Supporting Learner Responsibility

Balancing Structure and Choice

Do you find that learners rely heavily on you to direct their learning and are motivated primarily by their desire for an external reward like specific recognition or perhaps a high grade? When learners exhibit these behaviors, it’s because they lack the skills and motivation necessary to take responsibility for their learning. However, because these skills are developmental and situation-dependent, there are strategies you can implement to help learners develop intrinsic motivation and become more autonomous.

What’s the evidence?

While a thorough understanding of a learning sequence is important, the more the educator directs learning in an overly-specific, step-by-step way, the less opportunity learners have to control their own learning (White, 2007). There is a balance to strike between supportive “scaffolding” and the motivating experience of choice. We all can become more effective learners when given the space to do so in a supportive environment. With practice, explicit guidance, and clear expectations, learners can improve in their ability to identify what they need to know, set goals, seek help, and learn effectively (Zimmerman, 2000).


The strategies described below can help you generate a variety of opportunities for your learners to take greater responsibility as learners (English & Kitsantas, 2013):

  • Outline key milestones to help learners visualize the learning process they need to navigate.
  • Show several different examples of successful deliverables to give learners concrete direction, but also signal the latitude within which they have autonomy to explore on their own.
  • Coaching, feedback, and guidance throughout the learning process can help learners course-correct and learn to learn.
  • Structured discussions, informal feedback, journaling, and prompts for explanation are approaches that elicit articulation and reflection—two key processes in effective learning.

Click here to see more on how to help students Engage Exemplars.



English, M. C., & Kitsantas, A. (2013). Supporting student self-regulated learning in problem- and project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(2), 128-150.

White, C. B. (2007). Smoothing out transitions: How pedagogy influences medical learners’ achievement of self-regulated learning goals. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 12(3), 279-297.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.