Why Self-Directed Learning Is Important for Struggling Students

Personalized Learning

Why Self-Directed Learning Is Important for Struggling Students

By Jennifer Bartell     Apr 5, 2018

Why Self-Directed Learning Is Important for Struggling Students

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

The term “at risk” is loosely defined and using it as a umbrella descriptor for struggling students is a slippery slope. At my suburban school in South Carolina, the term is used liberally to describe students who may fail the End of Course Tests, students who might not get promoted to the next grade level and those at risk of dropping out of school. After three years working with this student population, I can say with confidence that it’s a loaded term and its overuse often causes it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for kids who can be successful.

The problem is that as an educator, my natural inclination is to provide these students more direct instruction, increased support and even hand-holding at times—but in a society that values individuals who are motivated, persistent self-starters with initiative, that’s not fair. To be prepared for success, struggling students need just as many opportunities to participate in self-directed learning and to develop autonomy as high-achieving students.

I teach four sections of a reading seminar for first time freshman who have low MAP reading scores from eighth grade. The majority of my students work hard but test poorly, though a small percentage of them are unmotivated. Unfortunately most of them are caught in the school’s disciplinary system and have complex relationships with the adults in their lives.

My students are accustomed to adults giving up on them, and I do not want to add to their list of grownups you can’t count on. When kids trust that their teachers believe in them, they thrive.

I’m always looking to experiment with new practices, and after spending some time reading about what might help me meet the needs of my students, it felt like personalized learning was the next logical step—but I had concerns that my students might not be able to handle the transition. My hesitation was rooted in three main assumptions I made about my students:

  1. They lack the focus needed to complete self-directed assignments
  2. Some are unmotivated to do an assignment without direct guidance
  3. They will easily get distracted by technology and when working with peers

We are a one-to-one school district, and some teachers would say our Chromebooks have revolutionized teaching and learning, but working independently on a device isn’t easy for everyone. For students who struggle with attention, the devices have become a tool of distraction and some of them will start playing video games or watching sports on YouTube if I’m not standing right behind them. I wanted to let my students take the lead and trust that all of them would stay on task, but I wasn’t convinced.

The transition to personalized learning felt big, so I decided to start with something I knew was important for my students: developing autonomy. I knew that in order for my students to be successful in taking ownership, I’d have to prepare for some of the challenges around focus and motivation that initially led to my hesitation—but I also recognized that I had to let go of some control so that I could empower my students. As a first step, I decided to morph a writing unit that I've taught for the past two years to let students take the lead.

The unit is about how storytelling can connect us to others. In the past, I always included one lesson reviewing the 13 narrative elements that we would use to guide us in analyzing literature and to help us write our own stories. These elements were already familiar to my students, and the purpose of the lesson was to access prior knowledge and confirm understanding before building upon it.

Historically, I approached this lesson through direct instruction, building a presentation to support a lecture. We would go through each element and students would take notes and ask questions before we began reading our first book. This time, I wanted to shake things up a bit and use this lesson as an opportunity for students to take more ownership.

I restructured the lesson to span two days and created an assignment that allowed each student to focus on three terms so that the 13 terms did not overwhelm them. I asked them to create a presentation to share with their classmates. It could be in any format but had to define each term through two examples: a text they’ve never read and a song or movie.

For two days I roamed the classroom answering clarifying questions as my students worked. As I moved around, I realized there were more peer-to-peer conversations than usual. “I thought we had to put the definition on the slide,” one student said. “No, we just have to show the example,” another responded. This assignment gave students the opportunity to think independently and it allowed them to practice leadership skills by assisting their peers—and more often than not, they kept each other on track.

We looked an example of how the elements worked in a trailer of the movie “Black Panther,” which had not come out at the time of this lesson. Looking at the examples in the brief clip gave students ideas for how to connect the elements to other movies. As they discussed which texts, movies and songs they could use to illustrate the definition of particular narrative elements, it was clear that there was a sense of pride when someone found a strong match and was able to make a connection. This increased motivation.

Slide from student presentation, Image Credit: Jennifer Bartell

Students who fail my class do so because of chronic missing assignments. For most assignments, about 60 percent of students turn their work in. While a handful of students veered off track to play a video or watch a game, a gentle reminder helped them refocus and out of 50 students across my four classes, 94 percent completed this assignment, which is a huge accomplishment.

Self-directed learning destabilizes traditional models of learning and that can be scary. I teach my students that failure is an opportunity for growth and that they shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, but sometimes it’s hard to take my own advice.

In reflection, I realize that the “at risk” label was hindering me from trying self-directed learning with my students, and it was stunting their self-confidence. By letting my assumptions get in the way, I came close to becoming another adult who was giving up on them.

I know every lesson I tweak and every new practice I use may not go smoothly, but encouraging all of my students to develop more autonomy is critical to their success so I owe it to them to try. My students need to practice being independent thinkers and learners like all other students, and they deserve to know what it feels like to take pride in their own learning.

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