How Your Students Can Design Their Own Learning

Students who get to decide the questions they ask and the products they create are engaged, invested, and proud of their school work.

Student-driven project based learning can make this dynamic possible in any classroom.

Not every lesson or project in every class needs to take this form. Maybe reserve it for the big stuff. If every culminating end-of-unit or end-of-quarter activity is PBL, students will leave your class feeling as though they own their knowledge and know how they will use it moving forward.

Here are 6 steps to guiding your students through designing their own learning experiences:

1. Personalize It

Most learners are accustomed to being given directions, following them step-by-step, and producing a project that looks incredibly similar (or identical) to a model. In a traditional classroom, the teacher plans the project and the students make it. In a personalized PBL classroom, the students do it all.

My favorite resource for defining and explaining personalized learning is Make Learning Personal from Bray and McClaskey. I especially love their table that clearly defines the differences between personalization, differentiation, and individualization. When talking with students about how they should shape their learning experience, showing them this table can help clarify things.

2. Ask the Right Questions

It might seem difficult to allow students to choose WHAT they learn when there are content and skills standards that teachers are required to cover, but it is possible. Give students a learning goal in the form of a question. Base your questions on the standards you are required to cover. The best questions don't ask for specific answers. Instead, they are open ended. They might ask for students to identify patterns in behavior, find methods of accomplishing goals, develop their own opinions, or create something new. When explaining to teachers how to form these questions in the past, here is how I've described them:

Good teachers develop the skills to create these questions themselves, but the best teachers help their students craft these types of questions. Give students the standards or learning goals they have to meet, then guide them as they develop their own essential questions.

Of course, the ultimate resource on creating great questions to fuel inquiry-based learning is Essential Questions from Wiggins and McTighe. I especially love this simple chart that compares question types in all content areas:

When working with teachers on crafting questions, this table – and the rest of the chapter it goes with – have proved immensely helpful. When students get accustomed to asking and answering these kinds of questions they are less afraid of being wrong. They are more curious and driven to find their own answers.

3. Give Examples that Inspire

Once your students have developed a personalized question, they need to decide how they can best share what they learn. When students create products that are worthy of sharing with anyone: parents, friends, the whole Internet... the quality of their work will improve because the feedback they get from others will matter more than grades.

Here's how I know this is true. I co-wrote an article for ConnectSafely about what happens when student publish their school work. I asked my students to write a few sentences about how publishing their work makes them feel. One of my students, a 10th grader, said,

"It takes me around an hour to write a blog post, and I think it is good to publish worthwhile work to the public. Since my blog is public Mrs. Gallagher can share my work on Twitter, and other educators can see it. I have built a level of confidence that I think a lot of students deserve. When students in Mrs. Gallagher’s history classes publish work they are proud of, they are actually recognized for it rather than just getting a grade."

My students made videos, animations, infographics, drawings, and more. Then they embedded them into their blog website, wrote about their learning process, and hit 'Publish.'

Looking for examples of student work made from PBL experiences? Check out Tony Vincent's Learning in Hand website and his collection of PBL end products. Teachers should guide students toward products that will best demonstrate the answers they plan to find. For instance, if your students are investigating what drew European colonists across a treacherous ocean to settle the unknown Americas in the 17th century, perhaps a persuasive travel advertisement would fit. If your students are analyzing population and economic statistics, maybe they should create an infographic. You get the idea.

4. Design Meaningful Rubrics

If your students are creating their questions and determining the products at the end, they should also have a hand in developing the benchmarks they reach along they way. Encourage them to plan their path to their goal. Help them mold that path into a rubric that will help them track their progress.

I love this video from the Teaching Channel that explains how to help students use rubrics to self-evaluate their work, especially when they are in the middle of the process or have hit an obstacle. Self-evaluation helps them figure out how to move forward and reach their goal successfully.

If the rubrics are made well, feedback is easy to give, everyone knows where they are on the path, no one is surprised by the final grade.

5. Connect Students with the Best Resources

As your students work hard to find the answers to their question and find the building blocks of their final product. In addition to providing them with feedback throughout the process, teachers must connect students with the best resources. There are two routes that work best:

Open Educational Resources
I've been a fan of OER for quite a while and explained why in an article for EdSurge:

"Open Educational Resources (OER) are high-quality, open-licensed educational materials that are online. OERs are ideal for the classroom because, instead of working with pre-made resources that might not be a great fit, educators can hand pick the best content and activities just for their students."

While textbooks are limited, expensive, and quickly out of date; OERs are free, available, and remixable. The Office of Educational Technology has even made openly licensed educational resources a priority with the #GoOpen initiative. Help your students find the resources they need from this Edutopia Guide or the Learning Registry.

Conversations with Experts
One of my favorite parts of the National Education Technology Plan, released by the Office of Educational Technology in December 2015, is the portion about the Practice of Connected Teaching. Specifically, I love this graphic:

Video chats have totally changed the way professionals connect with one another. It can also help our students connect with the best and the brightest in their area of research. In this post for Smarter Schools Project, I gave several examples of how my students used video chats to break down the walls of our classroom. Help your students reach out to researchers, executives, artists, scientists, and politicians. Since we can connect digitally, there are no limits to who your students can learn from.

6. Give Great Feedback

Now for more about that feedback. Rubrics aren't everything, relationships are. You know your students better than any rubric. Read their faces, listen in on their conversations in the classroom, and listen carefully to the insecurities in their questions. Feedback should be as much about encouragement as it is about constructive information.

The ultimate guru on feedback is Dylan Wiliam. In his recent article for ASCD, The Secret of Effective Feedback, he says:

“The only important thing about feedback is what students do with it… If our feedback doesn’t change the student in some way, it has probably been a waste of time.”

When you are in the classroom with your students and true student-driven personalized PBL is happening, there is almost no teacher-at-the-front-of-the-room stuff happening. This is a HUGE opportunity to just be with your students. Sit on the floor. Share your screen. Lean into a conversation. Point to something and compliment it. Ask a question. The more you are part of the process from start to finish, the more real your feedback will feel for them. If they know you are "in it" then they are more likely to listen and change based on what you say. Your feedback should be positive, specific, and helpful at every turn.

As the school year comes to a close, educators should be confident in the skills and content they have helped their students master. Give students a chance to put all of their new knowledge to work by letting them design and engage in a learning experience they create for themselves. Your students will certainly need your guidance and feedback, but they will be more invested and creative when driven by their own learning goals.


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