"How are they going to meet deadlines when they're adults?"
"What does it take to get students to think for themselves?"
Until recently, these were the words my colleagues and I would utter when we found ourselves frustrated by our students’ lack of intrinsic motivation. They often seemed unable to figure things out for themselves, and as much as we tried, it was a challenge for us to help them overcome a lackluster approach to their academic responsibilities.
In my search for a solution, I began to think about the structure of my classroom and how the traditional learning environment shapes student engagement. As a firm believer that people respond to their surroundings, I asked myself the following questions:
How do I allow students to take responsibility for themselves?
Do I give students enough opportunities to make decisions about their learning?
Have I shown that I trust students to shape their own learning environment?
In my reflection, I realized I had plenty of room to grow in creating a learning environment that fosters independence, choice and student decision-making.
Self-paced learning differs from the traditional teacher-led, whole-class lessons in that it allows students to use materials and resources to customize the way they learn in class. The self-paced method allows students to design their own learning experience, not only at their own pace, but according to their own interests and learning preferences. The role of the instructor is to provide guidance, feedback on proficiency and tailor the learning environment to students' needs.
I decided to give it a try. My colleagues, Cristie Watson and Logan Riley, and I worked together to create our first self-paced unit. Here’s how we made it work our classrooms using state-mandated curricula:
Choose an activity. First, we had students access a Google Doc that gave an overview of the unit and outlined the learning goals and various activities associated with each.
Students browsed the list, picked an activity that interested them and decided how they wanted to interact with the content. For example, some students took Cornell notes on readings, others created Minecraft structures depicting a learning goal topic, and many engaged with EdPuzzle videos with embedded questions to guide their learning. Students could go online to do research or find resources whenever they needed to.
Request an assessment. When students feel like they’ve mastered the material, they can request a check-in, which involves answering a question in writing on the learning goal. We discuss their answer and if I feel they’ve demonstrated mastery, they move on to the next learning goal. If not, they can select a different activity and try again.
Other benefits of self-paced learning
Not surprisingly, most students liked having choice in their learning and remained engaged in the academic content. But engagement wasn’t the only benefit of the new format. Here are five unexpected surprises:
Students were free to leave their seats as many times as they needed to select materials for their learning activities, answer check-in question or gather resources. Before we tried this approach, students had few opportunities to leave their seats without a movement-based activity. I would pass out our whole-class materials, and students wouldn’t have to move a muscle. As you know, not moving a muscle for an hour is uncomfortable for most of us but can be excruciating for active kids.
I wondered if allowing additional movement would be distracting and promote wandering, but I discovered it was not. Students knew where to go and what to do. They were more purpose-driven in their actions because they were allowed to choose what to do. They had to think for themselves about their next steps as opposed to being told what to do.
Oddly enough, in addition to more movement in the classroom, there was also less movement. The fact that students were allowed purpose-driven movement cut down on random chair scraping, loud foot-flopping, annoying pencil-rapping and free-wheeling pen-clicking.
In order for my students to independently select learning materials, I was compelled to reorganize my classroom in a thoughtful, deliberate way. I clearly labeled the learning stations with instructions, and I modeled how to move through them. This helped students grasp the literal motions of self-paced learning.
As a teacher and mom, organization is supposed to be one of my strengths. It's not. Because I'm a teacher and mom, my brain functionality is that of a browser with dozens of tabs open at once. Becoming organized allowed students to function as they should in a self-paced classroom — and closed a few tabs in my mind as well.
3. More time for relevance
An amazing thing happens in a classroom where students select their learning goals, collect their materials and know where to find additional supplies. They independently engage with technology and content, and I get to do what every teacher dreams of being able to do. I am free to float from student to student to answer content-related questions. Without a barrage of logistical questions, I now have time to work with students one on one to foster student understanding and critical-thinking skills.
4. Quick results
I expected some students to lag behind on self-paced learning. To my surprise, many students were completing activities and check-ins much more quickly than they had finished whole-class activities. And yet, their check-in responses did not seem rushed or composed with intentional mediocrity. Students simply worked at a quicker pace than my previous classroom structure had permitted. The quick results allowed me to provide same-day and direct feedback, rather than going over check-ins during the evenings. Students were able to rethink and revise immediately, with no lapse in time to hinder full understanding of our learning goals.
5. Effective, personalized feedback
Prior to self-paced learning, I would offer general feedback to the entire class about check-in responses instead of giving individual students. I might say:
"I've noticed that some check-ins simply list a lot of facts about the subject of the question, but do not answer the question. For example, if a question asks how the pyramids reflect the values of the Ancient Egyptians, I'm reading some laundry lists of facts about pyramids, but nothing about the values that the pyramids represent."
I realized that presenting group feedback fell flat because often students felt like the advice didn’t apply to them. When I give direct feedback to students individually, they know that I’m talking about their work specifically. It resonated more deeply than when I would offer feedback to the whole class at once.
Self-paced learning boosts confidence
Self-paced learning has proven to be an effective way to allow my students to customize their learning environment to fit their needs as learners. It also shows them that I trust them to design their own learning, gives them a sense of responsibility for their academics, boosts confidence in their choices and allows me to give direct, immediate feedback to each student at least once a day.
On top of that, students use technology every day to access online interactives, which gives them endless possibilities to show their learning.
As educators, we exhaust ourselves trying to figure out how to best teach our students individually. Self-paced learning allows students to show for themselves how they best learn and to gain valuable information about their own learning that they can carry with them for life. Self-paced learning truly transforms a classroom.
Watch the video below to learn more about the self-paced classroom:
Catherine Stanley is a sixth grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Gravelly Hill Middle School. She believes in student-teacher relationships to foster success in the classroom. Connect with her on Twitter @TeachStanley. This is an updated version of a blog post that originally published on Nov. 19, 2019.