August 20, 2015

By Jan Bryan

Over the past few years, an increased focus on educator effectiveness has permeated the literature and dominated conversations. The idea has been to identify the observable and replicable characteristics of teachers who routinely lead students to success. I reviewed these concepts in an earlier blog post on the role of empowerment in effective teaching and learning. In today’s post we’ll take a deeper look into the idea that students should own their learning—that this is their capital for success.

Students as Investors

In his November 2013 TED Talk, Hattie explores some of the influences that explain variations in student achievement—including school, teacher, and student. (For a comprehensive list, go to Hattie’s Visible Learning site.) On that list, teacher expertise is the variable that has by far the greatest positive impact—in particular expertise in providing ongoing formative evaluation of each student’s progress. As teachers and students engage in routine reviews of progress, they become partners in achievement. twitter icon As a partner, the skilled teacher guides students to invest and “continually reinvest in this business called learning so they will want to do more of it” (Hattie, 2013).

And this point is beginning to pop up more and more in the discourse: Students are investors and learning is their property. twitter icon  They own it, and it becomes their capital for success in school, in college, in their career, and throughout their lives (Bryan, 2015). The more—and more wisely—they invest, the greater their return (Hattie, 2013).

How Teachers Become Achievement Advisors

Ideally, as students invest in their learning, teachers become their achievement advisors—understanding precisely what is to be learned and which resources and techniques are proven to grow learning capital. Like their financial counterparts, teachers must understand where each investor is, establish attainable goals, and then develop and plan and locate resources to reach those goals. In addition, they must also make all of that information understandable to the learner.

Think of each lesson as an investment opportunity for students. The ROI (return on investment) includes deeper knowledge and greater access to achievement. Hattie’s starting point for each investment is to understand clearly at the beginning of every lesson where each student is on the pathway to achievement.

Next, our investors need to see what success looks like. Hattie uses a video game analogy to explain the power of visible achievement. When you log in to your game, the gaming software accesses your prior achievement (previous score), and based on that score, sets a new target for you with tasks and challenges to complete along the way. When assigning the tasks or challenges, the game employs the “Goldilocks principle”—making sure each task is neither too hard nor too easy, but is just right for you. A lot of deliberate practice goes into meeting the new target. And when you master that, the game raises the bar ever so slightly, and you want to reinvest in your achievement.

Essentially, this is no different than what happens in schools, and in the most effective classrooms. Namely, students know precisely where they are on the way to completing the task and reaching the next level of learning. Additionally, students know what success looks like in the series of lessons. How do teachers make that success visible from the get go? Some examples include:

  • Display the expected outcome
  • Walk through a worked example
  • Review work of students from previous semesters or prior years (with all identifying information removed)
  • Collaboratively develop a rubric for scoring the work

The takeaway? Make the investment worth it to the learners by making the ROI (return on investment) visible, providing each student with the image of what they will be able to do after effective engagement with the lesson.

Feedback and Timing

How do we keep success visible during instruction and while students work on the tasks? Feedback is critical. Grades and written commentary yield less than promising results in student achievement because, in part, that feedback is given at the end of the work (Wiliam, 2011). Engaging in verbal feedback with students during the work illuminates mistakes—making student thinking visible. Mistakes can be the catalyst for growth. Learning something new is an incredible opportunity. The process of measuring student achievement incrementally to inform the next steps in instruction may prove a wise investment. It currently holds more promise for promoting learning success than any other instructional practice or school improvement innovation (Stiggins, 2014, Wiliam, 2011).

Think of verbal feedback while students are working on their learning as micro-investments with incredible growth opportunities. Here are two examples to illustrate the point:

  • If you save for 30 days, starting with a penny on day one, and each day going forward you save yesterday’s deposit plus one penny, at the end of 30 days you have $4.65—enough for a cup of coffee. No huge exponential increase in the investment—just one extra penny added to your previous day’s investment into a jar every day.
  • If, on the other hand, you assess, review, and build on your investment, growth is much more impressive. Each day, let’s double the investment made the previous day. Day one, put a penny in the jar, day two, drop two pennies in the jar, day three, drop four pennies, and so on. Each micro-investment builds upon the other. The growth is incremental at first, and you may think it wise to revise your strategy; however, around day 12 you’ll need a bigger jar. At day 18, the exponential growth is astounding. At the end of day 30, you have $10,737,418.23. Enough for several coffee franchises.

In the classroom, the first example equates to no especially timely feedback or student ownership of the learning. You’ll see some growth if you’re looking closely for it, but it may not be that noticeable. When you get students to invest in their own learning—and you couple that with timely verbal feedback throughout the learning process—the resulting achievement is closer to the exponential increase and payout of the second example. Each day, the student is able to visualize the target, learn from mistakes, and entirely incorporate your feedback. Essentially, the student engaged in this way can reinvest twice as much as the day before and is increasingly motivated to do so. When students own their learning, and teachers provide the right feedback, the mechanism is that powerful.

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Join the conversation. In the comments below, I invite you to share your ideas, techniques, and strategies. What do you do to help students understand that learning is their property, that they own it and it is their capital for success? How do you make success visible? How do you employ verbal feedback as an investment strategy?


Bryan, J. (2015). The power of an effective educator. Renaissance.

Hattie, J. (2013). Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful? John Hattie at TEDxNorrkoping. Retrieved from

Hattie, J. (2015). Hattie ranking:  Influences and effect sized related to student achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from

Stiggins, R. (2014). Revolutionize assessment. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.
Wiliam D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press. Bloomington, IN.

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