There is so much to say about student-directed learning. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed, as are students. Self-led learning experiences, in short, give students choice, voice, and autonomy.
These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere on earth - in a classroom, remotely, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, traveling around the world, and more because they are designed around personal interests and circumstances.
My current blog series is focused on experiential learning, and student-direction is an important piece of that. I encourage you to go back and read What is Experiential Learning Anyway? and What is Student-Directed Learning Anyway? before moving on.
There are many ways you can add student-directed learning to your otherwise teacher-directed activities, simply by giving students choice. But to really utilize the benefits of student-directed learning, consider making it your curriculum, not just adding a few opportunities for choice here and there. There are a few very powerful strategies for doing this.
I chose three specific learning activities to mention here, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to incorporate. Check them out below!
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences, including those that I describe in this post (as single units or in a bundle). By signing up for my newsletter, you get a free project assessment e-Portfolio where students can independently manage their own learning outcomes from these self-directed learning experiences.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
Before launching into these three teaching strategies, it's important to know that there is a significant amount of overlap between them. Project-based learning and problem-based learning both fall under the umbrella of inquiry experiences. However, there are some inquiry-based learning experiences that ARE NOT PBL or PrBL. So don't limit yourself.
I would also consider project-based learning a type of problem-based learning. They both tackle real-world problems. They differ in process of gathering information and showcasing learning outcomes.
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years.
Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience.
For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
How do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives the flexibility is there. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in all other aspects of the project process (subtopic, research questions, sources, community experts, final product, authentic audience, how to share final product with that audience, etc.)
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
I have many PBL resources that focus on a specific theme. The guiding materials leave room for student choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit, which gives students choice in every facet of the experience. My PBL assessment e-portfolio opt-in gift is the perfect resource for to wrap up and showcase the entirety of these PBL experiences.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. I implement PrBL by having students investigate a problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc.
True student-directed problem-based learning would ask students to identify and choose a problem that they are interested in and want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires specific skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I have a problem-based learning product line in my TpT store with a problem-based learning toolkit for student-directed experiences, as well as theme-based PrBL resources.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give students a water pollution problem about fertilizers, and take students to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation.
Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment for any concept. Inquiry simply asks a question which students investigate through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Check out inquiry posts, including how to implement student-directed inquiry-based learning for details.
If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry, as well as a variety of other inquiry-based learning resources.
Share your student-directed learning experiences with us! Comment on the this post or send me an email anytime at email@example.com!
Several years ago I showed a news segment to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity expressing her interest in the topic.
This student chose to design and conduct a project-based learning experience about Syrian refugees. She wrote the driving question for her project, decided to create an interactive, animated timeline to demonstrate the events that led up to the crisis, organized and executed a pie fundraiser to raise money for the cause, and distributed her timeline and marketing materials to neighboring community members to raise awareness and raise some money. All her choices.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
Experiential learning, the focus of this current blog series, is self-directed, one of many elements that distinguishes it from other teaching strategies. Last week's post talks about what experiential learning is exactly. Make sure to check that out.
The Syrian project described above is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance, but the learning experience as a whole was designed and managed by her. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice.
Make STEM, problem-based learning, scientific inquiry, or any other learning experience child-led by giving students opportunities to make choices. They direct, you facilitate.
This post offers suggestions for ways to make project-based learning self-directed. Again, modify any learning experience to give students choice, I just use PBL as an example here because it has been my go-to teaching strategy for 13 years. I highly recommend it. Check out posts from my project-based learning series for more details.
Ways to Make Learning Experiences More Student-Directed
Learning experiences are student-directed when students have choice.
Let students choose...
1. What they want to learn.
It is wonderful if your students have the flexibility to choose ANY topic to study at any given time, but understandably, many of you do not have that option. Standards are an unfortunate hurdle. But don't let that stop you from sneaking in student-directed learning experiences. Your students can have it all - content knowledge and a passion for learning.
One way to get around the standards obstacle is to have students design project-based learning experiences around specific sets of benchmarks. Grab my Student-Directed Tool Kit Bundle (PBL, PrBL, scientific inquiry, & design projects) for guiding materials.
You can also assign guided project-based learning experiences. For example, I have a PBL resource on habitats. Each student chooses one habitat type to study. This channels the students' research around specific parameters or ecological standards, but still gives students choice, boosting that intrinsic motivation factor.
