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Teaching Tips

Helping Students Take Responsibility for Learning

A student’s attitude can be the difference between actually learning and just doing tasks. This post provides great tips for helping students take responsibility, as well as a list of inspirational movies that highlight truths about learning.


Is there a secret to lighting the fire that will get students to take more responsibility for their own learning? Could it be as easy as equipping them with a few simple tools and some new attitudes?

In current educational parlance, we talk about engaging students through active learning techniques. What if we could go one step further and empower students to see themselves as the architects (composers, authors, strategists, engineers, or designers—the metaphor matters little) of their own learning? Research indicates that learning-oriented students “engage in more attentive behavior, use deeper learning and studying strategies, and feel better about themselves as learners.” Their goal is to learn, not to just trade performance for a grade (Lyn Corno, “Encouraging Students to Take Responsibility for Learning and Performance,” The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 93, No. 1).

Where does one start in developing learning-oriented students? One way is to create a learning-centered syllabus.

You may wonder how you can teach the skills needed to develop students who take responsibility for their learning. Fortunately, a new curriculum is not needed—it is much simpler than that. Just find ways to communicate to your students that they can and should be proactive in their education. Create in them a learning-centered attitude. Pass the ball of responsibility to them and (to mix metaphors) let those who have ears to hear run with it. Point students in the right direction, and watch what happens.

The outcome will be students who know how they learn and study best and, consequently, who take advantage of methods and resources they had not previously considered. For example, students should know how to—

  • Ask and find answers to questions, any time and anywhere.
  • Acquire good study skills matched to their learning style, such as how to read a textbook, take notes, practice, and do research.
  • Find and evaluate supplementary learning resource materials.
  • Take advantage of a professor’s office hours.
  • Find and collaborate with other students.
  • Find professionals who are willing to mentor them.
  • Manage their time effectively.
  • Overcome inertia (laziness).

Perhaps you can have a little fun with this effort. In our media-rich culture, abundant movies not only provide entertainment but also contain some pedagogically sound practices to help students become self-reliant learners. The intent here is to use a concept from a movie—not to endorse, show, or discuss the film. So here we have . . .

An unofficial, unauthorized, unfinished list of movies demonstrating methods for taking responsibility for learning!

A Beautiful Mind Method

Nobel Prize winner John Nash learned while dealing with schizophrenia that to overcome the disabling brain disorder, he had to—

  • Take charge of his learning.
  • Learn new learning skills.
  • Figure out how to succeed.
  • Learn what to ignore.

These are valuable skills for everyone.

Apollo 13 Method

When an explosion crippled their capsule, the crew of Apollo 13 uttered those famous words: “Houston, we have a problem.” The ground crew went to work and against all odds brought the crew home safely. From that we learn—

Failure is not an option. When a learning experience goes dreadfully wrong, teach students to create a solution.

Catch Me If You Can Method

When teenager Frank Abingale, Jr. leaves home after his parents’ separation, he learns to survive by successfully posing as an airline pilot, doctor, and attorney (even passing a bar exam). In the process he makes millions before being caught and eventually starting a real career at the FBI.

There’s no limit to what someone with drive and need can accomplish, so give your students chances to become expert in a course topic. To prove their expertise, they might write a paper or article, make a presentation, lead a discussion, or teach a class. Keep topics small and discrete so that developing expertise is doable. The goal is for students to enjoy thoroughly knowing something that is intellectually enlarging. This works particularly well in major courses.

Ground Hog Day Method

Fictional weatherman Phil Connors finds himself reliving February 2 over and over again, until he learns to truly love and serve his fellowmen.

So why not learn it (a lesson, course material, whatever) right the first time? Teach students that although most courses and some exams can be retaken, relying on unnecessary repetition is a waste of resources. Also, the pain of failing remains much longer than the pain of doing what is needed to succeed.

Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration Method

The little-schooled farm boy follows the Spirit in his quest for religious truth and ends up restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the last dispensation. In the process he is taught and in turn teaches us some grand principles for learning, including—

  • Learn by study and also by faith.
  • Seek knowledge out of the best books.
  • Seek worthy teachers.
  • Pray.

Lorenzo’s Oil Method

When seven-year-old Lorenzo is diagnosed with an extremely rare and incurable degenerative brain disorder, his parents, frustrated at the failings of doctors and medicine, educate themselves about the disease. In the process they develop a treatment that dramatically slows its progress.

Students need to know that they should never give up in their quest for solving an important problem. They can learn to outperform the experts.

Mary Poppins Method

When a magical nanny comes to teach a dour British banker’s family how to enjoy life, we learn that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Help students discover the “sugar” (fun and enjoyment) in learning activities.

National Treasure Method

Ben Gates taught his young grandson that the founding fathers buried a treasure somewhere in the country and left clues as to its location. When the young man grows up, thanks to years of study, he finds and deciphers the highly cryptic clues which lead to a remarkable discovery.

We all need to remember that knowledge is power and developing excellent problem-solving skills (such as decrypting clues) will lead to “hidden treasures.”

Pursuit of Happiness Method

When broke, desperate, and abandoned by his wife, Chris Gardner applies for a six-month unpaid stockbroker internship where only one in twenty has a chance to succeed. He and his son struggle through homelessness and despair in a quest that eventually makes Gardner a respected millionaire. The lessons for us include?

  • Know what you want.
  • Work hard.
  • Sacrifice.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Be articulate.
  • Relate well to others.
  • Value family.

Short Circuit Method

When a military robot develops self-awareness after being struck by lightning, he meets Stephanie and learns the joy of learning. He voraciously reads, watches, and listens to everything in sight and still craves “more input.”

Create in students the desire for “more input,” along with clear direction on how to select that which is of greatest worth.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Method

Remember when the young Luke Skywalker learned that he is a Jedi Knight and has the power of the Force? During a difficult practice session with his mentor, his confidence falters but he says he will try again. Yoda tells him “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Students need to learn to have confidence, the determination to succeed, and a can-do attitude.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Method

When Anakin Skywalker (Luke’s father) is learning to use the power of the Force, Qui-Gon has to remind him to focus because, as he says, “Your focus determines your reality.”

Help students acquire sound study and practice skills needed to achieve their goals.

Wizard of Oz Method

When a tornado drops Dorothy in the land of Oz she learns, with the help of friends she meets along the way, how to get home.

Team up with those who support you. Seek out and do not fear the people behind the desk, podium, or at the board—they may play a key role in getting you where you want to be.

Now, it is your turn to add to the list! What movies inspire you to help inspire your students to take greater responsibility for their own learning?