Own Your Education | Arts and Science ONLINE

Own Your Education

How to Be a Proactive Learner

By: Maggie Veneman

The proactive personality is defined by Bateman and Crant (1993) as one that takes action to influence environmental change. Proactive personalities ‘scan for opportunities, show initiative, take action, and persevere until they reach closure by bringing about change.’

         - Gerard Kickul

The Office - DwightBeing proactive is a crucial part of the learning process. If you want to get the most out of your education, you need to be assertive.  Here are some key characteristics of a proactive individual:

  • Someone who takes initiative in individual work as well as group projects
  • Someone who is motivated by the desire to learn, rather than by the desire to receive praise and avoid criticism
  • Someone who sees their professor as a guide
  • Someone who is resourceful and self-sufficient

Regardless of whether you identify with any of these traits, we all have the potential to be proactive learners. If you find that you are more passive than active in your learning style, you should consider becoming more active by interacting with your peers, asking your professor or TA questions, and taking charge of your learning process. If you need total silence to concentrate, take the initiative to go to a library to study instead of at home. If you have a question for your professor that wasn’t answered in the module, email her/him directly. If your family or friends are not being supportive of your education, explain to them why it is valuable and important to you.

As it turns out, students who are proactive are more satisfied with their courses overall. You get what you put in. If you send your prof or TA ideas you have for an upcoming assignment, you’ll receive feedback from them before you have to submit the assignment. This feedback will show you what you did right, and what you still need to work on, improving your learning experience. In their article “Optimal Learning in Optimal Contexts: The Role of Self- Determination in Education”, Frédéric Guay et al. explain that students are more highly motivated when their motivation is “primarily based on intrinsic, integrated and identified regulations.” Motivation to be proactive has to come from within; you have to want to take responsibility for your learning, and once you decide that is what you want, you will be able to reach for it. Reach out to others in your program, and you’ll be amazed by the advice they can offer you.

Final piece of advice: don’t resign yourself to the archaic vision of education where the professor is in control and the students are passive listeners. You are just as responsible for your education as your professors are, if not more so. Take action, and own your education.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.   

         - Oscar Wilde


Setting Learning Goals

You’ll notice that in every course you take, the professor has outlined learning outcomes or learning objectives, usually in the course syllabus. According to the Faculty of Arts & Science Guide to Curriculum Mapping, learning outcomes:

  • Set shared expectations between students and instructors
  • Provide a valid source for students to set learning goals
  • Provide clear directions for educators when making instruction and assessment decisions
  • Provide links between learning goals across courses and years

Part of owning your education is taking the initiative to set learning outcomes for yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:

What do I hope to gain from this course?

What study skills can I work on improving during this course? (eg. essay writing, research, time management, exam prep)

How can I connect this course to my education thus far? Does it build upon another course I’ve taken? How so?

What is my learning style? Try this self-assessment for individualized study tips:


Once you answer these questions, you should be able to sketch out some learning goals for your course(s). Be sure to write these goals down, and keep them in a place where you can refer to them often. You should always take into account both your personal learning objectives, and the official learning outcomes that the professor has set for the course. If you don’t understand the learning outcomes on the syllabus, be sure to ask your professor or TA for clarification. Be proactive, know what you want out of the course, know what the professor wants from you, and you will excel.


Communicating with Profs and TAs

Adapted from Student Academic Success Services

Contacting your professor for advice can be quite daunting. If you’re struggling with a particular topic or assignment, your prof or TA will be able to help, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Your instructors can help with the following:

  • Explaining course content
  • Clarifying assignment instructions
  • Help with research – profs know a lot about their subjects
  • Be a reference for grad school or job applications

How to contact your prof or TA:

  1. Send an email with your name, student number, course code, and question
  2. Be clear and concise
  3. Be polite – always address profs and TAs professionally
  4. Check the syllabus first to see if you can find the answer to your question
  5. Do not send multiple emails if your prof hasn’t responded – like you, they are busy people. They will get back to you.

Here’s a sample email you may want to use as a template:

Good morning Professor Smith,

I am a student in your ENGL 100-001 online course. I am hoping that you can clarify something about the upcoming assignment for me. The instructions state that we need to use research to support our thesis statement, but I am having trouble finding any research related to my topic (animal metaphor in To The Lighthouse). Could you direct me to some relevant sources?

Thank you very much.


Claire Davies


Why Being Proactive Matters: Advice from a TA

Why should I talk to my TA?

Having been a TA for several online undergraduate courses, I have seen the difference between a passive and an active student, and the impact that being proactive can have on your final grade. The worst thing about being a TA is having to give out bad grades; contrary to popular belief, we don’t mark hard just for the fun of it. We work closely with our profs to ensure that students are learning and excelling in the course, so having to mark a poor assignment makes us feel like we’ve been unsuccessful as educators.

So how can you improve your grade? It’s pretty straightforward – just come to us before the assignment is due for advice, not after you’ve handed it in and received an unsatisfactory grade. We like hearing from our students, and we are usually able to give some pretty solid advice.

Dealing with a lack of motivation

If you’re reluctant to approach your prof or TA for advice, it may be because you lack motivation, or you’ve been procrastinating your assignment and left it too close to the deadline. Luckily, there are great tips out there on how to quit procrastinating and stay motivated:

Motivation and Procrastination

Focus and Concentration

Laurier Learning Resources

Ecampus Ontario

Don’t hesitate to use the resources available to you and take responsibility for your education. You can be proactive, and your grades will thank you for it.