Friday, March 7, 2014

Self-Serve Learning - but only at school?

My BYOD math class this semester (MFM2P - grade 10) is markedly different than my first semester class (MCF3M - grade 11): it is a designated applied level class (first semester was a mixed group), it is a small class (14, compared to 31) and I have a grade 11 peer teacher helping with the organization and keeping students on task (it was just a wee bit chaotic last semester).

But after a full month of classes, there is also something else I'm noticing about this new group of students: they move at a much slower pace.

Because they are an applied-level class, I tried to anticipate what they might struggle with in an independent learning setting. I actively sought out a peer teacher so students wouldn't have to wait as long for help if they needed it. I chunked down the units from 9-10 learning goals to 4-6 learning goals, and reduced the time for a unit from a month to about 2 weeks per unit. I am also designing fewer projects in addition to the basic learning goals - still giving students the chance to demonstrate their learning in a creative way, but not overloading them with work.

We also spent more time as a class, at the beginning of the course, going over how to learn, how to choose appropriate resources, and how to pace yourself through a unit. We talked about how, for the first time, they wouldn't have to wait for me in order to learn (or get left behind by the class if they didn't quite understand something), and how their learning wouldn't even necessarily come from me.

We were making the transition from being spoonfed students to students serving themselves from a buffet.

In-class, the students have - to keep the analogy - completely gobbled up this new system of learning. As I circulate, the students are all watching teaching videos, trying questions on the white boards, and working through online quizzes. My peer teacher and I are regularly answering questions or providing feedback and mini-lessons. I never have class management or discipline issues. The students can chip away at the material without much prompting and track their own progress on the class tracking board.

Regardless of these great work habits and the extra supports in place, though, the students are still just barely getting through what they need to in order to complete the units. The work in class is consistent, but slow. The work outside of class? Non-existent.

As before, all the resources are available online, accessible whenever the students want to learn. I also still have the "help file" available for students to chat with me after hours whenever they need extra help. We talk regularly in class about pacing ourselves through the unit as we approach the test - going back to that tracking board and having the students assess on a day-by-day basis what they need to do at home in order to complete everything on time.

But the all-you-can-eat buffet of learning mentality seems to shut down as soon as the bells ring at the end of the school day. Many applied-level students have gotten through the past few years of school without having to do homework, and they don't even take their books home. 

This isn't an issue if all the learning can be accomplished in class, but if students are going to progress at a slower pace (with which I'm fine), then the smorgasbord mindset has to also be in place 3pm through to 9am the next day in order to compensate.

How can we help students get back into the working-at-home habit, when they recognize that they need extra learning time? How can we reinforce that learning shouldn't be like eating large meals only at given times, but rather like grazing, taking in bits here and there when needed and when possible? Independent learning is great at school, but it works just as well outside of school. How can we encourage and convince the students of this as well?


  1. Heather,
    Interesting that after reading your post, I scrolled down my Twitter feed and someone had sent out a link to a Stanford study talking about the pitfalls of homework!

    1. An interesting article - thanks for sharing it! I'll use it as an example of a correlation study with my stats class. I'm always torn about the homework debacle. Homework definitely shouldn't be busy work (and I agree that there shouldn't be hours and hours of it), but I don't think students should limit their learning to school hours only, especially if students are expected to take control of the pace at which they learn and they need more time than a 70-minute period allows. I wonder how many real-life careers exist where after-hours learning is expected, or if not expected, is at least a benefit? Or does self-paced learning apply more to picking up a hobby - teaching students to engage in learning whenever they're ready to learn (ie. when they want to know more about beadwork)?

    2. I think it's interesting that the examples you gave at the end are for topics that a student may be passionate about, rather than traditional academic topics.
      In my experience, my son has spent hours watching videos about how to play Minecraft when he wants to learn something, but balks at 30 minutes of study for AP US History!


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