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Volume 27, Number 4
July/August 2011

Student-Directed Learning Comes of Age

Teachers adopt classroom strategies to help students monitor their own learning


On a weekday night midway through the academic year, 200 sophomores, juniors, seniors, and their parents filed into a large, noisy multipurpose room at Chatsworth High School in Los Angeles. At the head of the room, teachers sat at one long table, as if registering voters. Students lined up at the table to obtain a short assignment (such as writing a thank-you letter to someone who has influenced their learning) and a checklist for assignments they must complete by the year’s end. Together with their families, students completed their assignments and checklists and reviewed their portfolios. Before the night was over, all 200 attendees lined up again, lists in hand, to return to the teachers.

The evening was meant to be a combination of back-to-school night, parent-teacher conference, and progress report exercise all rolled into one. But it was also meant to send a strong signal to the students who are part of the interdisciplinary humanities program at Chatsworth called Humanitas. “Their education is their responsibility, in particular for seniors here,” explains Kathie Donner, a Humanitas art teacher and former lead teacher.

An insistent drumbeat of research findings, as well as newly adopted curriculum standards, continues to sound out a message to educators that the work of learning must be shifted from teachers to the ones doing the learning. That’s because research and anecdotal evidence suggest that when students manage their own learning, they become more invested in their own academic success. Self-directed students also deploy critical-thinking skills more readily when confronted with challenging schoolwork.

Research dating back to Jean Piaget has shown that children are naturally active learners who, from infancy, begin to make choices and set goals in order to solve problems. Recently, a University of Texas (UT) study showed that even a small choice—such as being able to pick from two significantly different homework assignments—can increase engagement, confidence levels, and grades. Erika Patall, the assistant professor of educational psychology at UT who conducted the research using randomly assigned groups of high schoolers, says the study “makes it pretty clear” that feeling autonomous can pay dividends for students.

In addition, Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts adopted last year by 43 states and the District of Columbia encourage student-directed learning (SDL). The standards set learning outcomes beyond simple knowledge of content by emphasizing active inquiry and analysis on the part of students (see sidebar “Students and the Common Core”). Students and the Common Core
The Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia last year, make it clear that students will be expected to take an active role in their own learning that goes beyond typical classroom requirements such as memorizing and summarizing content. Following are some of these standards:
• Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
• Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence
• Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing [the student’s] own clearly and persuasively
• Make sense of [mathematical] problems and persevere in solving them
• Apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.
Source: “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” and “Common Core State Standards for Mathematics,” Common Core State Standards Initiative:

In response, teachers and schools are experimenting with a variety of strategies to foster SDL. This can include choice of content, assignments, and pacing; project-based learning, group work, and progress management; and self-assessment.

Choice and Accountability

Providing chances for students to make decisions is a characteristic of SDL strategy. At its core, this orientation helps students focus on what is discoverable on their own about the subject matter in order to foster critical and creative cognition, says Ivan Cheng, associate professor of secondary education at California State University, Northridge, who instructs teachers on how to teach diverse, urban student populations using SDL. The strategies, Cheng says, are less about the prescribed body of knowledge that educators are always required to teach than about “the how and the methodology, where students are given lots of opportunities to make connections and connect the dots.”

At the Mare Island Technology Academy, a charter school in Vallejo, Calif., teacher Jill Hodges uses a combination of choice and accountability to help her ninth-grade students generate high-level essay questions. Working with John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, for example, Hodges asks her students to first develop two fairly straightforward inquiries about the content of the novel. For instance, what would a “wanted” poster say about Lenny Small (the tragic, developmentally disabled character who accidentally kills someone and then flees)? She then asks students to formulate two additional questions that force them to drill more deeply into the book. Hodges models this kind of question by asking students why Lenny fled after the accident.

Hodges hopes the freedom to create their own inquiries will deepen the students’ understanding of the novel and improve their ability to think critically. That freedom, she points out, does not make the assignment any less challenging. “There is a strong component of accountability, as the students are responsible on some level for moving their knowledge forward,” says Hodges, who notes that her classes are instructed to generate questions that can only be answered in three sentences or more.

Hodges acknowledges that the foundation for learning in her English classes is a clear understanding of the novels they read, which she facilitates through teacher-centered instruction. After that, though, “the best way, the real way, to get kids to higher levels of thinking is to get them to question their own world and then to compare their world to the world of the book.”

Choices, and the accountability those decisions imply, are also deployed by Hodges’s colleague Chris Shook. Shook, a technology teacher, creates a series of Microsoft Word exercises and assignments and allows his students to pick which ones they will do first, relative to a final deadline they must meet for the entire series. Shook says that letting students determine when work is turned in during the grading period actually accelerates the pace of their progress; he estimates that 70 percent of his students actually turn in the multiple assignments early. He also lets students put their own spin on assignments. For example, for a recent spreadsheet exercise, students were required to make currency conversion tables; however, the choice of countries and currencies was theirs.

