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3 Ways to Accelerate Student-Driven Learning

By Paul Wurster
July 9, 2021
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Ask Michele Eaton how to accelerate student-driven learning and she will likely mention blended learning, student autonomy and engagement.

Eaton, the director of Warren Online Academy in Indianapolis, Indiana, and author of the ISTE book The Perfect Blend, says blended models have the potential to support customized student-driven learning for the whole class.

“Online and blended learning creates a pathway for students. It gives flexibility where it's needed, but ultimately for traditional classrooms, it is the medium for which we can more easily scale personalization,” she says.

Here are three tips for personalizing learning in your classroom: 

1. Select a model of blended learning

When looking for ways to accelerate student-driven learning, Eaton recommends reflecting on the incredible amount of new skills and knowledge you gained during distance learning. Now, it’s time they take the best of what you implemented in remote and hybrid settings and use it to improve instruction when classrooms are back to full capacity.

“Consider the practices you have used when teaching online or hybrid. What changes did you make or what elements of new learning would you like to bring with you in the coming school year? What practices should continue to evolve when adjusting them for a face-to-face classroom?” she asks.

This reflective exercise is part of a Summer Learning Academy micro-course Eaton is leading in called “Accelerating Student-Driven Learning.” The course includes an exploration of various models of blended learning and a chance to learn more about models that can help teachers best maximize instructional time.

“Moving forward, the goal is not to do the exact same things we were doing this last year. Online and blended learning doesn't have to look like that, but we can take elements of it and move forward,” she says.

The Perfect Blend

2. Activate learner autonomy

Research shows that blended learning is a great way to support key factors of student-driven learning, such as learner agency and autonomy. Choice boards, checklists and playlists are some of Eaton's favorite tools to help teachers activate student choice. Each tool serves a specific purpose and can give students agency and autonomy over pace, path, time or place.

“The research is pretty clear as far as giving students choice and how powerful that is in terms of engaging students, but it doesn't have to be anything big. The research tells us that even the perception of having a choice has an impact.”

Choice boards  

These are organized activities in a grid, often like a tic-tac-toe board or bingo board. Students make choices about which activities they want to complete.


These are lists of activities for students to complete independently while the teacher meets with small groups or individual students.


These involve a combination of whole group learning, face-to-face opportunities and online learning, as well as individual, collaborative and even small-group learning. What this looks like in the classroom can vary based on the needs of the students, the teacher and the subject matter, Eaton says.

“The goal is that we are not giving students control over everything,” she says. “The teachers are making thoughtful decisions over what they need to structure and what they can release to students. So there are different tools you can use based on what it is you would like to give students autonomy over.”

3. Engage and motivate students

One of the biggest struggles that online and blended teachers face is ensuring students are motivated when working digitally — either remotely or independently in the classroom. You can help students stay engaged by developing their self-efficacy and executive functioning skills through intentional lesson design and delivery.

“We often attribute students' lack of engagement to defiance or laziness and what the research tells us is that this is not necessarily accurate. The most common reason a student would not be engaging is simply a lack of self-efficacy —  a lack in their belief that they are going to be successful,” she says.

Research around efficacy is clear, she says. When students experience success early in the learning process, the belief that they will continue to be successful grows.

One way to do this is through low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes that include feedback about where to search for answers. This ensures that all students have a common understanding and it builds self-efficacy because it creates an opportunity for students to earn 100% on the first test they take. Research shows that this method helps to build online study skills as well, especially when feedback is provided,” Eaton says.

To learn more about accelerating student learning, sign up for the Summer Learning Academy 2021, Aug. 2-3, for just $35.

ISTE Summer Learning Academy

Paul Wurster is an education writer and technical editor based in Oregon.