Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
If you’ve been following along with my self-directed learning series, you know how fantastic it can be for both students and teachers. The desire is there to get students out of their seats and engaged in activities and learning experiences that they care about.
How nice would it be to have a student come to you and say that they want to learn more about this or that? That, my friend, is what student-led learning gets you; the desire to learn.
But what does that look like? What is an example of self-directed learning at play? Let’s take a look at some real examples of self-directed learning in the classroom and at home that will make you want to get started right now!
Just a quick recap before diving into some examples of self-directed learning:
Student-led learning is the process of students determining their own path and designing their own learning experiences based on personal choices. These choices reflect the needs and interests of each learner.
Some of the learning experiences that my students do are entirely self-designed and -directed. These experiences look something like a passion project but follow a project-based learning framework.
Others learning experiences have student-led elements, but I build the general concept. I give students choices in specific components of the experience. The bulk of the student-led learning examples in this post follows that formula.
Let’s dive in!
10 Examples of Self-Directed Learning in the Classroom
My students love this biographies project. Each student gets to select a biography or memoir to read that reflects their interests, passions, values, backgrounds, etc. They also get to choose what to create to demonstrate learning or share with an authentic audience.
One of my students, for example, read a memoir and used the text and format to inspire the writing of her own memoir. The final result was incredible. Another student created a theme poster of her biography and eventually turned that poster into a mural that went on the wall of our reading room.
I like this example of self-directed learning for a lot of reasons, one of which is that students work on technical writing and communication skills while also exploring concepts and producing final products that are personally meaningful.
They want to learn, they want to write. It is difficult to get my kids to write, and I’ve found this particular student-led learning experience really helps with that.
2. Service Learning Bake Off
Service learning should be self-directed in my opinion because students should care about or find personal relevance in the needs of their communities. So I have my students design and lead their own service-learning experiences from start to finish. They run the experience, and I facilitate.
One particular example of self-directed service learning has stuck with me because it served many community needs in one experience. A student who was deeply interested in cooking wanted to take a cooking class in the community but couldn’t find any classes that were affordable.
She decided to organize and host a bake-off to raise money for kids to have access to affordable cooking classes in the city. She not only raised money for this need but also brought the community together.
3. Interest-Based Passion Projects
Cooking seems to be a common interest among kids from toddlers to teens. I do a lot of project-based learning with my own young children at home, which is always based on their interests.
One particular passion project that my own kids did was a kitchen science experience. My son at the time was interested in science and my daughter in cooking. So together we created a learning experience filled with experimentation, cooking, and serving!
We made cheese, homemade noodles, and sauce, all of which involved science to a great degree, and hosted a small neighborhood spaghetti dinner using the ingredients we made from scratch.
This is a great example of self-directed learning for younger kids. Students don’t need to be teens to make decisions for themselves.
4. Senior Project
All of our high school seniors design and lead a year-long senior experience, which they need to complete to graduate. The topic or driving question is usually related in some way to the path they’d like to take out of high school, but it’s pretty flexible.
One example of self-directed learning senior project was related to biotechnology. I had a student who was interested in renewable energy. He attended a global summit and wrote an article about his experience for the organization’s newsletter.
He also connected with the biotech program at the local university and worked directly with them to produce his own algae as a biofuel.
It was a fantastic experience, and this experience was entirely based on this student’s choices. His experience also resulted in many outstanding work samples for his career portfolio.
5. Community Action Projects
Community action projects are similar to service-learning experiences in a lot of ways, but rather than meet a specific community need, students choose a community issue that they are passionate about and take action to resolve the issue.
Several years ago a student of mine read a book called “Am I Blue?” This book is powerful, was super relevant at the time she read it, and was an especially important issue to this student because she is a member of the LGBTQ community.
She organized a book club to read this book together and together the book club organized a demonstration. They spread the word throughout the community, made signs, dressed in blue, wrote speeches, and walked University Ave. to raise awareness about the issue.
Check out my community action projects tool kit for self-directed learners.
6. Plan a Trip
My students absolutely love to plan trips whether real or hypothetical. Sometimes the trips they plan actually happen because our school has a travel program, but more often than not, my students plan trips for the sake of skill-building.
This example of self-directed learning trip planning includes a framework. Students are given parameters to work around such as planning a trip for one week and under a specific budget. The rest is up to the students. They choose the destination, write the itinerary, choose what to create to share their trip plan, and more.
One of my students planned and raised money for a class trip to Florida to study marine science. My biology class actually took this trip. Another student designed a trip around the world and wrote up a guide that was eventually turned into a website for others to get some inspiration.
7. Current Events
As a method of promoting responsible citizenship, my students create and execute a project-based learning experience on a current event of their choice quarterly. This project experience often leads to other student-led learning experiences such as service-learning and community action projects.
Current events really engage my students, especially when they get to choose the current event that directly impacts them, is relevant to them, or is simply interesting to them.
8. Psychology Projects
Psychology-themed projects are super fun for kids and are great examples of self-directed learning activities that have a lot of opportunities for choice built in.
My students design and execute their own behavioral experiments. They choose the question to test, design the experiment to test that question, choose how they collect data, and so on.
Some memorable examples include experiments on birth order theory, obedience, selective attention, and how alcohol impacts behavior (using c. elegens as the subject, not humans!)
Cultural projects are some of my favorite examples of self-directed learning. My students choose a culture to explore and immerse themselves in.
The culture they choose to explore can be a culture that they themselves belong to or not. Students are given some research questions to get them started, but I ask that they also ask and research their own questions.
All students create an exhibit, which they eventually showcase on a multicultural exhibition night. Students design their own exhibits and include at least one additional element to share with the audience such as food samples, family heirlooms, stories, pieces of art, dances, etc.
Student-led learning is in itself culturally responsive but giving students the opportunity to share their backgrounds and heritage with others makes the experience even more powerful in that way.
10. Learn a New Skill
I like starting off student-led learning with a project that asks students to learn a new skill and teach others how to do it.
This example of self-directed learning is project-based. Students choose the skill to learn, how they will teach that skill to an audience, and how to reach that audience.
For example, a teacher that I have been working with shared that one of her students taught kids in the community, at the community center, how to play chess on Saturday afternoons.
Another example was from one of my own students who learned how to knit and taught others how to knit by hosting an after-school knitting club. Another student learned how to change the oil in his car, created a video tutorial of himself doing it and published it online.
There are so many great examples of self-directed learning, these are just a few that you can easily replicate if you’re inspired to do so!
If you have some great examples of self-directed learning at play in your classroom or homeschool please share them in the comments!
Check out more self-directed learning resources below! See you next time!
More Blog Posts About Self-Directed Learning
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.