Digital Age Teaching and Learning

Self-Directed Learning: The Quickest and Easiest Way to Teach Students

Self-Directed Learning: The Quickest and Easiest Way to Teach Students

Self-directed learning is more than just a buzzword in education; it is the quickest and easiest way to teach students.  Or at least it is once you find your rhythm.  If you already have an understanding of what self-directed learning is and understand how it can help yourself and your students, it is time to learn how to implement it in the classroom.

Self-directed learning is the natural way we learn, but that doesn’t mean that implementing it in the classroom is simple and organic.  In order to be successful in using this method of instruction, you need to approach it carefully.  Below are the steps to take in order to get started with self-directed learning in your classroom.

Establishing the Framework

Before you can begin, you need to establish the framework, which is essentially the structure you expect the students to work within.  This framework should be flexible enough to accommodate different activities while still giving the students clear and structured expectations.  You can approach this framework in different ways, but one of the easiest ways to conceptualize it is by thinking of it as the basic classroom routine.  This framework should be established before moving into self-directed learning so that students are still working within the comfort of a familiar structure. Below is an example for a 45-minute class.

  • 10 minute minilesson introducing a core concept
  • 3-5 minute WE DO activity, allowing the class the practice the concept in a specific way
  • 3-5 minute YOU DO activity, allowing each student to show their understanding of the concept in a specific way
  • 20 minutes given to students to apply the concept to a project (this eventually becomes the self-directed element); during this time, you observe and conference
  • 5 minutes for self-reflections or group discussion before closing the class

If you are working project-based learning into your instruction (which you should, because it is the perfect complement to self-directed learning), those 20 minutes for working on the project are where you would work in your PBL.

Working Self-Reflection and Critical Thinking

Being a successful self-directed learner means being skilled at self-reflecting and critical thinking.  It is best that you are not working on developing these skills in your students while also diving into self-directed learning for the first time.  Instead, start making these skills a focus in advance.

Self-reflection and critical thinking are intimately connected, so one of the easiest ways to begin working these skills into your lessons is to incorporate opportunities for self-reflection as often as possible.  You can begin with a simple rating system, allowing the students to qualify how they felt they did that day in terms of understanding, effort, creativity, and so on.  Over time, you can work on more detailed reflection and then branching out with your focus on critical thinking skills.

Changing the Environment

At this point, you are almost ready to start with self-directed learning; there is just one more big item to cover.  And that is changing the environment of your classroom, both in terms of layout and in terms of culture.

When it comes to the physical environment, you need to make sure students have spaces in which they can work individually and collaboratively, you need to ensure that the space is inspiring and creative, and you need to make sure there are plenty of resources they can use when working.  However, the culture of the classroom will make a bigger difference in your students’ success than the physical environment will.

In traditional environments, failure is something very negative.  This negative view on failure leads to students who are afraid to fail, and as a result, they do not take risks.  When it comes to self-directed learning, these risks are how the learning takes place, and failure is just another way the students learn—not a negative experience, but another tool in their toolbox.

And this means that you will have to reframe failure in your classroom.  This process isn’t the easiest, as you are fighting something that has likely become ingrained in your students.  But, with a lot of effort, you will find that you can make this happen.  And once you do, it is time to transition into self-directed learning.

Start Small and Implement Gradual Release

Even with all the preparation in the world, your students will not be ready for complete control on day one.  Instead, you need to start small and implement gradual release to get students to the point that they can really take the wheel with their learning.

The easiest way to begin is with a small project that can be completed during their 20 minutes of project time.  Keeping in mind that self-directed learning doesn’t need to be isolated, you might want to do this in groups, allowing the students who are better at self-directing to serve as models for the others in their groups.  Rather than giving them control over all elements, give them one element to exercise control over.  For example, you set the role, audience, and topic, but they choose the format.

Then, as time goes on, you allow them to control another item, and then another, until they are taking total control.  Then, once they have learned to do this in groups, you can transition do having them do this on their own as well.

Give Students the Tools They Need

During this period of gradual release, you will also be introducing the tools students need to succeed.  These tools can include many different items, and these items will vary depending on the subject you teach.  Below are some of the recommended tools to use with implementing self-directed learning.

  • A reference list of roles, audiences, and formats to help students when planning their projects;
  • An ongoing brainstorm that students can add to at any time with any topic they choose;
  • Flexible checklists that can work with various projects or set checklists you create for each project to give them guidance;
  • Templates to utilize as they choose;
  • Flexible self-questioning prompts to help them critically approach their work;
  • Rubrics so they can score themselves as they go and determine areas for improvement.

Don’t Be Afraid

At first, the idea of self-directed learning might seem daunting, but once you get started, you will find that it all comes together.  So stop waiting and start working towards self-directed learning in your classroom.