2. Their own learning goals and objectives.
Because learners are unique in their skills, interests, strengths, challenges, and so on, their learning goals will also be unique. Students can and should choose and write their own goals. Knowing how to create tangible goals, manage them, and meet them is a skill that is essential long after graduation.
My personal learning plan is a great way for students to create and manage their goals.
3. How they will gather information.
Some learners love podcasts, others love to read, some enjoy networking with professionals, some enjoy classes, others experimentation, and so on. To control how students research or investigate a concept limits learning potential. True student-directed learning experiences allow learners to determine their avenue(s) of exploration.
If we use the habitats project as an example once again, students are all focused on the same ecological principles, but different habitat types. Insisting that every student use specific books, or even the same expert as everyone else in the class, narrows their reach. Branch out, and better yet, let your students decide how they will learn about the topic, because what works for one student, may not work well for another.
4. Community experts and collaborators.
In many experiential learning activities, project-based learning included, students are encouraged to reach out to community experts for information, expertise, and resources. Make the learning experience student-directed by asking them to identify, locate, and connect with their own community experts.
Choosing which community experts to work with helps students develop communication and collaboration skills, while also getting the most accurate and up-to-date information about the concept at hand.
Check out my free community expert planner.
5. How they will demonstrate learning.
I have found that encouraging learners to decide how they will showcase learning is incredibly impactful. I provide a few final product suggestions to my students, and they either choose from those options or choose their own way of demonstrating learning.
Habitat project students might create topographical maps, a moving diorama, an interactive animation or physical exhibit, a photo journal, a magazine, a portfolio of infographics, etc. I offer suggestions in my resources, including this one, or students can choose their own. Check out my blog post with a laundry list of project-based learning end products for students to choose from. You can also scan these digital final product options!
6. Their authentic audience and method of reaching that audience.
Experiential learning is authentic, meaning, students use and share their outcomes in a meaningful and relevant way. Project-based learning emphasizes authentic presentations rather than simply presenting a final product to the class. Learning outcomes should solve a problem for a relevant audience or impact the community in some way.
For example, a student creates a portfolio of infographics about the habitat that they chose to study. They donate their infographics to a nature center located in the habitat studied to put on display.
Let students choose how they would like to share their new skills and knowledge and who to share it with. Again, my guided project-based learning resources provide authentic presentation suggestions for students to choose from, or the option to choose their own way of sharing.
7. Assessment method and criteria for evaluation.
All students are unique in how they learn, their interests, their career goals, and so much more. Why cast an assessment blanket over every child, especially if the learning experience is personalized by way of student choice?
Give students input on how they are evaluated. If you would like to give a formative assessment, consider offering a few options, each requiring a different skill set than the other. Let students choose which one to complete.
Project-based learning is an experience, so is usually evaluated with a rubric. I have a generic PBL rubric that I use with beginners. In time, students can begin to develop their own rubrics, choosing evaluation criteria based on the details of their projects.
Have students add to and manage their own project-based learning assessment portfolios. They add project descriptions, rubric scores, reflections, standards met, etc. after they have completed each project. By the end of the year they will have a robust portfolio of student-directed learning experiences.
Get that PBL assessment portfolio as a free gift when you subscribe here!
There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and more. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-led learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well, add more until your entire curriculum is student-directed!
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Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators are about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components.
There are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team-building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can learn experientially starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Essential Components of Experiential Learning
The following features are essential to experiential learning. After you have read about the importance of these components, subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot to gain access to a free growing resource library. You will instantly receive an email with a password and instructions to access that library.
In the library you will find an experiential learning activity planner that includes all of the elements of experiential learning identified here. Use it to help design and facilitate experiential learning in your classroom or home learning environment. Good luck!
1. Students are Actively Involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student. Learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students Have the Freedom and Support to Make Mistakes:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners.
STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The Experience is Personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my personalized project-based learning bundle. Pair it with my free project-based learning e-portfolio when you subscribe and you will be well on your way to an experiential classroom!
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what they're learning applies to life.
That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The Experience is Student-Directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum, student-centered. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through a favorite activity and fill in the experiential learning planner included in E.L.D.'s free resource library to see if it is experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences.
