“Nobody told me I’m responsible for my own learning”


You think it is self-evident that university students take responsibility for their own learning?

Um. No. It’s not.

Last year I taught third year social work students in their field practicum seminar. One of the important goals of this seminar was to encourage peer learning and peer support. All 20 students were also doing their first field placement.

I spent an enormous amount of class prep time designing creative and participatory activities. Students were participating in their small groups of 2 or 3, but very reluctant to speak in front of the group of 20.

Now these are social work students – they have to be able to speak in front of groups. It’s part of their job.

After 6 or 7 weeks, they were still not participating. I needed to understand why.


Students talk about their lack of participation


One day, right in the middle of an interactive activity, I sit down. I stop everything. I can’t go on this way.

I’m not angry with them. But this is a very painful process.  So I do what I should have done a few weeks earlier. I tell them:

This is a seminar based on group participation. But most of you aren’t participating.

I’m not blaming you. But I honestly want to know: Is it something about my teaching? Are you not following me? Is there a problem with the content? Please talk to me.


More silence.

Finally, a student timidly volunteers,

“We didn’t understand what a seminar was. We thought it was like a regular class. Nobody ever explained that to us.”



Culture of passive learning

Another student adds:

All our lives we have sat in a class while somebody lectures to us. We take notes. We’re supposed to understand and remember what they tell us. We get tested on it. That’s what we think university is about. That’s our experience. Nobody ever told us that we were responsible for our own learning.

Then others say:

It’s a culture shock, being in a seminar and being told we’re responsible for our own learning. We need time to figure out how to do that.


OK, now I’m officially in shock. And my syllabus makes a loud cracking noise and falls in shards around my feet.

But I’m adaptive, if nothing else. I quickly realize that before I can go on with the topic of reflective practice, I have to help them learn how to take responsibility for their own learning. You can’t teach reflective practice very well if nobody is reflecting on their practice!


Shifting students into active learning

During the next month, I took time during each class for activities explicitly dealing with active learning. We talked about fears, barriers, supports to active learning. I also kept making links to practice – a professional needs to be responsible for her own learning.

To my delight, it worked! Ironically, this was their first experience of reflective practice in community.

In the final exam, I asked them to identify what was the most important learning of the year. One student wrote:

The most important thing I learned was that I am responsible for my own learning.


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.


9 responses »

  1. Which is why I am passionate about KPM Approach to Children, where children learn how to learn and guide themselves from the moment they enter the schoolground. And so much more. It’s never passive.

  2. Pingback: Social work scholars’ responsibility for their own learning « A Just Society

  3. Welcome to my world. I struggle four-five months every year against student and parent as I teach mathematics in a non-lecture fashion. That they have any role in a mathematics classroom other than passive receptors is completely foreign to them.

  4. Pingback: Planned Obsolescence » Blog Archive » Teaching Carnival 3.2

  5. I grew up having to sit in my seat, keep my hands to myself and not speak until I’m called on. I didn’t succeed with that until I was in grad school (MSW). Then after being diagnosed with ADHD at age 40, the business culture starts a rant about thinking outside the box. I always knew there wasn’t a box.

    Having grown up in an ADHD friendly family my spirit wasn’t squashed thank god. Imagine how much is squashed without that early acknowledgment. We train our young people well. Then what do you expect?

    By the way, I taught Psych 101 in community college for 2 semesters. That was more than enough!

  6. I always teach in an ADD-friendly way, which allows people to move around at points and to be active. University can be really hard on ADHD students, especially if you have to sit still for long lectures. I get bored easily, so I try to teach in a way that doesn’t bore my students.

  7. I’ve heard other teachers say this, too. At the university level, I’ve had some students express betrayal when they are required to learn more actively — it’s like I’ve changed the rules and it’s not fair to them. But I believe the entire field of education will be undergoing a radical shift in the next few years and people like you will be at the cutting edge.

    A professor that actually facilites thinking…what a great idea!

    …In my experience I have mentored and assisted too many with on the job, common sense knowledge sharing.

    What bothered me? That they had more education than I.

    I am currently collecting definitions of common sense – just for fun!

    Add yours…

    Thanks Prof !

  9. This video is great and I’d laugh if it wasn’t so true to life.

    The only thing missing was an image of the yellowed notes the lecturer wrote the first semester he taught the class 10 years ago.

    Oh… and maybe a few smudged up overhead sheets and the stack of unread hand-outs left behind on the lecture hall floor.

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