Self-directed learning has long been recognized as a leading learning approach for adults, but more recently, the idea of students taking ownership over their own learning has gained popularity in K‒12 education. In a self-directed learning environment, students drive all stages of the learning process, including setting goals, selecting resources and strategies, and evaluating progress.

A purely self-directed learning framework may not be realistic to implement in every curriculum, but all classes can benefit from integrating elements of self-directed learning to engage students, put them in charge of their own learning, and foster a life-long learning mindset.

During self-directed activities, teachers play the role of facilitators and mentors and can give individualized guidance to students as they work independently. Here are a few tips for including self-directed learning in your classroom.

Plug in self-directed activities in the following ways

  • Start a unit by having students set learning goals for that unit.
  • Present an open-ended question or topic that students can use as a jumping-off point to explore, create their own research questions, and design projects.
  • Instead of giving students a detailed plan or procedure, give them a map showing where to end up and let them decide the best way to get there.
  • Let students choose the apps, tools, and texts that will best help them complete assignments and meet their goals (with your guidance and approval, of course).
  • Encourage students to make cross-disciplinary connections. If you’re teaching a history class and a student’s project requires them to incorporate knowledge of biology or to use math to analyze data, great! That will help connect their learning to the real world.
  • Have students complete self-evaluations assessing how they did on projects and whether they’re meeting their learning goals.

Provide students with tools that inspire them

While students can suggest their own tools and resources to use, sometimes they’ll need help getting started. Here are just a few tools you can use for inspiration:

Give students an authentic audience

Students are more engaged and motivated when they have an audience for their work beyond the teacher. Having an authentic audience gives them purpose and context for their learning. Online, students can share their work through blogs, YouTube, and social media channels. They can publish a newsletter, present to other students, or lead an advocacy project in the community. Let the nature of the project and student’s imagination drive who the audience should be.

How do you encourage your students to take control of their own learning? Share in the comments below.

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