Do I Have a Voice? Student Ownership Drives Engagement Among Urban Youth

By Jennifer Fredricks
September 1, 2017

Student disengagement is a rampant problem in our schools. It can lead to lack of participation and effort, behavioral problems, disaffection and withdrawal, and failure to invest deeply in learning. According to national studies, more than 50 percent of students show signs of disengagement (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007; Yazzie-Mintz & McCormick, 2012). The consequences are especially severe for urban youth of color, who are less likely to graduate from school and face more limited employment prospects than their wealthy and white peers.

Why do some urban students disengage from school? What experiences influence their decision to engage or disengage?

To help answer these questions, our research team at the University of Pittsburgh interviewed 22 urban middle and high school students whose engagement levels varied. We felt it was particularly important to talk to youth directly because student experience drives student engagement.

Through our interviews, we found that student ownership over learning, a key component of student-centered instruction, played a critical role in a student’s decision to engage. Student ownership means giving students both voice and choice in how they learn. Research shows that when students feel ownership over their learning they are more connected to school and more invested in learning (Reeve, 2006).

Though research repeatedly suggests the importance of ownership experiences in students’ decisions to engage, our actual practices in schools often fail to capitalize on this knowledge.

In fact, the students we interviewed reported inconsistent ownership across their classroom and school experiences. On one hand, most students had the opportunity to make some choices about what they were learning and provide feedback on class content and assignments. They also were able to choose electives, like art and drama, which were often aligned with their interests and offered relevant and interesting learning experiences. These were among the more motivating and engaging classes that students described.

However, most of the instruction the students described seemed to restrict student ownership. Teachers primarily lectured and made few adjustments based on students’ needs and interests.

They listened passively to the teacher and felt the work was repetitive and often irrelevant to their lives. Students found these environments generally disengaging. In contrast,

students found that working interactively on meaningful tasks was far more engaging, and when they experienced such conditions they reported greater effort, likelihood of participation, and interest in the content.

Unfortunately, these qualities were much less common in their academic classes than in their electives, leading some students to question the value of their learning. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that where value is lacking, engagement will drop.

Students also told us they lacked opportunities for input in decision-making at the school level. Typical of many urban schools, the schools we studied placed strong emphasis on control and conformity with strict dress codes and inflexible disciplinary standards. In these schools, even a minor infraction could result in suspension. Several students complained that the learning environment limited their voice and led staff and teachers to make unfair assumptions about their behavior. As a result, many students felt controlled rather than inspired.

The bright spot in our study was the students’ desire for more active engagement in academic tasks and for greater ownership of the content and the design of their learning. When faculty provided these things it was experienced as trust being placed in the students, and this, in turn, was more engaging to the youth we interviewed. And on the flip side, when teachers encounter student disengagement and respond with restricted instructional approaches and disciplinary policies that limit student voices and choices, it can exacerbate rather than reduce youth disengagement. Our research indicates that listening to youth, paying attention to their signals, and opening opportunities for them to enhance their ownership over their learning are the kinds of student-centered practices that most promote active engagement with content and academic activity.

The next blog post will reveal how teachers and school leaders built strong relationships with students and how those relationships can help increase student engagement.

Jennifer Fredricks is a Students at The Center Distinguished Fellow and the Dean of Academic Departments and Programs and Professor of Psychology at Union College. She authored Eight Myths of Student Engagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning (Corwin Press), and is co-editing the Handbook of Student Engagement Interventions: Working With Disengaged Youth (Elsevier Press), which is due out in 2018.


Reeve, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy-supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. Elementary School Journal, 106, 225–236

Yazzie- Mintz, E. (2007). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington: Center for Evaluation & Educational Policy, Indiana University.

Yazzie-Mintz, E. & McCormick, K. (2012). Finding the humanity in the data: understanding, measuring, and strengthening student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pg. 743-762). New York: Springer.

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