But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners. Start with any student-directed learning activity.
Good luck! And as always, reach out anytime with questions. I would also love to showcase your experiential learning successes right here! Share your experiences with me anytime.
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How I Came to Be An Experiential Educator
I almost dropped out of teaching school. I don't like to say that because I'm not a quitter. I never have been, but it's the honest truth. I wondered if I could have a full time career doing something that just wasn't sitting right with me. My own experience was telling me that learning comes from direct involvement, but I wasn't observing that in practice.
Here's my story:
I got my undergraduate degree in biology and proceeded to work with environmental protection programs for almost four years following graduation. Education wasn't on my mind at that time. I was dedicated to the world of science and nature.
Working in the field was amazing for so many reasons. I met wonderful people, saw places I wouldn't otherwise have seen, and gained practical experience for a career in environmental science. I learned more about science in three months in the field, immersed in the content, than I did over the course of my lifetime. Content that I studied in college, paired with active involvement in the field, was a powerful learning experience for me.
Several years of working in the field was exhausting, however. I was constantly getting hurt. I literally had a handful of near death experiences, one of which was rolling an ATV down a mountain with me inside, another getting chased down by a nesting female alligator. I'll save the details of those stories for another day.
I felt like my personal life was a revolving door. My coworkers became like family just to go our separate ways after a few months together. All of the jobs were temporary assignments. I was exhausted, hurt, emotionally and physically broken, and I was lonely. I decided enough was enough. It was time to go home.
I went back to my hometown in Minnesota. I applied to get my teaching license at the University of Minnesota, was accepted, and started the program within days of returning home. The program itself was great, but things went downhill when I started my high school student teaching experience.
I was torn. What I was learning in my teaching program at the U was starkly different than what I was observing as a student teacher. My teaching program trained us to take a student-centered approach. We spent almost the entire year practicing inquiry-based learning strategies. Then I would go student teach under the supervision of an instructor that was very teacher-centered.
I don't believe this to be the fault of my cooperating teacher. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to fit in all of the standards, meet testing requirements, stay under budget, and "educate" the 180 total students that walked into her classroom each day.
We talked occasionally about how she felt a little stifled and restricted. The logistical nightmare it would have been to transport 180 students to the science museum, for example. There was limited learning beyond the walls of the classroom. She was a seasoned teacher and she was intelligent. I have to believe that she felt there was no other option.
I knew I couldn't operate that way for the rest of my career. My experience working in the field was always in the forefront of my mind when trying to work out my educational philosophy, along with the "student-centered" theory I was learning in teaching school.
I knew as a student myself, that a strictly teacher-centered, lecture-based philosophy would not be effective, especially with 21st-century students. What the students need, I thought, is to learn how to learn, as I did in the field - how to problem solve, think critically, navigate sources of information, question current lines of thinking and adjust thinking based on new input and experience.
I decided I needed to check into some things. What other options did I have? A lot of options it turned out. Not only were there a lot of schools and educational organizations doing things differently, but teachers in traditional classrooms were mavericks as well, trying to promote active and involved learning experiences while under the same restrictions as the rest of us.
Those educators that went above and beyond, that were creative and reflective, that tried new educational approaches that were supported by research despite restrictions and obstacles, turned out to be my inspiration and mentors over the course of the next decade.
As I was researching my options, I came across a website for an experiential learning school in St. Paul. I called them up, asked if they were hiring, and started teaching there a few months later. I stayed at that school for almost 10 years.
The students in these pictures are engaged, observing, problem-solving, creating. Of course it wasn't perfect all of the time. But I watched the impact that experiential, student-directed learning had on my students, the same impact experiential learning had on me when I was working in the field.
I started this blog about two years ago, and in that short time have discovered through research and networking, the abundance of experiential learning going on out there right now. I'm floored by the speed and force by which project-based learning, inquiry, problem-based learning, student travel programs, maker education, STEM, and other forms of experiential learning are appearing on the educational scene.
The dramatic emergence of these experiential learning approaches is because we know from experience and research that they're effective learning tools. If you hop on a search engine to find educational quotes, none of them will be about the profound greatness of direct-instruction.
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I also encourage you to subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot! Subscribers have access to my free and growing experiential learning resource library AND my experiential learning assessment e-portfolio where students can showcase and manage their own learning outcomes.
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.