Growing Student Voice and Learning

Zmuda/Campbell: Growing Student Voice and Learning - teaser

The heart of personalized learning is personal—students have a fundamental role as partners in the learning process where their voice is instrumental in maximizing impact of the experience. This article explores how teacher-librarians can provide opportunities to amplify student voice with their students and colleagues. First, let's begin with our definition of personalized learning:

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes (Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman 2015).

While the fascination with personalized learning continues to capture the imaginations of many school stakeholders across the nation, the instructional shifts necessary are still a work in progress. Let's take a closer look at key phrases to better understand the shift in instructional mindset and the power of student voice. The explanation for each phrase is followed by a common illustrative example from Pleasant Valley School District, Bettendorf, Iowa, where Campbell was instrumental in working with a group of sixth-grade students to launch a podcast.

  • "Progressively student-driven" highlights increased levels of student autonomy and self-direction. They are, and have always been, the stewards of their own learning. Our job is to inspire them to think critically and creatively around key topics that are both chosen for them (curriculum) as well as their own selections.

In Pleasant Valley, sixth-grade students came to their teachers because they wanted a forum to talk about topics of interest and communicate with a bigger audience. They were excited that our administration took their ideas seriously and was giving them a chance to share their voice with the real world.

  • "Deeply engage" clarifies the intentionality, focus, and struggle students experience as they work through learning experiences that are at the edge of their competence. Our job is to listen with understanding and empathy to their frustrations and ideas as well as use probing questions to help them consider strategies and next steps.

In the beginning, podcasting was messy for the Pleasant Valley team. It was a year of working together, experimenting, failing, revising, and even starting over. Now, four years later, one of our student podcasts, BooksRUs, has had 1,000 downloads, with listeners around the world. The work has spread to other classrooms and grade levels who are now podcasting: Food Talk, Marvel Madness, and Danger in the Safety Zone, to list a few.

  • "Meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges" indicates that student perception impacts level of persistence and willingness to lend their minds to the learning experience. Our job is to develop opportunities with students to publish or present content to engage with broader practice these standards in a manner that matters to them (ISTE 6d).
    • Meaningful—it matters; they can see connections to their personal experience as learners, citizens, and workers.

    Students in a seventh-grade English classroom in Ridgefield, Connecticut, reached out to interview the BooksRUs podcast team for advice on how to develop podcasts. From their interaction, the students were able to appreciate their impact as well as reflect back and examine how their skill sets have grown.

    • Authentic—there is an audience and purpose, the work students engage in can potentially impact others within and beyond the school walls.

    Bringing author interviews into the podcasts has been a new twist which has enhanced the work. As one student said, "Our content is richer when we are able to gain insight from the authors." Authors now become stakeholders in this work as well.

    • Rigorous—cognitive demands that include multiple steps and layers with regular opportunities for feedback and revision to attain a level of success.

    Students from Chadwick International School in South Korea used Flipgrid to listen to Pleasant Valley podcasts and provide constructive feedback. Not only is the collaboration improving the students' skill set, students are building their conversational competency skills, gaining confidence in their ability to exchange ideas on multiple platforms, and inspiring others.

  • "Desired outcomes" emphasizes the goals or aims of learning that are aligned with state and national frameworks. Our job as educators is to identify and articulate broader goals to drive assignments designed for a curricular program (teacher generated or co-created with students) and those inspired by individual pursuits (student generated).

For example, Iowa articulated Universal Constructs to guide the development of competencies and behaviors for 21st-century learners: critical thinking, creativity, complex communication, collaboration, and productivity and accountability. The podcasting example has a clear connection to each of these categories that are drafted and shared with students:

  • Using voice to describe thinking and ideas to others' to build shared understanding and/or new meaning (Critical Thinking, Collaboration)
  • Remaining results-orientated when faced with new information and/or challenging situations and make suggestions to move ideas forward (Collaboration, Productivity and Accountability)
  • Generating and refining ideas, techniques, and skills to hone one's craft (Creativity, Complex Communication)
  • Engaging in metacognition to improve the quality of thinking by analyzing, assessing and reconstructing the ideas (Critical Thinking)

Illustrative Example of Desired Outcomes (Avon Public Schools, CT)

Studying state and national frameworks is incredibly helpful to develop district-wide desired outcomes. This example stemmed from a broader, multi-year curriculum renewal process within the district for all subject areas. The following statements were the result of extensive collaboration with K-12 library media specialists, the K-12 digital informational specialist, district leaders, and Zmuda based on examination of AASL and ISTE standards:

    • Pursue a passion, aspiration, and/or interest through exploration and/or creation.
    • Locate and vet resource(s) based on a set of criteria to research a topic or question.
    • Construct meaning, challenge assumptions, and make informed assertions by analyzing, using, and citing relevant information and ideas from resources.
    • Collaborate with others toward common goal(s) where everyone has a voice in both design and ownership of the work.
    • Engage in positive and respectful interactions in physical and/or virtual forums to broaden perspectives and deepen knowledge.
    • Demonstrate digital citizenship through safe, ethical, and legal practices.
    • Develop and refine a solution to a student-generated question or challenging problem using a design process.

