Tag Archives: learning product

How to engage students in their own learning process

3 Jan

The fundamental idea of student engagement in education us, being the focus of hundred papers and even more on the blog posts. We know that students’ engagement leads to better educational outcomes, and how students engage better in their learning if they find the information interesting and the learning meaningful. But, sometimes building instruction that meets the interests of a classroom full of students seems impossible.

One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.

In formal education, whether K-12 or Higher Ed, students’ behavior is too often emphasized over the affective and cognitive parts of their engagement. I understand how much easier it is to measure the visible behaviour, but am worried it leads to a shallow view of learning – which is so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour.  Emphasizing behavior easily leads to the approach where learning is seen as successful completion of various learning products (essays, projects, worksheets etc.).

Learning is a complex experience, and we all engage in different kind of learning experiences in our everyday lives. These experiences have an effect on formal learning, the learning that happens in the classroom, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of informal learning experiences. Already preschoolers arrive to school with preconceptions and filters that strongly affect their learning experiences. These different perceptions about learning also explain why engagement is so different for each individual student, and why some students choose to engage deeply, and others just on the surface level.

The picture below shows how learning engagement and learning approaches develop in the context of formal education.  This picture is modified from  Ramsden model of student learning in context (2003, p.83)[2].

Learning approaches filtered

The easiest way to increase student engagement in any given level of education is to provide students with choices for their learning activities: how to obtain necessary information, and for task/assignments and formative assessments. This also creates a student-centered learning environment:

  • Information can be obtained from reading, or listening a lecture, watching a webinar or demonstration etc. The information sharing (or direct instruction) is also the part where students’ preferences for getting information are seen to have an impact on their learning and engagement.
  • Students are more engaged in their assignments when they get to choose from a selection. It is also harder for a student to explain why s/he did not finish the homework s/he got to choose. But the choices must be real, not just the topic of your essay. The best practice is to have students justify their choice for an assignment or assessment, because this reveals the filters students use to choose their approach in learning and engagement.
  • Formative assessment (especially in the form of timely and individualized feedback) seems to be an under-utilized practice in education, both in K-12 and in higher education. During the last year I have gone through classes in my studies where the feedback was virtually non-existent and summative assessment was provided after the class was over. How did that support my learning as a scholar-practitioner?

In order to provide a balanced learning experience and increase students’ ownership in their learning process students should also be provided with ample opportunities for self-assessment and self-evaluation.  These cannot be tied into the grade, because the purpose is to engage students in a dialogue about their learning process and their goals, but the self-assessments provide excellent talking points for the teacher and the student, especially if the student either over-or underperforms in the assessment when compared to their self-assessment.

I hope these ideas help teachers to advocate for students to be seen as co-authors of their own education. I am not promoting fully student-directed models of education, because I believe in core curricula, but I am trying to emphasize the fact that students’ learning outcomes –in any given educational model – are greatly improved when students are seen as active participants in guiding their own learning process.

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy. http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/61680/1/Deliverable_2._Evidence_Summary._Nov_2010.pdf

[2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer

Is Learning a Product or Process – part 2

27 Feb

Best teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by

empowering students to become autonomous learners.

~Nina Smith

When learning is seen as a product, the emphasis of the learning-teaching interaction is in instruction – and the thinking behind comes from the idea of students only learning when the teacher is instructing them, and only what they have been taught.  The reality is different, as any curriculum leader can tell you. At any given moment of time any given classroom has several ongoing curricula: intended, written, taught, actualized, learned, etc., so we cannot simply look at the learning product.  This product may be a paper, worksheet, notes, homework, essay, grade, etc., that we use to measure the results of students’ learning.

Emphasizing learning products makes mistakes very undesirable phenomena in the classroom – after all a perfect product is the goal, right?  And often the grade only reflects the finished learning product, without paying attention to how the student got there.  Maybe s/he already knew the content or had the skill, and didn’t have to study  or practice at all?  If we pay too much attention to the product, we may miss the important part of the learning-teaching interaction: the individual students’ main gain,  her/his increase in knowledge/understanding/skills that has happened as the result of instruction.

Now, very seriously: which one is more important to you? What your students know/can do — or how much they improve in what they know/can do? 

There is a big difference.

Improving what students know/can do inevitably leads to different end results, because each student has her/his own starting point. And this improvement, the increase, of course, IS the result of the individual learning process of each student.  This is also why helping students to become independent learners is so important.

