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Why Educators Are Turning to Self-Paced Learning in the Classroom

/ Ed Matthews

Young boy engaged in self-paced learning on computer. Magenta filter on top of image.

In recent years, self-paced learning has taken education by storm. With many schools and districts going one-to-one with student technology, there are new opportunities to develop personalized learning plans that students can complete at their own pace.

Self-paced learning isn’t just a fad either; research shows when students engage in self-paced learning, they can improve their memory and self-regulation skills as well. What’s more, new advancements in learning management systems and video creation capabilities have made student-driven self-paced learning possible.

Let’s take a closer look. 

What is self-paced learning?

Student-directed learning has been on the rise for years; however, the COVID-19 pandemic kicked things into high gear. When teachers and students couldn’t get together in person, self-paced learning was the name of the game.

In the traditional learning system, students sit in a classroom and move at the pace of the teacher. The challenge? Sometimes, the pace is too fast and leaves students behind, or too slow and leaves students bored. With self-paced learning, students learn at their own speed, encouraging deeper understanding and student growth.

For teachers, self-paced learning also opens up more time to work with students to meet their individual needs. Rather than teaching the entire class at a time, a teacher can bounce from person to person and provide individualized instruction. And just because learning is "self-paced," doesn't mean it's "without direction." There’s still a structure for daily learning, but the structure allows students to move at their own speed and provides multiple pathways for getting to an endpoint. 

A young boy completes self-paced learning at his computer.

Benefits of self-paced learning

Five key benefits of using self-paced learning in the classroom include:

1. Flexibility 

Due to the nature of self-paced learning, students can engage in material in different ways to suit their particular needs. This might include activities outside of the classroom like reading, watching informative videos, or constructing a plan for a project. Teachers also have increased flexibility because they can pivot a lesson for a student or group of students without needing to balance the needs of the entire class. Each student gets what each student needs.

2. Customized learning

The end product of a self-paced learning experience is that each student's experience becomes customized. If a student is struggling to graph a concept, the teacher can provide supplemental instruction and attention to ensure the student meets the learning target. On the other hand, if a student grasps concepts easily, they can move on to more challenging ideas, reducing boredom and encouraging them to reach their maximum potential.

3. Higher engagement

When students get just what they need at just the right time, they're more readily engaged and encouraged to stay on task for longer periods.

4. Better content retention

Rather than focusing on catching everything a teacher presents in real time, self-paced learning students have the opportunity to revisit video, audio, and other multimedia content throughout a unit. This is especially helpful for students with special needs and for multilingual learners, as they can rewatch a screencast or lecture from a previous lesson.

5. Increased growth

Vygotski’s Zone of Proximal Development is the idea that students will continue to grow when they're pushed to a level that is challenging but not too challenging. In self-paced learning, students do just that!

Fostering self-paced learning in the classroom

Switching from a traditional whole-class format to a self-paced classroom may seem overwhelming and challenging; however, there are a few steps that educators can take to make the switch as effortless as possible, or to incorporate elements of self-paced learning into their instruction. Here are a couple ways to get started:

Implement the flipped classroom model

Flipped classrooms are an uber-popular approach to teaching and learning, and for good reason. Within the flipped classroom, teachers provide students with information and general knowledge outside of the classroom through video, readings, or audio content. Then, when students return to class, the teacher is available to facilitate discussions and access higher-level thinking skills in person.

A young woman completes school work at home with her dog by her side, using the flipped classroom model.

Use interactive video

Another way for educators to maximize self-paced learning is by developing interactive videos. Interactive videos allow students to answer questions, take surveys, and participate in online discussions — all within the video itself! An interactive video may also be set up to branch and provide different videos or outcomes based on student responses, which makes learning even more personalized.

As a bonus, interactive videos enable educators to collect large data sets that show where students are doing well and where there are growth opportunities. A teacher can use this information to make high-level decisions in the classroom and group students into needs-based cohorts. 

Create screencasts (and have your learners do the same)

One of the challenges with self-paced learning is that there are times when a teacher needs to deliver direct instruction or a lecture on a topic. However, because not all students process or comprehend information at the same speed, there’s a need for new information to be seen or heard multiple times.

That’s where screencasts come in.

A screencast is a type of instruction where a teacher or student records their screen and records audio over it. One huge benefit is that students can play a screencast multiple times, pausing as needed to take notes or to think about the information. A screencast can also be paired with interactive video tools to develop a truly interactive and student-centered learning experience.

Even better — educators can have students create a screencast to demonstrate understanding and knowledge to their teacher or to peers.    

Empower choice and autonomy

One of the cornerstones of self-paced learning is student choice and autonomy. This means allowing students to determine the pathway that best suits their learning needs. For example, a teacher may provide a reading, a short interactive video, and a screencast on a topic and students can choose to use as much or as little of instructional materials as needed.

Choice in self-paced learning doesn’t have to be restricted to input or information delivery, students can also be given choice in how they present what they know. Teaching students to create videos and use technology to show learning is a critical part of preparing students for life outside of school.

Focus on microlearning videos

In the world of TikTok and Instagram, microlearning videos are perfect for engaging students faster and more effectively. Microlearning videos are short videos designed to showcase a concept through a short animation or presentation. These videos can still help foster deep content mastery and be used over and over again for students.

An elementary student engages in microlearning videos.

Another benefit of microlearning videos is that teachers can create them quickly. These videos are easy to digest and can be viewed as standalone modules or as part of a larger curriculum, making them a versatile tool when developing self-paced learning lessons.

Giving students the autonomy and skills to work at their own pace is engaging, develops self-regulation, and improves overall understanding. Developing video and other multimedia forms of communication is essential for allowing students to learn at their own pace because it allows students to rewatch content and relearn throughout the school year as needed. And remember, when starting a self-paced learning program in your classroom, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing initiative. Start small and watch students thrive. Good luck!

Ed Matthews.
Ed Matthews
Ed Matthews is a high school English Language Development teacher with over 13 years of classroom experience he loves incorporating STEM concepts into the ELD classroom. When he is not teaching he loves hiking and camping with his family in the Colorado outdoors.