Choose Your Own Adventure: Student-Directed Learning

2014-01-25 20.40.49

“Wait, you mean we get to choose what we want to do?”


“Like we have options?”


“So we get to pick our projects?”

“Uh huh.”


I love students’ reactions when I announce they will be able to choose which assignments to complete during our semester together. A typical progression of emotions begins with confusion then disbelief, followed by curiosity, and finally, excitement.

Despite being adults, many college students are not used to having options when it comes to their learning. As first-year students, we shunt them into 100-level “general education” courses. When they declare a major, we fill their remaining years on campus with required “core” classes. In the classroom, the professor reigns supreme. We dictate the policies, readings, assignments, and due dates. Is it any wonder students first react to my student-directed approach with confusion and disbelief?

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am a champion of liberal arts education. General education requirements expose students to disciplines they might otherwise ignore or be unaware of. And, of course, to consider yourself an expert in any field, you must build a foundation that core courses provide. And, yes, students do get to choose a handful of electives to explore areas outside of their majors. If we desire a generation of well-rounded, critical thinkers, the liberal arts approach is the way to go. But couldn’t we achieve those goals while also empowering our students?  Student-directed learning attempts to do just that.

There is a broad spectrum of approaches that could be considered forms of student-directed or student-centered learning: active learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, just-in-time teaching, team-based learning, and many more. In this type of learning environment, instructors do less telling and students do more discovering.  The instructor is no longer the only authority in the room and is no longer the conduit of knowledge. Instead, instructors assume the roles of mentors or consultants.

Student-centered instruction [SCI] is an instructional approach in which students influence the content, activities, materials, and pace of learning. This learning model places the student (learner) in the center of the learning process. The instructor provides students with opportunities to learn independently and from one another and coaches them in the skills they need to do so effectively. [Collins, J. W. & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2003). Greenwood Dictionary of Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood]

Student-directed learning is a scary idea for many professors. It will result in anarchy!  Assessment will be a bear! Students won’t challenge themselves! How will I accomplish all my learning objectives?

These are real concerns. Faculty are increasingly pressured to develop standardized curricula that can be assessed by accreditation committees. Signature assignments and common exam questions are forced upon us. Learning objectives that may, or may not, reflect our classes are required on syllabi. So, yes, there are outcomes that must be achieved, material that must be covered, and boxes that must be checked. That’s the reality of higher ed (our K–12 colleagues have long suffered this reality).

However, despite an increasing number of threats, our academic freedom is still protected and we are still permitted a significant amount of control over our pedagogy. So why not hand over some of that control to our students? When given the opportunity, students can, and will, take ownership of their learning. There are numerous benefits to relinquishing our “sage on the stage” role. For example, Jeanne VanBriesen, Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University notes that student-directed learning projects have resulted in greater motivation, discipline, persistence, and confidence among students. [PDF of a presentation by VanBriesen]

Now, pure student-directed learning isn’t realistic within the current structure of higher education (to see an example of true student-directed learning, check out Sudbury Valley School). But we can certainly do “student-directed learning lite” in which students are encouraged to:

  • shape the learning community,
  • set their own goals,
  • monitor their own learning,
  • contribute to the creation of course objectives,
  • and influence some aspects of course curriculum.

How might this be accomplished in your classroom?  Here are some ideas:

