Taking Risks and Giving Up Control

— Jeanne M. Slattery

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Figure 1. My summary of my students comments.

I decided to approach my classes differently this semester than I typically do. On our first day of class, I walked into my two inquiry seminars and asked them what they liked about college, what they didn’t, and what they wanted our class to be like. Listening to my students talk about their previous educational experiences sometimes brought me (literally) to tears. I then asked them what they would do to make our class successful. Mind you, these classes were comprised solely of freshmen. See Figure 1. We continued this collaborative process on day 2, when I asked my students how they wanted me to grade their attendance and class participation.

There are a number of reasons I have generally been uncomfortable with this approach to teaching. In particular, I tend to plan my courses very carefully and am apprehensive about giving up control, especially in my freshman classes. So why am I choosing to approach my courses in this way?

One of the most important things our students can learn is how to take responsibility for and ownership of their own learning. It’s more important (to me) that my students learn how to learn than that they learn particular facts — although I also want them to learn the facts and theories that are central to psychology. I want my students to recognize that they are in charge of their learning, and that I won’t — and can’t — spoonfeed them. I want them to become excited about their learning, rather than just sliding through life.

How did they react?

Did my students have great insights about how we should handle attendance and participation? I didn’t walk out of class with a well-developed rubric, although I didn’t expect to; nonetheless, they did strengthen my thinking about how to approach grading and this course. More importantly, I wanted to help my students take responsibility for their learning, perceive themselves and the learning process differently, choose to actively engage with their classes, and become active learners inside and outside the classroom. On Day 3, as we talked about why we were requiring freshmen to take inquiry seminars, they seemed to get it without me ever having explicitly describing the philosophy underlying our inquiry seminars. At that point I knew that I was on the right track.

What am I doing to help my students take ownership of their learning?

I am doing a number of things in these courses to help my students develop a new way of thinking about their learning:

  1. On the first page of our syllabus, I describe the differences between our class and many of their previous classes. See Figure 2.
  2. I posted a summary of their responses to my first-day questions in a widget on our Homepage to remind them that they asked for the educational experience we are creating together this semester. See Figure 1.
  3. We’re trying different seating patterns (i.e., small groups or a larger circle), encouraging them to be more interactive with me and with each other. Such seating arrangements allow them to take greater ownership of and responsibility for their own learning.
  4. I expect students to come to class prepared to discuss their readings — and I have set up assignments to make that more likely. For the first time, I am asking my students to use double-entry reading logs, and am discovering that they are engaging more deeply with their readings as a result. (Thanks, Leah and Rich!)
  5. I am not using PowerPoints — or only when I have a specific figure, table, or video that I want to discuss with the class.
  6. I am asking my students to reflect on what they’re learning, to talk with their peers, and to apply what they’re learning in ways that are important to them (Clayton & Finley, 2010).
Figure 2. Contrasting our class process with that which many of my students have previously experienced.

Figure 2. From our syllabus: authoritarian and more collaborative classes.

Why am I doing this?

When I was in high school, I was a bright but indifferent student. My parents were told that I was an underachiever. Against my parents’ better judgment, I spent my senior year in the Center for Self-directed Learning, where we created our courses, developed our strategies for learning, and evaluated our own progress (with our faculty).

My approach to school didn’t turn around overnight, and my involvement with the Center wasn’t the only positive influence on my life, but my approach to learning did turn, and it turned around significantly. During that year, I learned that I was in charge of my learning, learning was fun, and things were only boring when I refused to engage.

While I’ve used techniques like these in other classes, this is the most radical attempt I’ve made, particularly in a General Education course. Teaching this inquiry seminar has been scary, but it seems that if I expect my students to take risks, as Suzie Boyden asked them to do at Freshman Convocation, I need to take risks, too. I anticipate bumps, but so far this journey been rewarding for them and me.


Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Many thanks to Melissa K. Downes who, as usual, helped me pull my ideas together more clearly and thoughtfully.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park). A third, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives, will be coming out in 2016. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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2 Responses to Taking Risks and Giving Up Control

  1. markbjenkins says:

    Been working on similar ideas in my class. It’s high school, so I have to do a bit more groundwork, but it changes the nature of the class for the better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jslattery22 says:

      These students have one step in high school and another tentatively in college. Given how they described their high school experiences, glad to hear that you’re doing similar things in your classes!


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