Independent learners tend to automatically (or by learned habits) engage in their own learning process.  While observing these students we can see them intentionally influencing their own learning behaviours, and Bandura  (2006, p.164-165) described the four following components in their engagement: the intentionality of their learning, the forethought of their actions, their self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Of course, to be able to do all this, students must have certain amount of freedom in the classroom, which is why I am so fervently advocating for providing more choices in classrooms. Choosing is a skill that can (and should) be taught and learned, and it only grows when students have ample opportunities to try choosing in an emotionally safe learning environment, where mistakes are not only allowed but celebrated.

Just imagine how much more these students learn! They don’t need the teacher to motivate or engage them, because they are already “in the zone”. In the classroom these components apply straightforwardly to students’ engagement as intentional learning activity, and learning motivation and goal-setting as their forethought. Meta-cognitive knowledge is about knowing and understanding how I learn, knowing what is easy and what is hard for me, and where do I need to put in extra effort in learning. Independent learners, who engage in their own learning process already know these things. Wouldn’t it be important to help every student to possess this knowledge of themselves?

The third component in independent learning, self-reactiveness, relates to the way students control their own learning actions and regulate their own behaviour in classroom. As a teacher it is important for me to ask myself, how can I support my students’ self-regulation and  provide more autonomy for them. When students get to regulate their own learning process (pace, depth, breaks, note-taking, collaboration, additional information, etc) also the learning results, the visible and tangible products of learning, do improve.

Maybe the easiest way to support students’ learning process is to provide accurate and timely feedback. This strengthens the fourth component of independent learning, student self-reflection,  which is too often overlooked.  Feedback has been statistically identified as one of the  important teaching-learning factors (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), because it enhances both the learning process and the product we get as an end result of successful learning. Students self-evaluation is an important classroom practice, because it combines feedback and self-reflection.

To me it seems that too strong focus on the learning product leads to shallow learning (to just get by), and strategic learners  (to just get a good grade) instead of deep learning.  While independent students may have strategies to cope in product centered learning environment, the dependent students may not have a clue what they should do, or how they are supposed to do it – which further decreases their learning motivation.

Focusing on the learning process emphasizes the students’ responsibility in the learning-teaching interaction. It both enables and encourages students to engage in their own learning. This engagement helps both students and teachers to build learning up from standards and to achieve competencies needed in our modern world.



Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research77(1), 81-112.

Quality of learning, process vs. product

19 Jul

There are processes without defined products, play being probably the best example of it. Art and music don’t have a clear definitions of quality either, but we do recognize a masterpiece when we experience it. Learning works the same way. Each student has a unique learning experience, due to their diverse abilities and expectations, so the end result of learning must be open-ended, too. When students are forced into one definite learning outcome, i.e. product (think of 27 nearly identical pieces of “art work” on the classroom wall, copies of a model/template, provided by the teacher), something important of the learning quality is lost.

We already know how important play is for learning, as numerous studies show the positive effects of engaging in free play. One important part must be how play employs our creativity and curiosity. While guided play is sometimes important for concept development, it is necessary for anyone working with early childhood age students to be able to follow the child’s lead and verbally add new dimensions or elements to the play. Sitting the child down to perform a task an adult has planned has less effective learning components than enhancing the free play. Just because we will never create the same competence while  following the thinking of someone else, as we do while thinking  things through on  our own. Playing is the visual part of children’s thinking!  Helping students to engage with their own thoughts is a huge accomplishment.

There is also evidence about how social-emotional choices made during free play, like negotiating about taking turns, actually strengthen the same processes we need in scientific problem solving.  This makes me think how important it is to share our knowledge of learning and how it actually happens with students, so that they can be empowered to engage with their own learning process. Meaningfulness defines the quality of the play, as there is not an objective criteria for children how to conduct “good play”.  This is equally true with learning process, too, where meaningfulness perceived by the students drives their curiosity and engagement in class.

Measuring quality in education is hard, partly because there is not one universal definition what good quality learning looks like. People have different connotations about educational quality, and the cultural perceptions are also very diverse.  Learning, like play, is individual and very situational and contextual.

One way of approaching educational quality[1] is to see it as perfection of the learning process, where everybody involved is required to contribute to the quality of outcome, and can be held accountable for her/his own part. Isn’t this what we want for our students? For every student to be successful in their studies, and also have ownership over their achievements?

I bet every teacher knows about “teachable moments”, and those are the key components of a good quality learning process: to receive the information and inspiration at the right time, so that learning is perceived to be meaningful by the student. Learning quality in those moments is very high, due to engagement and ownership student experiences. These experiences are more likely to be saved in long term memory, because the ownership of learning process makes the transfer of learning to happen almost automatically.