  • Provide students with a range of assignment options they can choose from. For example, perhaps you ask students to create their lab reports in either (a) the traditional written format, (b) the style of a popular press article (like Scientific American or Psychology Today), or (c) the form of a podcast (like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk or NPR’s Science Friday). Students can choose the option that seems most interesting to them or reflects their approach to learning.
  • When designing your class schedule, leave a few periods open. Then, have students vote on topics they’d like to learn about. You still cover the material you need to and want to, but also give students a few days to explore what excites them.
  • Include “flex days” in your schedule. These free periods give an instructor flexibility to build upon student interest. For example, if students are engaged in a lively discussion that has to be cut short, built-in flex days will allow that discussion to be continued in the next class period. Without flex days, we often have to curtail student engagement because we fear “getting behind.”
  • At the beginning of the semester, have students create some of the policies that you include in your syllabi. For example, students could create a personal devices policy that would regulate the use of technology in the classroom. If you really want to push yourself to give up more control, you could have students write the attendance or late work policies!
  • Related to policies, if your course includes presentations, your students could compose a list of “do’s and don’ts” regarding audience expectations. For example, students may require cellphones to be silenced, desks to be clear of distractions, and respect shown to all speakers. Since they generated the rules, they are more likely to follow and enforce them.
  • To make assessment more transparent and encourage students to take ownership of their performance, ask students to help you generate assignment rubrics. Allowing students to contribute to evaluation methods may reduce complaints about “arbitrary” or “subjective” grading.

Professors need not abandon all control to make room for student-directed learning. In my classroom, I’ve noticed an improvement in student excitement and motivation from simply adding one or two of the above-mentioned ideas. As always, how you implement student-directed learning should reflect your institution, curriculum, teaching style, and personality. Challenge yourself, but don’t force it.

To conclude, consider the goals we set for students. When they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, what knowledge, skills, and qualities do we want them to possess?  Review your teaching philosophy. Do you mention lifelong learning, mentoring, critical thinking, student engagement, or intellectual curiosity? Well, you really can’t encourage or accomplish these without giving students more control over their learning.

If we want to empower students, we must be willing to distribute the power more evenly.  If we want our students to act like adults, we must treat them as such.

Further Reading:

Kathryn Nantz and Suzanna Klaf from Fairfield University provide a PDF of really fantastic materials from a workshop they led at The 9th Annual Teaching Professor Conference.

Geraldine O’Neill and Tim McMahon from University College Dublin provide a nice overview of student-centered learning.

Lisa Nielsen’s Huffington Post article describes a variety of passion-based models of education.

In this Edutopia article, Ainissa Ramirez discusses passion-based learning in STEM.


About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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2 Responses to Choose Your Own Adventure: Student-Directed Learning

  1. Nina says:

    Excellent!!! This is exactly what we need! By becoming learning facilitators and mentors we can help our students to engage more deeply in their own learning process (= increased quality of .learning & transfer).

    I had a wonderful experience of this back in Finland where I earned my M.Ed: I was moaning to my professor if I really, really need to write a paper about all the developmental theorists for umpteenth time. Imagine my surprise when he said no. Then he pointed me to the library, told me to find a topic I know nothing about, but what relates to learning and development, and bring my paper to him in two weeks. Now, that was an open-ended task. Scaringly so. But, I really loved it. Because my professor recognized my competence in learning & development (I had ed psych as my minor). Now I am working on my EdD and not liking jumping the hoops…

    What your post really brings to my mind, is the open and honest communication I am highlighting in my talks and writings: reducing hidden expectations and openly collaborating with students to create an (emotionally) safe learning environment, where everyone dares to try new things (how otherwise could we learn????) and make mistakes, and engage in their own growth process – which we also call the learning process.

    I recently wrote a paper about agency as students’ choice:

    Would love to connect with you!

    • pastprof says:

      Thanks, Nina, for your thoughtful comment. What a wonderful experience for you to have during grad school. I think your story highlights the importance of student-centered or student-directed learning. We often get so much more out of a project when it was our idea to begin with. I really like what you say about “reducing hidden expectations.” I recently participated in a writing workshop in which we discussed rubrics and evaluating student writing. The workshop leader said making our expectations clear eliminated the tedious process of “find the cookie.” By “find the cookie,” she meant the common practice of professors making their expectations mysterious or vague, forcing students to try to anticipate what the secret to success is. I love the phrase! Since that workshop, I’ve been striving to be as honest, genuine, and transparent with my students as possible.

      Thanks again for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment. This is a new venture, so it means a lot to me. I look forward to future interactions. If you’re on Twitter, look me up at @lucia82

      Take care! ~Jessica

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