George Lucas Educational Foundation
Integrated Studies

How to Set Up a Student-Directed Learning Program in High School

High school students find motivation in a cross-curricular program that lets them manage their learning while fulfilling core requirements.

July 12, 2022
High school student writing in classroom
Rido / Shutterstock

According to a Gallup student poll, by the time they hit high school, many students aren’t engaged in learning. This led our team at James Wood High School in northern Virginia to set up a program for students to create a learning community with a nontraditional, student-led learning experience. The result has been an overwhelming increase in student collaboration, engagement, and self-directed learning, and its success has led me to recommend it to other high schools.

The program, RISE—Research, Independent Study, and Exploration—has a strong focus on cross-curricular, self-determined student learning. The pilot program started with a small group of 15 students and has grown to 50 for the upcoming school year. Students in the program, ranging from ninth through 12th grade, currently achieve their high school credits in their core content areas: math, English, science, and social studies. We hope the program will grow to encompass elective courses in the future, as well.

School administration have rearranged the schedules for teachers and students to allow four teachers, one from each of the four content areas, to support the program every afternoon; teachers and students have approximately three hours each day to participate. Students attend electives and study hall courses separately in the school building.

RISE students have access to our state’s required standards of learning and the flexibility and freedom of forming their own methods of connecting the curriculum to the standards. Students in the program report that by the end of the school year they have retained more knowledge and understanding of the content through this approach because they research and access the information themselves and apply it in ways that make sense and matter to them.

Another unexpected benefit of the program is the resulting social and emotional learning. Students become not just a class of students, but a community of learners. Through increased collaboration, discussion-based learning seminars, and presentation opportunities, RISE students report that they feel far more comfortable communicating with others, giving and receiving feedback, and holding each other accountable to deadlines and assessments they design and schedule themselves.

Implementation Suggestions 

Our initial goals for the program were to create an environment where students prioritized learning and were in charge of their education while still covering the state standards. We’ve learned everything else along the way by trying and doing. Here are some lessons I’ve learned about how to make this a successful program.

1. Incorporate multiple content areas. For this concept to work best, integrate multiple content areas into a student-directed program. This allows students to make more practical application of their studies in a cross-curricular way. There’s no set number of subjects to include, but there should be several. In our program, we included the core content areas—math, science, social studies, and English. This concept would pair well with elective courses as well.

2. Provide a flexible schedule. Offer the student-directed high school program over several blocks of time, allowing for flexibility with the time. We ran the RISE program this year every afternoon from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Because we had a large block of time to work with, student-managed time wasn’t an issue with the school schedule. Students learned how to prioritize and work through their research and tasks in the order of importance they set. We utilized sign-up sheets for meetings with instructors and calendars for presentations, and helped students find a way to manage their time that worked best for them.

3. Focus on feedback, assessment, and growth over grading. Our primary focus was on assessment, feedback, and growth over grades. In our district, we still assign letter grades, but we worked with students to create their own grading rubrics, reflect, fix mistakes and grow, and allow for as much flexibility in grading as possible. Standards-based grading would work very well in a program such as this, as it would offer more focus on individual areas of growth and need.

Because students had more input on their grades, assignments, projects, and deadlines, their focus shifted to growth and feedback. They held one another accountable for their project commitments, presentations, peer feedback, and growth.

4. Be flexible. The teacher in this environment needs to be ready to be flexible. Giving up control of the classroom is scary for a lot of teachers—it was scary for us. But the level of trust between the teachers and students in a program like this has been energizing for all. The workload for teachers in this environment is hard to compare with a traditional classroom environment. The teachers often work alongside students and find teachable moments through group discussion or small-group studies.

5. Seek support from leadership. Don’t be afraid to ask your leaders for help and suggestions. We have leaned on them with questions, uncertainty, and celebratory moments. They’ve been instrumental in our successes. I hope you have school and district leadership as amazing and supportive as mine.

6. Embrace growth. The program has quickly grown from its beginnings. We’ve found that students are excited about having more ownership over their own education. They know that the world is changing and growing, and they want to change and grow with it.

I was fascinated by the idea of self-directed student learning for years. I finally got the opportunity to give it a try with some high school students at my school. My experience was exciting, a little scary, and so totally worth it.

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  • Integrated Studies
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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