What’s an Empowered Student?

That was the question, followed by, “Are they students who want to take over the classroom?” “No,” I replied, “it’s about how students approach learning—motivated, confident, and ready to tackle the task.”

Unfortunately, “empowered” is not how many of our students approach learning. They sigh, think about how hard it’s going to be, think about how they aren’t going to like it, worry that they’re probably not smart enough, wonder if there might be some easier way, and wish they didn’t have to undertake such an arduous task. And if they do try and don’t instantly succeed, they give up quickly. We’ve all seen how students who aren’t empowered respond to new learning tasks.

Like many widely used descriptors in higher education, “empowered learners” has acquired a more generic meaning, and that is unfortunate because it’s the specific meanings that give this moniker its teeth. As a concept, empowerment was first used to describe a kind of relationship between managers and employees. It was defined as “the process of creating intrinsic task motivation by providing an environment and tasks which increase one’s sense of self-efficacy and energy.” (Frymier, Shulman and Houser, pp. 182-3)

Thomas and Velthouse offered one of the first specific descriptions by identifying four dimensions of empowerment.

  • Meaningfulness –This describes the value of the task in relation to individual beliefs, ideals, and standards. If the work you need to do doesn’t have much or any meaning to you, doesn’t seem to hold much or any importance, then there isn’t much or any motivation to work hard and produce quality work.
  • Competence –Here’s the confidence piece. Empowerment derives from feeling qualified and capable of performing the work. You can handle what you’re being asked to do.
  • Impact –The more impact you believe you will have, the more motivation you feel to work hard. You are empowered if you believe you’re doing work that makes a difference—work that matters and is important.
  • Choice –This dimension relates to whether you get to determine the task goals and how you will accomplish them. The more choice you have, the more empowered you feel.

It’s an easy transition to take these descriptions of what it means to be empowered in the business world and apply them to the classroom—changing from managers to teachers and employees to students. And much research verifies the relevance of empowerment to education. When students are empowered, they learn more, and they learn better.

So how do we help those tentative, cautious learners who are lack confidence in themselves and, above all else, want learning to be pleasant and painless? There is good news: Teachers can play a key role in empowering learners. They don’t do it with baseless hype about how wonderful students are or how students can do anything (especially when they know those students are missing key skills). They do it with accurate descriptions of those actions learners must take in order to succeed. They make the tasks clear and explain what steps to take and in what order. They do it by identifying relevant resources and they do it by supporting student efforts.

Then, after they’ve done that for a while, they start asking students to identify the actions they need to take, in what order, as well as locate whatever resources they may need to complete the task successfully. Teachers celebrate successes with students, even small ones, and teachers are there showing students how to make learning experiences out of failures. Students are empowered by good coaching.

Beyond teacher-student relationships, teachers can empower students by making sure the work students do is meaningful and important. Authentic assignments empower students. And finally, teachers need to talk about how beliefs affect behavior. Student beliefs about what they can and can’t learn powerfully influence what they do and don’t learn. The Frymier, et. al. reference includes sample questions from the instrument they developed that students can use to understand why they should work toward becoming empowered learners. Empowered learners do better in courses and in life.

References: Frymier, A. B., Shulman, G. M., and Houser, M. (1996). The development of a learner empowerment measure. Communication Education, 45 (3), 181-199.

Thomas, K., and Velthouse, B. (1990). Cognitive elements of empowerment: An “interpretive” mode of intrinsic task motivation. Academy of Management Review, 15, 666-681.

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