Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
What is student-directed learning? This phrase and other variations of the phrase (child-led learning, self-directed learning, student-led learning, etc. etc. etc. ) imply that learning experiences are designed, coordinated, and led by students. Your students are self-directed learners, not passive receivers of information.
Okay, so student-directed learning means that learners lead their own learning experiences, but what does that entail? How can you apply self-directed learning in the classroom or at home, and what are some student-directed learning strategies that you can implement right now?
Let's find out!
What is Student-Directed Learning?
Several years ago I showed a news segment to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis to help spark current events project ideas. 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 choices were made by the student.
Experiential learning is self-directed, one of many elements that distinguishes it from other teaching strategies.
The Syrian project described above is one example of many different types of experiential learning activities; one that was designed and executed by self-directed learners. This student called all of 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. Students direct the experiences, you facilitate.
This blog post that you're reading now 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 all of my years in education. I highly recommend it.
7 Student-Directed Learning Strategies
Learning experiences are student-directed when students have choice.
1. Choose what they want to learn.
It is wonderful if your students have the flexibility to choose ANY topic to study at any given time. That is true student-directed learning. But many of you do not have that option or the flexibility for student choice as it relates to the project topic.
But that's okay. You can have self-directed learners AND adhere to the standards. Students can design and lead projects AND gain content knowledge. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Even if you have specific topics or concepts that the learning experience needs to cover, your can still incorporate student choice.
One way to work in student-choice as it relates to project topic is to offer a theme or a broad topic and let students choose a related subtopic as the focus of the learning experience.
For example, if you are going to focus on ecosystem standards, you might make habitats the theme of the experience, but give students the freedom to choose a specific habitat to explore as it relates to ecosystems, communities, populations, species, symbiotic relationships, etc.
This approach channels the students' research around specific parameters or standards, but still gives students choice, boosting personal relevance and meaning, and, therefore, that intrinsic motivation factor.
2. Choose 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.
3. Choose 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 dictate how each student researches or investigates a concept limits learning potential, in my opinion.
True student-directed learning experiences allow learners to determine the avenue(s) of exploration.
If we use the habitats project as an example once again, self-directed learners are all focused on the same ecological principles, but the habitats students are examining vary, so where and how each student locates information will vary. A student studying prairie habitats may not use the same sources of information as kelp forest habitats, for example.
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. Choose community experts and collaborators.
In many experiential learning activities, student-directed 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 learners to identify, locate, and connect with their own community experts.
Choosing which community experts to work with helps self-directed learners develop communication and collaboration skills while also getting the most accurate and up-to-date information about the concepts at hand.
5. Choose how they will demonstrate learning.
I have found that encouraging self-directed learners to choose 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 end products.
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.
6. Choose an 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 new skills and knowledge and who to share it with. I often give students some options or suggestions for authentic presentations, especially to those learners that are newer to student-directed learning.
7. Choose an 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 student, 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 assessment to complete.
Students can also generate their own assessments. Because my student's PBL projects are so personalized, their rubrics are as well, so they create their own with relevant and personalized criteria or evaluation categories.
You can also have students add to and manage their own project-based learning assessment portfolios. Self-directed learners 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.
Grab my student project portfolio template free right here!
8. Organize and lead conferences.
Student-led conferences are great for encouraging quality work, promoting autonomy, building planning and organizational skills, and so much more. Your students will be accustomed to making their own choices about their learning path and organizing and leading their own experiences. Leading their own parent/teacher conferences, then, should be a piece of cake.
There are so many amazing ways to make learning student-directed. If you are taking a gradual path, slowly transitioning to student-directed learning, start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-led learning activities into the mix here and there. Sprinkle in some choice. If that goes well, add more until your entire curriculum is student-directed!
The benefits of student-directed learning in the classroom are too good to pass up. So give it a try!
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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.