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There’s been a lot of emphasis about creating student centered learning environments for a while now. Here we’re taking a deeper dive into how these environments are the gateway to student-led learning, why that’s important, what the intended goals are, what student-directed learning actually looks like, and how to support it.

A quick recap – a student centered learning environment is one that allows students to feel ownership over the space, one that it is created for them rather than the educator, and supports them in the way they physically and emotionally learn best. Research has shown that the most effective ways to achieve this are by having a clutter-free environment, creating a flexible space with different areas for collaborative and individual work, having various seating and standing options, and perhaps even ditching the teacher’s desk.

The aim of student-centered environments is to give students agency over their space and boost their engagement levels with the end goal of increasing successful learning outcomes. The criteria of what a successful learning outcome is has shifted over the last few years as educational bodies are recognizing that teaching methods need to evolve drastically in response to changing demands and the constant progression of information technology. This is why there is presently such an emphasis on student-led learning. When self directed, the majority of students tend to become more active learners, opening their minds to new ways of thinking. Discussions and debate are critical for enriching the learning experience, and presenting to their peers builds personal confidence and develops essential public speaking skills which are ever more important. Collaboration with classmates and taking the lead builds stronger relationships and respect between peers, which in turn improves student participation and boosts morale. It is encouraging how well students perform and gain interest when given autonomy.

But learning independently can be challenging at first, even for the brightest and most motivated students. Educators need to assess readiness to learn independently as well as offering guidance and setting clear expectations.

Below are the Four steps of Self-Directed Learning as outlined by the University of Waterloo:

Step 1: Assess readiness to learn
Students need various skills and attitudes towards learning for successful independent study. This step involves students conducting a self-evaluation of their current situation, study habits, family situation, and support network both at school and at home and also involves evaluating past experiences with independent learning. For a detailed Learning Skills Assessment Tool, read our Readiness to Learn Teaching Tip. Signs of readiness for self-directed learning include being autonomous, organized, self-disciplined, able to communicate effectively, and able to accept constructive feedback and engage in self-evaluation and self­-reflection.

Step 2: Set learning goals
Communication of learning goals between a student and the advising instructor is critical. We’ve developed a set of questions for students to consider as they map out their learning goals: our Unit Planning Decision Guide). Also critical in developing a clear understanding of learning goals between students and instructors are learning contracts. Learning contracts generally include:

  • Goals for the unit of study
  • Structure and sequence of activities
  • Timeline for completion of activities
  • Details about resource materials for each goal
  • Details about grading procedures
  • Feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
  • Meeting plan with the advising instructor
  • Agreement of unit policies, such as a policy on late assignments
  • Once created, contracts should be assessed by the advising faculty member and questions about feasibility should be raised (e.g., What could go wrong? Is there too much or too little work? Is the timeline and evaluation reasonable?).

Step 3: Engage in the learning process
Students need to understand themselves as learners in order to understand their needs as self-directed learning students — referring students to our resource on learning preferences may be helpful. Students should also consider answering the following questions:

  • What are my needs re: instructional methods?
  • Who was my favourite teacher? Why?
  • What did they do that was different from other teachers? Students should reflect on these questions throughout their program and substitute “teacher” with “advising instructor”
  • Students also need to understand their approach to studying:

A deep approach to studying involves transformation and is ideal for self-directed learning. This approach is about understanding ideas for yourself, applying knowledge to new situations and using novel examples to explain a concept, and learning more than is required for unit completion.

A surface approach involves reproduction: coping with unit requirements, learning only what is required to complete a unit in good standing, and tending to regurgitate examples and explanations used in readings.

A strategic approach involves organization: achieving the highest possible grades, learning what is required to pass exams, memorizing facts, and spending time practicing from past exams.
Earlier academic work may have encouraged a surface or strategic approach to studying. These approaches will not be sufficient (or even appropriate) for successful independent study. Independent study requires a deep approach to studying, in which students must understand ideas and be able to apply knowledge to new situations. Students need to generate their own connections and be their own motivators.

Step 4: Evaluate learning
For students to be successful in self-directed learning, they must be able to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation of their learning goals and progress in a unit of study. To support this self-evaluation process, they should: regularly consult with the advising instructor, seek feedback, and engage in reflection of their achievements, which involves asking:

  • How do I know I’ve learned?
  • Am I flexible in adapting and applying knowledge?
  • Do I have confidence in explaining material?
  • When do I know I’ve learned enough?
  • When is it time for self-reflection and when is it time for consultation with the advising faculty member?

Responsibilities in the four-step process – Successful independent study requires certain responsibilities or roles of both students and advising faculty members. The following is a brief list of the more important roles. It is useful for both students and advising faculty members to periodically review this list and communicate as to whether each feels the other is fulfilling their share of the responsibility.

Students’ roles
Self-assess your readiness to learn
Define your learning goals and develop a learning contract
Monitor your learning process
Take initiative for all stages of the learning process — be self-motivated
Re-evaluate and alter goals as required during your unit of study
Consult with your advising instructor as required
Advising instructors’ roles
Build a co-operative learning environment
Help to motivate and direct the students’ learning experience
Facilitate students’ initiatives for learning
Be available for consultations as appropriate during the learning process
Serve as an advisor rather than a formal instructor

If students are to thrive in tomorrow’s world they need to master self-directed learning, analysis and problem solving. As an educator one of the major ways you can support these skills is by creating a student-centered learning environment – one that is flexible and modular, gives students the opportunity for individual and collaborative work, and sets the scene for creative thinking.