Self-Directed Learning: How Students Can Create Their Own Lesson Plans

Today’s students have more control over their learning than previous generations. With the internet, school-aged children can easily research and find answers to questions about any topic that piques their interest. 

As a result, more teachers are embracing student-directed learning, an instructional strategy where students decide not only what they’ll learn, but how. Giving students more ownership over their learning develops important skills like responsibility and accountability. It also provides them with the unique opportunity of exploring a subject or theme they find interesting. Here’s how to adopt a self-directed learning strategy in your classroom.

Benefits of Self-Directed Learning

One of the best definitions of self-directed learning comes from educator Malcolm Knowles: “Self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

Teachers and education experts believe that self-directed learning has the power to help students grow, learn and thrive in ways that a traditional teaching format can’t provide. Specifically, self-directed learning helps overcome three common roadblocks that tend to prevent students from realizing their full potential. 

According to Lee Watanabe-Crockett, founder of Wabisabi Learning, these roadblocks go to motivation, ability and type. Students feel that they’re either not self-motivated, smart or talented enough to achieve those goals; or that they’re simply not the right type of person to pursue that dream.

Self-directed learning is designed to build student confidence in their abilities they learn, and in their ability to learn, says technology teacher Drew McConnell. While teachers can’t make students feel confident, they can foster an environment that inspires learning while motivating and challenging them. 

“This helps them develop the confidence they need to be self-directed learners in all of their lifelong endeavors,” writes McConnell. In a world where society is constantly changing and adapting, students need the confidence to learn how to change and adapt in response.

Helping Students Create a Self-Directed Learning Unit

Students may be unsure about the self-directed learning approach at first, especially when they’re accustomed to a traditional classroom model. The best way to help students warm up to the idea is by fostering interest in a skill, subject or event that inspired them. Teachers should be sure to provide ample resources for directing students toward the information they need.

Appropriate resources include media, learning programs and guides or mentors who have expertise in a certain field, says Lisa Petro, curriculum development consultant and cofounder of global education resource Know My World. She notes that the process of discovering interests is a great place to start self-directed learning because it is contagious.

“The more students feel the pride of figuring it out on their own, the more they will feel empowered to keep learning, and will repeat the pattern of discovery when applied to other interests and subjects,” Petro explains.

Self-directed learning

Pick a theme

The first step in fostering a self-directed learning course is to choose a theme, says adult educator Wendy Garland, Ph.D. “A teacher may give a general learning goal, such as to learn about a geographical area. Students would then work with the teacher to decide the scope of the project, length of time, and the end result that would demonstrate their learning.”

For example, a student may decide to create an educational website based on the cultures and people of South America in general. Another might focus specifically on one country and its environmental degradation. Someone else may choose a specific city and create videos based on that place. Garland says that the process allows students to choose learning objectives based on their personal interests and strength, which may make them more involved in the outcome.

Discuss goals

Once you’ve chosen a theme, it’s important that students know what’s expected of them. The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence suggests that teachers and students work together to create learning contracts, which map out exactly how those goals will be achieved, and when. 

The learning contract should include information about those goals plus resources, timelines, evaluation processes and procedures. This establishes an open line of communication between the teacher and student early on, which is important for student success.

Having objectives and goals clearly defined is important for preventing some of the most common mistakes around goal-setting. Jeff Cobb, author of “Leading the Learning Revolution,” says these include setting too many goals, failing to create clear objectives, tracking metrics and setting deadlines.

“Being rigorous and clear with your goals can help with establishing a true sense of commitment because it gives you a more realistic perspective on what achievement of a goal will actually require,” he explains.

Moreover, setting a clear timeline can help students manage overwhelm and anxiety at the thought of pursuing a project on their own.

Self-directed learning

Promote self-evaluation

Lastly, it’s important that students know how to evaluate their own work. One way to improve self-evaluation is to provide students with vocabulary for describing their finished products. 

One idea is to put vocabulary and tips for evaluation on a board or wall in the classroom, says  Cindy Montoya, principal at New Mexico School for the Arts. This can also help with peer critiques as students learn to evaluate each other’s work.

Another idea is to have students evaluate an anonymous sample of writing from the class, says English teacher Phil Wilder. This can be a collective evaluation where students learn how to look critically at their own work. It also allows students to ask any questions they may have about the evaluation process.

Model Self-Directed Learning Exercises

In the same way that teachers provide examples in other lessons, teachers need to provide models of self-directed learning. The TeacherFunder team explains that teachers are responsible for emulating and piloting the decision-making processes involved in self-directed learning. “This provides a way for students to improve their learning and gain greater experience in a safe setting, ideal for problem-based skill building.”

To start, engage students in a collective goal where everyone contributes their own skills and resources. You can model self-directed learning by emulating the success of high school teacher Alicia Bell and her students. In this class, students taught themselves to use 3-D printers and different software to design solutions for real-world community problems. For example, they printed a prosthetic leg for a local pet duck.

Guiding students toward the same goal helps them explore the self-directed learning environment. It can also show them how exciting it can be to work hard at common goal that makes a difference.

While self-directed learning is often thought of as an approach to a long-term lesson or unit, it can also be incorporated into daily or weekly activities. For example, we’ve previously discussed the benefits of Genius Hour, where students can spend one hour a week working on projects they love. According to the team at Digital Marketing Institute, how giving students a say in what they’re working in one subject on can improve their success in other subjects.

Sprinkling smaller activities such as these into the classroom environment can help students become more accustomed to the idea of self-directed learning. This way, when you do assign a long-term self-directed project, students have more confidence in pursuing the passion they’ve cultivated.

Images by: Anurak Ponapatimet/©, Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, ammentorp/©

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