In the classroom it looks pretty much as the following: We plan for optimal instruction, but students’ learning is something more than perfectly written, measurable performance objectives. Involving students in their own learning process helps them to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers cater for students’ individual needs and preferences to make learning more meaningful for them.

Excellent educational quality emphasizes the transformative learning process that involves both cognitive and personal growth of students. It is learning for life, not just for school. This transformational type of learning happens in individual interactions. Teachers have very big role in supporting these interactions: the younger the student the more important it is to have a teacher as a trusted adult to facilitate these interactions between students and their learning environment and resources.


[1] Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research55(6), 671-684.


Learning as unending process

25 Jun

While thinking of all my students – current, past and those in the future – there is one single wish I have for them all: to become a lifelong learner. Learning is an unending process that starts before we are born, and with the growth mindset it continues through our lives. Supporting that process is how I define my work, and I like to think that I contribute to my students’ academic learning as well as their growth as learners.

Our students arrive to our classrooms with diverse skills and backgrounds, but they all have also common needs. We all  benefit from having someone to facilitate our learning, someone to help us reflect what we have learned and thus guide the learning so that it becomes deeper. The simple word “learn” has very many connotations, so I want to define here that I am talking about transformational learning, and of that in the sense the learning being meaningful and relevant to the student.

Learning is a multidimensional phenomenon, which makes it even harder to define. Learning is highly individual, situational (time wise) and context dependent. Of course all these components also interact – so every teaching-learning situation is unique. This presents the requirement for open and honest communication in learning situations, and makes learning facilitation a superior tool as compared to the traditional view of teaching as information sharing activity.

Sincere communication is the foundation of excellent learning-teaching relationships. Asking open-ended questions is much more effective than being insincere and just pretending to ask genuine questions.  Students do know the difference between a (fake) question we ask to test their knowledge and a (real) question we ask to hear their thoughts. We even listen differently to the answers to genuine questions (think of the difference between listening and hearing).  Pretending to ask a genuine question when we already know the answer quickly erodes the trust and uniqueness of learning situation (I know this may be against some “questioning techniques” commonly taught during teacher training, but please bear with me), and when the deep connections have gone only shallow learning remains.

In addition to questioning, insincere communication often aims to use unnecessary power over students (for example portraying learning as an external product instead of internal process, using extrinsic motivators, not sharing learning goal/objectives) and thus prevents the learning process from being as effective as it could be.   True enough, in formal education learning is sometimes seen as a secondary goal, and performing (i.e. passing exams, getting good grades etc) as a primary goal, which of course shifts the focus from process to performance, and thus externalizes learning.

Without actively listening to our students’ needs, we easily forget how important part the learning process plays in permanent learning, and resort to cohort thinking and try to teach everyone at once with the one-size-fits-all approach.  Nganga (2011, p. 248) talks about teaching strategies and methodology:

“When successful teaching and learning is reduced to technical assessment rather than a critical and emancipatory dialogue, teachers continue to serve institutional organizational structures that maintain the status quo rather than educating to transform the lives of students.”

Teaching can be based on products, as we want to know that students have learned the bare minimum (usually defined as a learning objective/standards) and can also demonstrate it in exit assessment, but transformative learning –  if we are lucky – continues long time after the student has left the classroom. This is why we should recognize how teaching/instruction is just one part of the learning process, and the other parts (goals/motivation,  environment, prior knowledge, aptitude and readiness) need to be acknowledged with equal emphasis.

Learning Star3

Excellent pedagogical skill is is essential for teachers, because it helps balancing the products with the process. Learning cannot be confined to school or classroom, because the tools for learning are deeply connected to other parts of our lives. Communicating about the importance of continuous learning process empowers students to learn – where ever they might be. This is a known habit of successful students. To help all students achieve better learning results, we should be sure to communicate openly about learning being an intrinsic and internal part of students’ personality – not just something we do at school with the teacher.

Nganga, C.W. (2011). Emerging as a scholar practitioner: A reflective essay review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 19 (2), 239-251.

Is Learning a Product or a Process?

30 Sep

The answer to this simple but very important question defines not only your personal teaching philosophy, but also the daily practices in your classroom.

When learning is viewed as a product, and the same performance measure applies to all students, learning facilitation can be reduced to cookie-cutter teaching: same pieces of information and instruction are seen sufficient for all students.  This is also visible in classroom practices: proving students with an example of the ready product and asking them to copy that – whether it is an “art” project, notes, homework, an essay or anything else. There is not much room for individualization or differentiation, because the products are seen as the measure of learning – which of course is not reality, but may greatly satisfy administrators and policymakers.

