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-directed learners, in short, have 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 activities, 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.
Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools for Self-Directed Learners
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.
Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
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.
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!
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.