlap with the previous two, the emphasis is on helping students to feel a sense of accomplishment in their work.


As Wiley points out, the problem with these definitions is that they are really educational definitions of ownership which must be distinguished from student ownership of learning.  Each of the definitions of ownership described certainly contribute to what we are striving for with student ownership of learning, but this educational revolution needs to dig deeper.  In his attempts to explain his definition, he makes the following statements:


             Practically speaking, ownership of learning is the attitude of laying claim to one's

            personal charge for learning—of assuming a specific course of learning as one's own. In

            search of a beginning for this attitude, we are interested in the point at which a student's

            interests and priorities are adjusted towards an intentional and directional thirst for

            learning (Wiley, 2009, p. 37).


 In order to distinguish the difference between love of learning and ownership of learning he states

Ownership of learning is more than a strong preference for learning; it is a preference

with direction and focus—the desire to solve one's problem or complete one's quest, to

understand it, communicate it better, or create something with it (Wiley, 2009, p. 39).

Love of learning is driven by being enamored, while ownership of learning is driven by mission which finds its fulfillment in the degree to which it gains focus, clarity, or momentum.

Ownership of learning more resembles a quest—with a specific starting point and path of progression as the question gains definition, focus, or changes direction altogether       (Wiley, 2009, p. 40).

             Ownership of learning emerges (in part) because of the presence of a certain type of learning environment—it is a quest at that point, but not a quest that will

            necessarily continue automatically. It is fragile at first and highly dependent upon the learning environment. It does not immediately become something robust, but is

            developmental, and either strengthened or inhibited according to the inputs and support it receives (Wiley, 2009, p. 40).


            Ownership of learning does not occur innately, but has a very clear beginning. It is triggered by some catalyzing experience which has the effect of illuminating or opening
up new avenues in a learner, ordering and drawing new connections between ideas, or simply revealing a proficiency or interest that was not there before" (Wiley, 2009, p. 40).


            Ownership of learning is not something that is "given" or "provided," from one to another. It is awakened within an individual in response to given stimuli" (Wiley, 2009,     p. 45).


Going back to the original goal of education to create learners, Wiley presents the following question and answer:

            What variable, on the part of the student, is most fundamental, foundational,

            and both potentially and presently empowering to the enterprise of education?...

            It is easy to see how our view of ownership of learning fulfills each of these

            requirements (Wiley, 2009, p. 53-54).


Taking Wiley's work into consideration what should the next steps be in this revolution?  Anyone in education knows that there is no silver bullet and if there was one, someone would have found it by now.  As it true of most revolutions it takes a lot of thoughtful planning and dedicated people to carry it out. 


First of all, it is important to state that ownership (in its educational definition) is actually a part of the student ownership of learning we are striving towards.  The revolution needs to move beyond this by taking steps to do research on a grander scale.  Current research in education tends to focus on very specific areas such as student engagement, student empowerment, student success, effects of peer-tutoring, etc.  While all of these are noble, necessary, and will further the education agenda, each one is just a part of a student's education.  To use a cliche "sometimes we cannot see the forest for the trees".  The educational world has done a great job on focusing on the "trees" and needs to take a step back and look at the "forest".  Student ownership of learning begins when a valuable catalyzing experience occurs, therefore research needs to focus on what can be done so that every student has this experience.


As this research begins, it is easier to see the obstacles that a revolution like this involves than to see how to make it to the finish line. 

  1. By the very nature of ownership, there is nothing that can be done to MAKE people take ownership of their learning. 
  2. Different methods will work for different people.
  3. People will be on different timelines. The catalyst necessary to begin the path toward ownership of learning may not happen for some until they are 30 years old or may happen when they are 10 years old. 
  4. This is not going to be formulaic.


Even though we have these obstacles (and many more) the question still needs to be asked: What would an educational system look like that increases the chances of everyone finding their catalyst for ownership of learning?   This is where it gets exciting!  At this point we don't know what we don't know. The conversation must be started so that this question can be answered.  Once we know what this new revolutionary system should look like we have to fight our way through a lot of established systems and structures to make changes.  If you are one of the fortunate people who have achieved ownership of your learning then take up the mantle and join the revolution.  Let’s start the conversation and begin doing research to create a society of people with a personal drive to learn and pursue knowledge. 




Lennon, J. & McCartney, P. (1968). Revolution. London, England. Studio 2. Abbey Road Studios.

Wiley, J. (2009). Student ownership of learning: An analysis.  Unpublished manuscript. A thesis submitted to the graduate division of the University of Hawaii in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Education in Educational Foundations.




06-02-2020 17:13:05


The article describes how a catalyst starts us on the path toward 
ownership of learning. I am not sure if I can pin point to any single specific event that started me, but rather, a teacher who inspired me day in and day out to understand the material rather than memorize it. With his clear passion for teaching and enthusiasm in the material we were learning, I truly believe he served as one of my catalysts, and I thank him for that.

06-02-2020 17:05:42

OWnership opportunity in a global pandemic:

OWnership is the most impactful pillar of student learning.  Once a student accepts ownership of their own learning they are ready to soar regardless of the situation in which they find themselves.

In her article, Karen poses the question “What would an educational system look like that increases the chance of everyone finding their catalyst?” This is indeed the question that quickly requires an answer.  In the world of a global pandemic where bedrooms, and every other room in the house, have turned into  classrooms for the vast majority of our students, classes have become a form of guided independent learning for each and every student.  As teachers we need to quickly adapt and provide individualized help, as well as personalized motivation, for our students.  The changing and challenging situation in which we find ourselves will be with us for longer than simply the spring semester of 2020. Motivating our students to take ownership of their learning is the best option for a better educational process. We have been presented with an opportunity to make this happen! Together we can figure it out!

06-02-2020 17:02:16

Yes, I want to start an Education Revolution today...

Tangent thought here:  I was struck by the first line of the first paragraph,  " and political change was needed in our world. The education system has needed the same kind of revolution for a long time."  ... Has time really past since the Beatles wrote that song... 

Back to my linear thinking:
This blog reminded me of the quote at the start of the Ownership chapter:  "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself." ~Galileo Galilei

I found myself asking ... how do we help our students claim/stake Ownership of /in their learning?  I believe that we need to help them do assignments and activities with a purpose for a purpose.  This requires us, the educators, to design activities for utilizing a variety of teaching and learning modalities to engage students in learning in an effort to create ownership in the process.  We need to help students learn to move from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.

This is my first full term teaching my Calculus ! course online and I am working very hard to challenge students with a purpose and for a purpose. This is definitely not easy, but with the pandemic forcing us to transition quickly to online, we must do this!  If we don't. we will be committing 'Education Malpractice.'