Examples of Self-Directed Learning Activities that Promote Agency and Autonomy

What are some examples of self-directed learning activities? This is a popular question among educators that have an interest in student-directed learning, and know the benefits, but aren’t sure about semantics.

Before getting into great self-directed learning activities, let’s review what student-directed learning is and why this blog post is worth reading.

Self-directed learners, in short, have choice, voice, and autonomy. They design, manage, and lead their own learning experiences based on personal needs and interests. Sounds great right?

But what does that really look like in a classroom or homeschool? How do students lead learning experiences? What strategies promote effective self-direction? What are examples of self-directed learning activities and how do I get started? Those are the questions we’ll get into in this blog post.

I have found the implementation of self-directed learning to be the most effective and seamless when the learning experiences follow the frameworks of particular learning activities.

There are certain learning experiences that can easily be led by students, especially when self-directed learning systems and other facilitation strategies are in place.

​When self-directed learning activities are truly student-led, which these particular learning activities make possible, classrooms and homeschools are transformed, as are students.

The self-directed learning activities that I write about in this post are a few of my favorites for that reason. They don’t just help learners to more effectively self-direct. They transform students’ lives.

There are many ways you can add student-directed learning to your otherwise teacher-directed activities simply by giving students choice.

But to really utilize the benefits of student-directed learning, consider making self-directed learning your curriculum, not just adding a few opportunities for choice here and there. There are a few very powerful self-directed learning activities for doing just that.

I chose four specific self-directed learning activities to discuss here, not because they have to be student-directed in order to happen, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to incorporate.

Examples of Self-Directed Learning Activities that Promote Agency
Before launching into my favorite self-directed learning activities, I want to mention that there is a significant amount of overlap between them.

Project-based learning and problem-based learning both fall under the umbrella of inquiry experiences, for example. However, there are some inquiry-based learning experiences that ARE NOT PBL or PrBL.

Spaces recently published a guest blog post from Experiential Learning Depot about the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning, two awesome self-directed learning activity options. But again, there is a lot of overlap, so keep that in mind. Check out that post for more details.

  1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
    I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 15 years.

Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product to an authentic audience. This is the short and sweet explanation of PBL.

Project-based learning offers a framework that experiences are designed around. Project-based learning is real-world, community-based, and authentic.

Students explore real-world concepts or problems, collaborate and communicate with real community members, organize authentic learning experiences, develop innovative final products, and share final products with an authentic and relevant audience.

How can project-based learning be one of those transformative self-directed learning activities? Rather than you designing learning experiences around the PBL framework, your students do it.

Students develop, organize, and lead their own project-based learning experiences around that PBL framework.

Students choose their own topics (or subtopics if you are required to teach specific content). They choose community members to work with and how to utilize expertise and resources. They choose how to gather information, how to share learning with an authentic audience, how to showcase learning, and more.

You can certainly plan project-based learning experiences yourself, and as I’ve said before, I actually recommend starting self-directed project-based learning this way. Designing and directing project-based learning for your students at first models the process. In time, students will be able to do it themselves.

I also recommend if you are just starting with self-directed learning activities, to start and stick with one activity for a while. As I said before, project-based learning is my go-to self-directed learning activity, and I stick with that one for a reason. It reduces overwhelm for beginner self-directed learners.

And if you choose to start with one of these self-directed learning activities, I highly recommend choosing PBL.

  1. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
    Problem-based learning is when students examine complex, real-world problems. I implement PrBL by having students investigate a problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem.

Again, these problem-based learning challenges offer a framework. That framework can be tweaked or modified just so long as the purpose remains the same; to solve a real and relevant problem.

Problem-based learning can be student-directed as long as students lead the experience by way of choice. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc.

True student-directed problem-based learning would ask students to identify and choose the real-world problem of focus; one that piques their interest and personally resonates.

This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires specific skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all.

Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.

  1. Experimental Inquiry:
    I use experimental inquiry-based learning as a self-directed learning activity quite often because I am a science teacher. It’s a very fitting self-directed learning activity for science classrooms, as one method of investigation is experimentation.

Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment for any concept. Inquiry simply asks a question that students investigate through whatever means available and effective.

Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum.

If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry.

Open-ended, student-led inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and design and direct their own experiments. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle.

I love giving students the freedom to self-directed experiments because they come to conclusions about the concepts through experience just as a scientist would. They are personally invested and connected to the content because they designed the experience based on interests and personal relevance.

  1. Service-Learning:
    Service-learning is a student favorite for many reasons, one of which is because each of them is personally invested in the betterment of the community. But this is really only true if students are directing the experiences.

Service-learning is the act of identifying community needs, exploring and investigating the nature and sources of those needs, and serving the community in a way that meets the needs.

Imagine that I designed and directed one service-learning experience for all of my students. Students will serve, yes, and there are of course benefits to that.

But if the need that I have chosen as the focus is irrelevant, uninteresting, or not personally meaningful to just one student, the experience will be lost on them. It’s not that the service won’t matter. It’s that it would matter more and students would learn more if they led the experiences themselves.

Service-learning, then, is one of those great self-directed learning activities. Students can identify problems and needs in their own communities, which is a fantastic skill-building opportunity in itself. Choosing a community need as the focus of the experience intrinsically motivates learners because the need means something to them.

Students can choose how to learn more about and better understand how the problems and needs came to be. Students can use critical thinking and creative problem-solving to determine their own way of serving.

The number of skills that students develop by leading a self-directed service-learning experience is mind-blowing. They begin to see beyond themselves and their own needs, which promotes empathy and compassion.

Students become a part of something bigger than themselves, not because they have to, but because they want to.

These are examples of self-directed learning activities. Of course there are others. But I have found the activities mentioned here, especially project-based learning, to be conducive to self-directed learning. Students can simply use the natural framework of each activity to help guide them through the experience.

Give one or two of these self-directed learning activities a try and go from there. Trial and error will tell you what is right for your students and what isn’t.

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