Self-Directed Online Learning: Lessons Students Can Do Without Parents

Remote learning has been an adjustment for many kids, who miss their friends and have a hard time focusing on one screen all day. It’s also been an adjustment for their parents. Parents are either working from home, trying to balance helping their children with a 40-hour workweek, or still need to report to the office, leaving their kids at home.

As an educator, you can help by developing lesson plans that don’t require a parent’s support or guidance. This takes stress off of parents who feel like they need to step in as secondary teachers. It also protects your students, who may feel insecure if their parents are unavailable. 

As we think about what September may bring, this guide can help plan lessons that kids can do on their own or with minimal adult help.

Be Wary of Too Much Self-Directed Online Learning

It’s natural to want to use this time to encourage students toward self-directed learning. They are home and alone where they can focus on their own coursework and interests. However, self-directed learning might not be what your students need right now. 

“This is not a good time to truly start self-directed learning,” the team at Tallgrass Sudbury School explain. “Self-directed education usually involves plenty of time away from home, lots of time connecting with others in person, and taking full advantage of a wide range of opportunities.” 

Students now aren’t able to get these valuable interactions and form a deeper understanding of the material as those who were self-directed before the pandemic. 

Still, some students are more self-directed by nature, writes Lauren Barack, an executive editor at Gearbrain. They will respond better to pre-recorded classes and solo-work. However, other students do better with teacher and peer interaction as part of the learning process.

Even while providing recorded classes, check in with your student and give students set times to ask questions and engage.

Focus on Engaging Students With the Material

As you develop your lesson plans, brainstorm ways to keep students engaged and interested.

“When I work with teachers and in the curriculum classes that I teach, we’re always trying to come up with ideas to get students more engaged in a way that also makes the lessons more rigorous,” explains Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford. “Project-based learning is a good way to do that.” 

Pope recommends asking students to create projects based on their interests. One example is linking something they enjoy (playing baseball or skateboarding) to lessons about physics. This engages students while still incorporating relevant course materials.    

In an article for Edutopia, Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson, authors of “Developing Growth Mindsets,” encourage teachers to focus on the fun aspects of learning, rather than rote memorization of the core material. “When you embody passion for learning, your students are more likely to have a powerful, positive emotional connection to learning that will inspire their motivation to continue to learn,” they write. 

Right now, if kids are learning without parents, they can easily tune out the message and ignore the learning material. However, if learning is fun and engaging to them, then they are more likely to pay attention.

Self-Directed Online Learning

Ask Students to Teach Each Other

Peer teaching and student lesson-plan development can reduce the burden on you as a teacher while creating memorable lessons and student social engagement.

“If you have 25 students in a class, why should they all read the same chapter in a Social Studies book or answer the same Math questions again and again?” the team at Wabisabi Learning asks. “Having every student do one or more research project in lieu of the regular homework during the school year will help most, if not all, of the students develop a different skill.” 

Consider breaking up course chapters for students to focus on and then hold round-robin discussions in small groups. This is a great way to cover large blocks of material if your semester was disrupted and it lets students interact when they otherwise can’t.

“When students actually teach the content of a lesson, they develop a deeper and longer-lasting understanding of the material than students who do not teach it,” writes Elisabeth Stock, CEO of PowerMyLearning. In fact, research has found “that the act of preparing to teach alone can lead to short-term gains, but the act of preparing to teach coupled with actually teaching another person is what leads to long-term retention and deeper learning.”

Students can also create study materials for each other to help their peers prepare for any future tests or exams. 

Invite Guest Speakers and Storytellers to Your Classroom

Consider bringing in guest speakers to have discussions about the topics covered in the classroom. For example, you can ask a local biologist to talk about invasive species or invite a local author to talk about the creative process. 

The Intercultural Open University Foundation says this may have more benefits than you realize. Students in lockdown (or who are social distancing) are in the same room all day with minimal interaction. This is even harder for kids without parents nearby. Your storytelling session or guest speaker can give them a connection to the outside world and the chance to talk to someone new. 


Incorporate Art Into Your Lesson Plans

When possible, try to bring art to your students. This can be as simple as playing music for them while they work or asking them to create drawings or cartoons related to the material they learn. 

“Art helps children express emotion in a meaningful and honest way,” the team at online education marketplace Sawyer explains. “Art activities help kids regulate their emotions so they learn how to control themselves when they are overwhelmed by anger and frustration.”

These past few months have elicited a flood of emotions in students, ranging from loneliness and fear to anger and frustration. Art can help students process these feelings and understand what they are going through.

Additionally, music provides a channel for students to form connections when they might feel alone. 

“Learning about musical history and exploring different types of music can help kids connect with different cultures,” the team at the Art And Music Center in Rio Vista, California writes. “Art and music help people feel more connected to one another, as well.”

As you build art and music into your lesson plans, try to be cognizant of the resources students have at home. Most students can’t run out and buy art supplies in the middle of a pandemic and you will likely find that not all students can afford them. Try to develop art assignments with basic items (like found objects in the home) or in a way that all students can participate equally.

Don’t Jump on Every New Software Tool or App

There are thousands of online resources available for your lessons — many of which are free or have steep discounts for educators. However, that doesn’t mean that you should use dozens of resources to supplement lesson plans. 

“This is…not the time to try a new product that will require getting accustomed to or deviate too much from the curriculum currently being covered,” Kecia Ray, Ed.D., president of K20Connect, writes. “Remember, the goal is to be as seamless as possible in covering the curriculum and the least disruptive to lesson and unit flow.” 

Your students have had enough change this year already. Plus, introducing a new tool could put some students behind if they can’t access it or navigate the content. There may be no adult available to guide them, so you would have to interrupt the class and spend time explaining how to use it.

“Avoid tech overload,” Adam Maksl, associate professor of journalism and media at Indiana University Southeast, says. “Keep it simple, for your own sake and as well as for your students.”

Self-Directed Online Learning

Create Mental Breaks for Students

You may want to develop shorter lessons and build more free time for your students during the day. This can be a socializing time or an opportunity for students to get some fresh air.

The team at Children and Screens encourages students to take a “digital recess” each day to get away from the screen. Teachers can set alarms and mimic traditional school, giving students a set period of time to go outside or simply play at home away from the computer. This allows them to rest their eyes and their minds, returning to the “classroom” later ready to learn. Without parents to monitor screen time, you can create screen breaks for your class.

Studies have found that these breaks are significantly more effective at helping students learn. 

“Breaking learning up into several, short chunks of time is better than cramming learning into one block,” Fiona Tapp, writer and educator, writes. This is called the “spacing effect,” and allows learners to fully digest information and retain it before taking in more.  

Use Your Space to Talk About COVID-19

In some cases, teachers can build their lessons around current events and step in when parents don’t have the answers or lack the time to discuss them. 

“When you can make coronavirus an opportunity for learning and not just an obstruction to it, loads of work can be done in math with graphs, probabilities and equations of how it spreads under different conditions, Valerie Strauss writes at the Washington Post [subscription required]. “Kids can study the history of polio, smallpox and the Spanish flu (including the fact that it started in Kansas).” 

Geography, geometry, science, social studies, civics, ethics, and even religion classes can focus on the pandemic and the events surrounding it. This gives students a chance to process what they are experiencing and assign words to their feelings.

This focus can continue as we develop lesson plans for the fall semester. Students will likely have questions about the pandemic and what we have learned so far. They will want to know why they are still learning online. You can help answer these questions.

Images by: dolgachov/©, rido/©, Victoria_Borodinova, StockSnap 

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