In the Humanitas program in Los Angeles, students fill out goal sheets at the beginning of the year detailing what they hope to accomplish academically during the year, where they feel they need extra help, and what field they hope to pursue after high school. (They must also research on their own what academic preparation is needed to enter their chosen field, how much one might earn doing the work, and where one might go to study it.) Donner says that requiring students to track their own progress and explain it to others prepares students for a collegiate environment where they take on the burden of planning and executing an academic program in pursuit of a degree.
Unfamiliar Territory
How far can schools and teachers go in placing responsibility for learning on students’ shoulders? In some cases, the responsibility is small, as when teachers ask students to fill out “exit tickets” on which students briefly jot down for the teacher what they learned from the day’s lesson before leaving the room. At the other extreme are projects in which students choose not only the content but also how the project is to be graded.

At the Avalon School, a charter school run by teachers and students in St. Paul, Minn., much of the learning students do is project based. Students research topics independently, gathering information from a variety of sources—whether it’s writing a graphic novel about the American Revolution or producing an Internet video travelogue. When students first come to Avalon, they are often confused by the broad scope of the decision making required for the projects, including how to structure them to meet state standards, says program coordinator Carrie Bakken. Students are often encouraged to start with a project that involves subject matter they are passionate about and to work with their advisers to develop a project task list to keep them on track.

Students also develop rubrics to assess their projects. Bakken and another adviser provide a template for the rubric with overarching categories, including quality of product, process and improvement, and project management. Students then develop specific points to be assessed based on the content of the project. Requiring this level of oversight from students prepares them for the kind of self-management they will need in college and in the working world, Bakken says.

Teachers pursuing student-directed learning report that, at least in the lower and middle school grades, it can take considerable effort to help their pupils develop the kind of thinking skills and self-reliance required to make decisions and to seek out answers that would otherwise be provided for them in a more traditional teacher-directed classroom.

It may be tough, teachers say, for students to seek out resources instead of relying on an instructor. When working in groups, some teachers recommend the tactic “Ask Three Before Me” as one way to remind students to consult first with classmates, the Internet, or materials they may have already received before throwing a question to the teacher. For many students, self-reliance in the classroom is unfamiliar territory.

A Premium on Process

Teachers also report that it’s often difficult initially for students to critique themselves or others for grading or assessment purposes. “When they come from traditional classrooms, you really have to set up this kind of learning and know the age group,” says Angela Cartee, an English language arts teacher at Hancock Place Middle School outside St. Louis. “They don’t think about how they operate or whether they did the right thing, and when they do 10 minutes of work, they feel they did their part.”

In response, Cartee requires her students to consult three resources (“Ask Three Before Me”), such as an encyclopedia or fellow students, before coming to her with research-related questions. Another requirement may be to write a how-to paper in which students sketch out multistep directions to demonstrate their knowledge of how to research a topic independently.

Carol Dweck, the Virginia and Lewis Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, cautions that embracing student-directed learning without first establishing a framework to support students in challenging tasks can lead many students to give up or choose the easiest path when encountering obstacles.

Teachers provide such a framework when they introduce a task as one that all students can master through hard work and by praising students’ strategies, persistence, and progress, rather than the outcome or their ability. Teachers can also praise students’ choice of challenging tasks, conveying that these are tasks that will make them smarter. In this way, teachers can promote autonomy and equip students with the mindset that will optimize learning, says Dweck.

“I’m a believer in choice and autonomy, but it’s not the same thing as focusing on process. It has to be structured with an eye toward promoting the student’s belief in the possibility of intellectual growth,” says Dweck, who has studied how students with “growth mind-sets” outperform students who believe intelligence is fixed. She adds, “[SDL activities] are excellent practices; they make kids invest in these particular tasks. However, the question is: are they able to handle difficulty, and are they learning in a way that transfers to other subject matter?”

Dave Saltman is a writer, teacher, and tutor in the Los Angeles area.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Avalon School

L. S. Blackwell, K. H. Trzesniewski, and C. S. Dweck. “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development 78, no.1 (2007): 246–263.

Chatsworth High School Humanitas Academy

T. Garcia and P. R. Pintrich. “The Effects of Autonomy on Motivation and Performance in the College Classroom.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 21, no. 4 (1996): 477–486.

Mare Island Technology Academy

E. A. Patall, H. Cooper, and S. R. Wynn. “The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom.” Journal of Educational Psychology 102, no. 4 (2010): 896–915.