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11 activities to increase student-led learning in your classroom

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on March 22, 2017
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In a recent eSchool News study, 89% of educators said it was very important or important for students to lead their own learning. That’s telling – as is the fact that not a single respondent considered student-led learning unimportant.

It’s also just another indication of the growing wave of teachers who are committed to giving students a bigger say in how they learn. These innovators are fighting the misconceptions that surround student-led learning and seeing what can happen in their classrooms when they step to the side.

Are you ready to make the shift, but need some ideas to get started? Maybe you’ve been teaching this way for a while but need a few new ideas for your toolkit? Beginner or veteran, check out these 11 student-led learning activities to try in your classroom:

1. Brainwriting

Next time you want your students to generate ideas, don’t brainstorm – instead, try brainwriting. This method can be done in a few different ways, but at its core it’s about giving students time to consider their thoughts on their own before sharing with the group. It’s an easy way to amplify the voices of even your shyest learners.

2. Genius hour

Genius hour (also known as 20% time) encourages students to dedicate significant chunks of time to self-directed learning. It’s engaging and motivating, plus the skills students learn while planning, executing and sharing their projects permeate the rest of their learning.

Student-led learning in genius hour activities

3. Constructive feedback

Students can be each other’s best teachers, so it only makes sense to equip them with the tools they need to give constructive feedback. Teaching students to communicate effectively with each other means the thread of learning can move from student to student and back again – without you having to always act as mediator. Here are some sentence starters to get students going.

4. Wall of questions

Wondering is powerful. A chewy question can turn a student from passive to empowered. But there’s data to support the scary fact that students actually become worse at posing big questions the longer they’re in the school. To help reverse the trend, try creating a questions wall and encourage your students to write and post their inquiries – and then work to solve them.

5. “I wish my teacher knew”

A couple of years ago, a teacher posed this simple question to her students – a way of getting beyond the superficialities of day-to-day classroom life to what was really going on. It became a phenomenon, giving teachers all over the world a launching pad for giving their students more voice and choice in their learning.

6. Simple makerspaces

I’ve seen some amazing dedicated makerspaces in schools. But simple makerspaces are just as well suited to classrooms, helping students engineer, design, invent, tinker and finesse. Get more ideas for your first classroom makerspace.

Student-led learning in makerspaces

7. Design thinking projects

If your students work on projects, have you tried design thinking? It puts students in the driver’s seat by taking them through five stages of activity: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test – and it’s not just for STEM anymore. Find six project ideas to get you started.

8. School design improvements

Your students spend a lot of time at school – they probably have some rather strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Rather than just complaining, harness their convictions to get them involved in making improvements. They could reorganize your classroom, implement a better school-wide recycling program or design a Lego wall – the possibilities are endless.

9. Connections to experts

It’s becoming easier every day to broaden students’ horizons by reaching out to the community. Get students to identify a larger problem that needs solving and then help them make the expert connections they need for knowledge and perspective.

10. Blogging and beyond

Blogging has become increasingly popular in classrooms, for good reason. It helps gives students three crucial ingredients for student-led learning – purpose, audience and real stakes. And for more ways to get students creating and reflecting on a regular basis, check out these blogging alternatives.

Student-led learning blogging activities

11. Self-advocacy

An ELL teacher I know has many goals for her students – and one of the biggest is for them to find supporters and advocate for their own learning. For many students, self-advocacy doesn’t come naturally. Teaching students how to ask for help, through role playing or other guidance, can return huge rewards, especially when students leave secondary school.


Looking for more help?

When it comes to making the shift to student-led learning, there’s some truth behind the old cliché: two heads really are better than one.

Try pairing up with another teacher on a project or activity. While one of you puts out fires in the larger group, the other is free to provide distraction-free guidance to small groups of students.

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