[Guest Post] Train Students to Own Their Learning
Helping kids to finish what they start may be among the most important challenges in education. We experience this challenge across education models, but it is often an even greater challenge in virtual schools and blended programs with high mixes of online off-site learning. Even if you have a terrific team and some of the best teachers and staff in the industry, getting students all the way to the finish line--beginning with their current courses and extending to graduation--you have your work cut out for you.
But there is hope. We know because we’ve seen what happens when the light turns on and students take charge of their learning. We also know that taking charge of their learning--truly owning it--doesn’t happen automatically. I have three suggestions for helping students finish what they start.
Train them to be Owners
It’s important to set students up for success by preparing them early to take charge of their learning. Many of our students enroll in virtual schools because they need flexibility to take care of family or pursue a career. Some enroll in virtual programs because they have run out of other options after failing out or being expelled. Whatever the reason, these students are now expected to exercise a high degree of responsibility in the place, pace, and time in which they will study--and this is probably new to them.
- They need to learn that digital learning requires a different skillset than sharing photos and making comments on friends’ posts.
- They need to set specific goals
- They need to understand that progress doesn’t happen without effort
- They need to know how they learn best so their path can truly be personalized
- They need to learn what it means to be accountable
However, students don’t often come to virtual schools equipped with these abilities. In a typical brick-and-mortar setting, those decisions were often made for them in classrooms with live teachers, bell schedules, and assigned homework. Some virtual school programs seem to assume those choices will be made correctly and that they have support at home. That thought process would be similar to jumping into a workout without warming up or driving a car without practice. There could be a few successes along the way, like doing 50 sit-ups or getting the car started, but the end result will probably be injury or accident.
Often, we quickly put students into online classes because we don’t want to ‘waste’ any academic time. We assume students will follow our pacing guide, contact their teacher when they need help, and consult with someone at home to keep them on track. Some school leaders are concerned about delaying students from getting the credits they need. However, the investment in preparation is well worth the time it takes. One school reported that “Students who completed the training during the school’s initial enrollment periods had average attendance rates of 86 percent, 20 to 30 points higher than typical rates, and completed 60 percent of their core academic classes on time, which is 23 percentage points higher than the school’s baseline completion rate.
The principle at work here is that it's better to place a fence at the top of the cliff instead of an ambulance down below. In this case, some thorough preparation upfront prevents desperate measures later on. Training students to own their learning goes a long way toward helping them to finish what they start. As one student wrote: “[This training] taught me what 12 years of school had not - to succeed on my own terms.”
Prioritize time to set them up for success.
First and foremost, before students get started, I recommend we meet them at the school door and provide resources to set them up for success. That may mean we require students to complete a training program, possibly attend a webinar, or meet with a success coach or academic mentor. We make sure they are ready to face the new opportunities and make appropriate decisions for learning in their new virtual school. The kind of orientation I’m talking about requires some time and effort--a few hours at least, and perhaps even a day or a week. Currently, many student orientations require a student to sit through a tutorial of the technology system, or to practice submitting an assignment. You and I both know that the technology is most likely the easiest part for today’s students. They live on devices and are very good at figuring things out by trial and error. While it doesn’t have to be eliminated, there are other key components that should be part of this onboarding process:
- Do students have the digital LEARNING skills they need?
- Do they know what’s expected of them?
- Do they understand what resources are available to help them and where to find them?
- Does their support team know enough about each student to truly personalize their learning?
Many school leaders believe that delaying courses to make time for student training will delay academic progress and greatly impact the bottom line data. In fact, it does. The investments made to ensure students are prepared with the right mindset, skills and self-awareness pay huge dividends. Dr. Monica Henson, Superintendent at Graduation Achievement Charter High School in Georgia witnessed incredible improvement. She writes: “Sixty-nine percent of the students who took the training in the fall are still with us this second semester. That’s a significant improvement and a strong indicator that many students will seize the chance to improve when given good training.” Starbucks doesn’t throw workers right on the front line without training them to make the drinks, and McDonald’s uses the curriculum of Hamburger University to train employees. These practices work in both business and education with new students.
I have witnessed too often the cycle of student defeat when we don’t start with setting aside the time to give students the skills needed to successfully tackle the new learning environment. Dr. Henson has embraced this very process with students as they enroll in her school. After adding a comprehensive training program to the enrollment process, her team started to see a rise in student retention correlating with increased attendance and course completion rates. The American International School of Utah, a brick-and-mortar school that employs several blended models, takes two weeks at the beginning of a school year to ensure students understand how the school works and to learn what their responsibility for successful learning looks like. Other schools have students complete a program before they enroll or offer one concurrently with their initial assignments. These school leaders have figured out that, by providing a strong start in the school, there will be much stronger results at the end.
Finally, there are some big differences in education today. We have to approach it with a whole new mindset. What would happen if we started teaching our virtual students that the decisions they make each day about their learning will impact their results? What if we taught our students that when math gets difficult there is an online tutoring resource and they are expected to reach out to the course teacher, both of which they experienced when they enrolled into the school? What if we had them practice problem-solving skills as we anticipate the kinds of hurdles they will face as a modern day student? We know the types of events that stop students from attending our programs so why not teach them how to think differently and take control when things don’t go the way they expect them to?
Recently, I sat down with some high school students in Atlanta. They shared their thoughts about the training they received during the enrollment process. While reluctant at first and just wanting to start her classes, Jolanda, 15, told me how the training program has helped her approach her studies with a new focus and level of confidence. She recognizes the support she has available to her and now works closely with her teachers-- something she would have never done in her former school. David, 17, was so excited to tell me what a difference he was experiencing in school for the first time because he had learned that his future is truly in his control. He learned that he is responsible for his results and had created a path so he could graduate this spring. And Nathan, 14, is so focused on his future career that he now understands the power of how his education will help him reach his goal. These students represent a very bright future if we build education models that personalize the experience, provide the time and tools to help our students take control of their learning, and teach our students the mindset that will help them finish strong.
To learn about how this training impacted this remarkable school, check out this webinar.
Leaders of virtual schools have a unique opportunity to show educators just how powerful personalized learning can be. Because your students are often the most independent what you accomplish opens up many of the possibilities for those who follow your path. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to help students finish what they start. That happens when our students truly own their learning.
If you’d like to learn more, one great place to start is Own It!
About the author: Dana Van Deinse is the President and Co-Founder of OwnitU LLC and Grand Key Education LLC. OwnitU produces Own it!, a mindset and personal profile training program where more than 12,000 students have already taken the course since it’s release in the fall of 2014. Grand Key Education is a provider of parent and student services, including Own it!, post-secondary partnerships and professional training services. Prior to starting her organizations, Dana served as the Director of Digital Learning Accreditation with AdvancED and as Head of School at Primavera Online Middle & High School. www.GrandKeyEd.com, www.OwnitU.com
About Dana Van Deinse
Dana Van Deinse is the President and Co-Founder of OwnitU LLC and Grand Key Education LLC. OwnitU produces Own it!, a mindset and personal profile training program where more than 12,000 students have already taken the course since it’s release in the fall of 2014. Grand Key Education is a provider of parent and student services, including Own it!, post-secondary partnerships and professional training services. Prior to starting her organizations, Dana served as the Director of Digital Learning Accreditation with AdvancED and as Head of School at Primavera Online Middle & High School. www.GrandKeyEd.com, www.OwnitU.com