3 Exercises That Help Students Become Self-Directed Learners
The start of the school year is the best time to introduce students to new behaviors that strengthen their learning ability. Whether your students are back in the classroom or attending school online, exercises that focus on self-directed learning habits empower students with fresh ideas about how to tackle the challenges ahead.
Why teach self-directed learning
If you’ve had self-directed learners in your classes, they probably stood out in positive ways. These students regularly practice behaviors that lead to greater achievement. They don’t just earn excellent grades, they demonstrate a genuine interest in learning. This internal motivation gives them a strong sense of personal agency and responsibility for their achievement..
Self-directed learners have three important habits that you can help your students develop.
They create clear long-term objectives with concrete steps for achieving them. Along with a solid grasp of their goals, they also demonstrate an understanding of how to manage time effectively so that they remain directed toward their objectives.
They are aware of how they learn best. They know which actions foster learning — like taking marginal notes or memorizing flashcard sets — and apply that knowledge strategically.
They regard effort as the most important factor in their own learning, including the development of study skills. They believe their actions influence their intelligence and potential. For them, these are not fixed characteristics.
Habits like these help self-directed learners handle challenges with confidence. They increase students’ motivation and the satisfaction they associate with learning. Repeated engagement with exercises that develop these self-directed skills can help turn passive learners into empowered goal-setters who are ready to achieve more than they once thought possible.
3 exercises that build self-directed learning skill
These interconnected exercises introduce students to self-directed learning behaviors. They must be repeated often to be effective. Each exercise builds on the one before. When your students have completed all three in order, you can repeat the exercises in any order that fits well with your class needs and schedule.
Your first go with these will require more class time. After students have had some practice, you could finish an exercise in as little as two minutes. The exercises are adaptable, too. You can assign them along with regular homework, include them with group work or incorporate them into Do Nows at the start of class.
Exercise 1: Mindset check
The first exercise promotes self-reflection among students and helps them see the development of a growth mindset as an achievable goal.
First, ask students to recall one of their best and worst experiences with learning and studying. It could be anything from earning an excellent grade to failing a test or falling asleep in class.
Then give them this writing prompt: What do those learning experiences mean about you?
While students write, draw a line on the board that creates two columns. Title the left column, “Fixed mindset” and the right column “Growth mindset.” When your students finish writing, ask them to volunteer some of their insights. As they speak, listen for words or phrases that suggest a fixed or growth mindset.
Students are often quick to mistake individual experiences for permanent traits. A poor grade means you’re “no good at math,” even if you also skipped breakfast and slept badly before the test. The tendency to lose track of homework assignments means you “just can’t remember things like that.”
Fixed mindset conflates individual instances--a poor grade in a test, for example--with permanent traits (Photo by Alexandra Koch on Pixabay)
Phrases like “no good” and “just can’t” belong in the left column. They suggest a fixed mindset. Meanwhile, a student might reveal a growth mindset with a comment like, “I really love the piano. I just want to practice and practice.” A phrase like “practice and practice” belongs in the right column. It suggests internal motivation along with a belief in ongoing development through effort.
As more students speak, they will start to recognize what phrases belong in each column. Ask them to help you choose. In the end, you are likely to see far more words in the left column than the right.
For closure, ask students to rank the class learning mindset on a scale of one to 10. Return to this exercise throughout the year and track how the class mindset changes.
Exercise 2: The self-assessment effect
For this exercise, you will use Quizlet, which allows you to create classes where you can give students access to flashcards sets you create or allow them to create their own. Creating your first set allows you two fulfill two goals. It introduces students to practicing with digital flashcards and assessing their learning, and it gives you a chance to introduce important material in your subject area.
Once you create and share your set, give students permission to assess their own progress. Quizlet Teacher has a helpful feature called Class Progress that allows you to check on how students are using the flashcards. This gives you the ability to observe students who might need more assistance and offer them tips about how to make more progress.
Class Progress also gives you flexibility with your own student assessments. You can include a variety of factors in your grading that go beyond their accomplishment with memorization. You might look at the number of times students engaged with the cards. Or the percentage increase in students’ scores could be a factor in your grade, too.
Class Progress provides flexibility with student assessments.
It’s essential to center early exercises in self-assessment around a tool like Quizlet, which allows students to see a clear measure of success with each attempt. As students repeat rounds, they see an explicit link between their effort and their score. This helps students learn the distinction between self-assessment and self-judgment. Assessment focuses on the outcome of specific actions. Judgement mistakes outcomes for permanent characteristics.
Exercise 3: Smart goals: repeat
The final exercise builds on the first two and becomes more powerful as students progress throughout the year.
For this exercise, you’ll ask students to draw on their experience with the Quizlet study sets to create S.M.A.R.T. goals.
S.M.A.R.T. stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Start with a model of how a S.M.A.R.T. Quizlet goal might be written. It could look something like this:
I will memorize half of the 20 flashcards in our class Quizlet set between now and Friday afternoon.
Ask students to work with you in determining how that phrase meets all the criteria of a S.M.A.R.T. goal. It’s relevant because the study sets will help them with class subject matter. It’s specific about how many cards must be memorized. It has a clear time frame and, because students can receive feedback on their progress within Quizlet, it is also measurable. All of these qualities help make the goal attainable.
Have students write their own S.M.A.R.T. goal based on Quizlet study sets and check to ensure they fill all the criteria. Once they have mastered Quizlet goal-writing, you can ask them to take on more complex goal-writing challenges.
S.M.A.R.T. Goal worksheets can be a great way to start class throughout the year. Structured goal-writing helps students think more clearly about how to plan ahead and encourages ownership of the learning process. Students turn clear goal-setting into a habit and encourage ownership of their learning.
As the year progresses, return to these exercises. Ask students to reflect on how the Quizlet self-assessments affect their studies. Discuss how they might assess their own learning in other measurable ways, and conduct occasional checks to assess changes in growth mindset.
As once-passive learners become more empowered, so will their belief in their own potential. It would be hard to offer them a better back-to-school experience than this.