The Balance of Power Between Students and Teachers

A photo of a professor holding chalk, standing in front of a chalkboard.

Why are students often passive learners? Why are students often hesitant to express themselves?

Is there something about the way we teach that makes students dependent learners, that inhibits their development, making it so they can’t learn unless teachers tell them what and how? (Weimer, 2013, p. 89)

Power exists in all human relationships. In this article, we explore power issues in the classroom and what instructors can do to create a better balance of power. Because while it may appear that the instructor has all the power, this may not be the case:

Despite making most of the learning decisions for students and controlling most aspects of the learning environment, students still get to make the decision that matters most. They, and they alone, decide whether or not they will learn. Teachers cannot learn for students or force learning on them…In reality, the balance of power in the classroom favors students. They can render teaching pointless by not learning. (p. 93)

Yes, if students choose not to participate, not to learn, they won’t pass the class, but the power to learn still rests with them. However, we still hold fast to the belief that all the power rests with the instructor. Teachers often attempt to control the learning situation in the syllabus. Weimer provides three reasons for why we hold fast to our assumptions as teachers that we must remain in control of our classrooms and students’ learning:

  1. We often assume that students are too young and immature to make important course decisions or decisions about their learning.
  2. We tend to teach as we were taught and as we have always taught – which is usually based on the instructor selecting and controlling all the course decisions.
  3. Teaching makes faculty feel vulnerable and being in control helps.

Sharing Power in the Classroom

Notice the key word here is “sharing,” not giving. We are not giving all the power to students. Instructors can allow students to have input on classroom assignments and strategies, policies, content selection, etc. Here are some potential ideas for sharing power with students:

  • Content
    • Students can help decide what content to discuss in class and what to learn outside of class.
    • Students can select topics within a range of topics for class assignments.
    • Students can decide what to explore in small groups given course content as a base.
    • Students can choose topics for their papers, their research, and their discussions based on their own interests, needs, and level of readiness.
  • Assignments and activities
    • Instructors can create a set of criteria that assist students in making effective choices including dates, requirements of each assignment, detailed instructions, and assessment criteria.
    • Instructors can allow students to select from a group of equally weighted assignments and provide a rationale for how their selection will affect their learning in the class.
    • Instructors can allow students to submit their own plan for completing the assignments with due dates and deadlines and product timelines.
  • Course policies
    • Instructors can have students work in groups to determine the types of participation expected in class and the assessment criteria for participation and report their results.
    • Instructors can have students provide input in the construction of the syllabus.
  • Evaluation & Assessment
    • Instructors can allow students to offer feedback about course grading criteria.
    • Instructors can facilitate student self-assessment and peer-assessment.

By sharing power, students can address their own needs and interests and the freedom to think critically and creatively. Students can make their own meaning of content and better connect new learning to prior learning. Students who have choices can become active students who are interested and involved with learning. Instructors can help students find relevance in their learning and increase their participation in the course. 

Sharing power in the classroom isn’t an either/or proposition. Instead it’s based on a continuum of power from instructor control to student control. Where on this continuum do you want to place the “balance” of power? If this is a graduate research course, for example, students could have almost full control of their work with guidelines and criteria for assessment from the instructor. On the other hand, if your students are beginners in your field, you may choose to maintain a greater amount of control. As you determine where you and your class sit on this continuum, consider the following questions:

  1. Can some students choose to participate in the sharing of power and others not?
  2. How much choice increases motivation and how much leads to chaos?
  3. What is our responsibility if we allow choice, but students make what we see as poor choices?
  4. There is always a diversity of learners in a course; some who are developmentally ready for more choices than others. How do we account for this variability?


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.