In a product-centered learning environment emphasis is often in doing activities – worksheets, charts, pre-designed projects – that are either teacher-made or provided by the publisher of the curriculum. The important part of completing these products is getting them right because these products are usually graded! Skilled and obedient students comply with these requests and try hard to get their tasks done right, yet there are many students who just leave them undone. Completed products may show the “level” of each student, and let the teacher know who needs more practice in writing, multiplication or something else, but they don’t tell when the student acquired the skill, or if s/he is more advanced it it. Assessment reflects memorization and regurgitation [1]. Pre-designed materials  are handy and easy to use, but they often lead to surface learning simply because they were designed for another group of students in different educational setting with diverse connections to the subject. Your group of students is unique! They deserve instruction designed for them!

What about viewing learning as a process? Many things will change from the previously described situations: the first premise is that because students begin their daily/weekly/yearly learning from different levels of knowledge and understanding, they also will end up in different competency levels. And that is okay, honestly. We are not clones. Students shouldn’t be treated like ones.

When learning is understood primarily as a process of acquisition and elaboration of information [2], the natural consequences in the classroom are ongoing differentiation and individualization. Assessment becomes an individual quest to compare your own current achievement to your previous level of proficiency or competency – instead of comparing your learning against the achievements of your peers. Student evaluations are extremely non-punitive by nature: mistakes and second attempts are not only allowed but treasured, because they show the growth in deeper understanding and the height of the learning curve.  Isn’t this the recipe for providing the experiences of success for each and every student? And from educational research we already know how important that genuine thrill of achievement is for intrinsic motivation to learn. (APA, 2015)

Worksheets, exercises, activities and even homework are individualized, because learners have diverse needs and the teacher wishes to accommodate every student’s needs. As you can imagine there is not much need for cookie-cutter activities in these classrooms, but flexibility for students to choose within well-defined limits and pick activities they find meaningful or are interested in doing. I have heard people say how students will not do what they need to do, but what pleases them. Funny enough, students who get to choose usually learn much more than those forced into performing and producing, and they often pick tasks that are almost too hard for them. The same phenomenon happens when you let students choose their homework, from an appropriate selection, of course – and it is harder for even an under-performing student to explain why s/he didn’t do the homework s/he got to choose. This supports students’ growth towards self-regulated learners!

Approaching learning as an individual process helps us refocus learning and teaching: the student is in the nexus of her/his own learning, and the oh-so-tiring power struggle is minimized.  I know most of my teachers and readers are bound to the state/national/other high stakes testing – yet, I think approaching learning as a process is applicable everywhere, because independent learners also perform better in the tests. Independent learners often engage in deep learning.

Edit on March 20, 2017:

It seems that overemphasizing competition in education leads to the perception of learning as a product instead of emphasizing the learning process, and pushing the teacher-centered instructional model [6]. The decision is made on the level of curriculum and instructional design when learning outcomes are defined and aligned with the values of the educational system or the institute or district. Noddings [7] discusses the aims of education in curriculum development,  and states how the curriculum for 21st century must promote the attitude of continuing interest to learn. This is an important part of viewing learning as a process vs. product, and a sustainable choice for knowledge societies where individual, ongoing learning is crucially important.



More about learning as a process:

We often talk about learning without defining what it means. This causes confusion! [3] For the sake of clarity, I am using the definition of Illeris (2003) while discussing the learning process: “external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (p. 398).

Definition of learning as a process as seen on Lachman (1997)[4]: First, learning may not include a change in behaviour (this would exclude classical conditioning). Second, it is important not to confuse learning with the product of learning. Observable change is a product.

Please also check this page: Process or product? and these links: Quality of learning process and Neverending learning

My book about supporting learning process: Choosing How to Teach

Have questions or want to chat about learning process? Please Tweet or FB about it!



[1] Baker, E. L., & Gordon, E. W. (2014). From the Assessment OF Education to the Assessment FOR Education: Policy and Futures. Teachers College Record, 116(11).

[2] Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406.

[3] American Psychiological Association (APA), http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/teaching-learning/top-twenty-principles.aspx

[4] De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(4), 631-642.

[5] Lachman, S. J. (1997). Learning is a process: Toward an improved definition of learning. The journal of psychology: interdisciplinary and applied131(5), 477-480.

[6] O’Neill, G. (2010). Initiating curriculum revision: exploring the practices of educational developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(1), 61-71.

[7]   Noddings, N. (2013). Curriculum for the 21st century. In D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton (Eds.). The curriculum studies reader (4th ed.) (399-405). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.