Teaching Strategies

Making the Transition From Dependent to Independent Learning 

Teachers can guide students to becoming independent learners with scaffolding that provides strategies for mastering material. 

December 21, 2022
SDI Productions / iStock

“I can’t learn from my current teacher! They don’t teach like you.” Earlier in my career, past students would come back to my class to share this sentiment with me, and initially this brought me a sense of pride. Though I wondered, why can’t they learn from their current teacher? What challenges are they facing in learning, and how did I not prepare them for it? 

I had taught my students through a traditional learning model that primarily incorporated direct instruction and (unintentionally) conditioned them as dependent learners less likely to be able to adapt to another teacher’s instruction. 

But as educators, we have a responsibility to deliver content in a way that supports our students’ current and future learning. Not only what students learn, but how they learn it. We need to create the conditions that allow students to demonstrate their self-directed learning in order to concurrently develop their knowledge and skills through semiautonomous learning environments. 

For example, guided, self-paced learning optimizes the flexibility of students working at their own pace to individually master content with collaborative learning experiences that allow students to build conceptual understanding through discourse.

Units are “open middle,” where all students start a unit on one common date and end the unit on the same date with a summative assessment. Within the unit, there is flexibility for student choice of activity and pace, with the exception of daily structured collaborative activities at the “guided pace.” 

When I first started providing more autonomy in my classroom, I noticed that a lot of my students were struggling. I would find myself lecturing them, asking, “What kinds of jobs do you want?! Jobs where you’re told what to do, tell others what to do, or jobs where you create? Right now, it looks like you’re just waiting for me to tell you what to do!” These were not my proudest moments.

I did not realize that they were previously conditioned as dependent learners, and as with the progressions we have for students to be able to navigate through content over the course of a year, we need to provide progressions to empower students (and their caregivers) as they transition to more autonomous learning environments. There are three discrete elements of this transition.

3 Keys for Transitioning to Independent Learning

1. Explaining the purpose of each element in the self-directed learning environment. Before students can make advocacy decisions within your learning environment, they need to know the purpose of each element within the instructional routine. I explain that my instructional routine is intentionally built to support their iterative learning process and honors variability of individual processing time. Typically, in a lesson, my students will do the following:

  • Receive a short, highly conceptual, minimally procedural instructional video that I made with a supplemental worksheet for them to apply their initial conceptions. The instructional video allows for students’ processing time without restrictions. 
  • Engage in specific collaborative activities to learn from and with one another, iterating on their initial conceptions through communication and feedback (from their peers and me). 
  • Evaluate their understanding via an individual mastery check.
  • Reflect on their performance in their progress tracker, writing down errors, next steps in their learning, and big ideas from the lesson.

2. Helping students learn how to maximize each instructional avenue. They should know the following: 

  • How to take notes from instructional videos (sometimes watching twice—once to write down and a second time to compare video with their notes). 
  • How to present work for others to learn from (similar to a presentation where you “don’t read the slides”; in math we don’t read each number or operation but instead explain why and how each element was used).
  • How to collaborate in small, student-led groups
  • How to promote productive discussions in math.
  • How to reflect in their progress tracker (specifically in error analysis, acknowledging current conceptions, not misconceptions).
  • How to study math.

I also create space after unit summative assessments for students to reflect on their learning within the unit and to help them discover how they learned best (while also informing me on instructional adjustments I should make).

3. Liberating student learning through informed student voice and choice. About halfway through the school year, the structures of my learning environment diminish to create space for student choice in guided, self-paced learning. This liberation comes from the inverse relationships of student empowerment, informed with how they learn best, and rescinding classroom constraints.

My time in class is then spent mostly in one-to-one feedback conferences or through formative instruction of small-group learning, speaking only in response to what students are doing and saying. 

Repurposing my time toward these formative instructional avenues builds relationships and personalizes a student’s learning experience. Supporting self-pacing within units, I provide “Must Do, Should Do, and Aspire to Do” lessons. The Modern Classrooms Project—which I am associated with—provides detailed guidance through its free course on how to create the varying structures for implementing this model.

The only structured time that stays from the beginning of the year is the designated time for specific collaborative avenues to learn from and with one another, where I am providing formative instruction. A majority of my class period is then spent with students in student choice activities, or independent work time, consisting of the following:

  • Taking notes from instructional videos
  • Engaging in individual work or collaborative work
  • Having one-on-one or small group conversations with me
  • Taking mastery checks 
  • Reflecting in their progress trackers

A typical 80-minute lesson will have five parts (with time approximations):

  1. A (structured) collaborative activity for students to learn from each other (10 minutes).
  2. A (structured) collaborative activity for students to learn with each other (15 minutes). 
  3. Student choice where I am available for small group or individual intervention/support (20 minutes).
  4. Student choice where I am conferencing with individual students to evaluate their mastery checks and provide immediate feedback (30 minutes).
  5. Closing and transition (5 minutes).

I don’t dictate how long students spend in each avenue during student choice because they know where they are in their learning and what they need to succeed. 

Transforming students from conditioned, dependent learners to empowered, self-directed learners does not happen overnight. We, as educators, must have instructional routines in place and scaffolds to support the highest level of efficacy in each routine. Then, we can provide our intentional progression for how students learn over the course of a school year. 

When we inform, coach, and then liberate student learning, we empower our students (and their caregivers) through semiautonomous learning to develop and utilize self-directed learning skills of self-awareness, time management, and advocacy to succeed as lifelong learners in our classes and beyond.

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  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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