Taking Action: Collaborating with Students and Staff to Develop Responsive Learning Experiences

Students are respected and valued as participants and recognize the power of their ideas and the ideas of others. However, increasing opportunities for student voice should be paired with the development of essential skills that grow in sophistication and complexity. For example, the sixth-grade podcasting opportunity has its roots in the primary grades:

  • By end of grade 2:

    • I can share positive and helpful messages for others on a virtual platform.
    • I can revise my message to make sure that it says what I want it to say, before it becomes part of my digital footprint.
  • By end of grade 4:
    • I can write a blog post that shares my thinking for a given topic that demonstrates respect for my audience.
    • I can develop my craft to make my writing clearer and more precise (e.g., clarity of purpose, organization of ideas, use of evidence, appropriate language).
    • I can help my peers clarify their voice and message through studying their writing and providing constructive feedback.
  • By end of grade 6:
    • I can work with others to generate and develop ideas for a target audience (e.g., cultural and geographic diversity on virtual forums).
    • I can develop original content that is comprehensive, clear, and respectfully crafted.
    • I can be trusted with the jobs I am assigned and the level of professionalism in my work (e.g., accuracy, integrity, citations).

These statements are as applicable for growing students' capacity to engage with podcasting as they are for teachers and teacher-librarians designing meaningful curricular experiences across a range of subject-specific topics. The following chart is designed to inspire your thinking in how to personalize learning that is respectful of your learning partners, aligned with state/national standards, and focused on rich and powerful learning.

Designing learning activities that are engaging in the moment but have limited long-term impact Developing parameters for students and inviting them to share their thinking as to what areas of focus are interesting to them or necessary based on an understanding of a problem/need Students' guiding purchasing decisions as they suggest titles so access is not a stumbling block. When teacher-librarians empower students to purchase books, they can engage with the titles and have powerful conversations with each other as well as see other ways to make the books come alive (e.g., drafting reviews, sketchnoting, leading book clubs).
Expecting that personalized learning can be done quickly. Slowing down to clarify the why, being open to students to shape the what, and tend to the psychological safety that readers, researchers, and creators need to thrive. Students' examining the physical layout of the library and identifying strategies or parameters to help guide the learning for that space. For example:

  • Where could seating be to encourage deep immersion in a text?
  • How do students seek out and share expertise with others?
  • How could students help define expectations for success for all within the space?
  • Where might the green screen and recording equipment be placed to maximize thinking and communicating with the clarity and precision essential to the creation process?
Teachers and teacher-librarians at work on parallel tracks to design learning. Teachers and teacher-librarians engage with one another to share ideas, approaches, and results in service to desired outcomes.
  • Students' developing projects (within and beyond what is assigned) that can be documented in a school-wide portfolio to showcase growth in desired outcomes.
  • Students' engaging in deep, ongoing inquiry practice and sharing what they found to construct meaning, challenge assumptions, and make claims.
  • Students' growing their reading capacity as demonstrated by increased exposure to a range of language/literary devices, connections to the global world, and a range of genres/perspectives.
Being satisfied that the task is done. Encourage revision, and feedback, and editing. Help students see the power of this cycle of improvement.
  • Students' studying their work to identify strengths, areas for improvement and suggestions for next steps.
  • Students' reflecting on their process and highlighting moments where they had a breakthrough in their research. For example, discovering a source that shifted their perspective or drafting a more sophisticated question that honors their growing content knowledge.


Growing student voice and autonomy takes time, intentionality, and collaboration. Based on work across the country to grow personalized learning over the past several years, here are some final tips we've gleaned from other educators to help guide your journey.

Tips to Amplify Student Voice

  • Start small. A shorter, more contained first step will be a win/win for everyone.
  • Build a team of like-minded individuals who are willing to join you on the journey and share the load.
  • Be vulnerable. Students are forgiving and will be ok with the 'mess' of the learning curve.
  • Establish a flexible timeline and be willing to shift and adjust as needed.
  • Listen to your students. Involve them in establishing the purpose and audience, mood, and tone. Truly hear what they are saying about process and result, and demonstrate that what they say impacts next steps/iterations.

Works Cited

K-12 Transfer Goals for Library and Information Literacy. Avon Public Schools.

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalizing Learning with Habits of Mind. ASCD, 2017.

Universal Constructs: Essential for 21st Century Success. Accessed January 15, 2020.

Zmuda, Allison, Greg Curtis, and Diane Ullman. Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2015.

About the Authors

Beth Campbell is an innovation technology coach for the Pleasant Valley School District and an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa in the School of Library and Information Science. You can connect with her on Twitter @hopewelllibrary.

Allison Zmuda is an education consultant who works with schools around the world to grow opportunities for personalized learning within existing curriculum as well as imagine new ways to make learning more challenging, authentic, and worthy of the attempt. She has co-authored eleven books and curates You can connect with her on Twitter: @allison_zmuda

MLA Citation

Zmuda, Allison, and Beth Campbell. "Growing Student Voice and Learning." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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