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Today's One Thing for Teachers: Structures for Independent Student Work

Bianca Davila

Bianca Dávila

The Learning Accelerator

One of the most pressing challenges educators identified in the national survey of teachers we undertook to inform this series was moving to a more student-directed learning environment. Educators are wondering what the move towards independent work, which is now playing a much larger role in students’ daily learning, will mean for learners, caregivers, and teachers alike.

As one teacher shared, they are: “hoping to be able to create a system or routine that will allow students to build their independence and know what to expect for each lesson.” In addition to supporting teachers, teachers also reported wanting to support families (who are likely working from home) to build their children’s capacity for successfully undertaking independent work.

So, the big question is this: how can educators help set up daily structures at home so that students can engage with content, feel supported, and create habits that build independence and autonomy? In a remote environment it can be a lot harder to supervise work, give immediate feedback and help, and remind students to stay on task – more than ever, it’s essential that students build the necessary skills to successfully carry out independent work.

With this in mind, we’ve identified three components to consider as well as specific related questions teachers should ask when supporting students (and guardians) making the move towards greater independent, student-directed learning.

  1. Set up clear expectations and parameters for independent work.
    • What is the physical setup of your students’ workspaces?
    • Do they have a schedule in place?
    • What should they be working on?
  2. Create structures for students to seek help when needed.
    • How will students seek help if they get stuck?
    • Do students understand how, when, and to whom they can reach out for help?
  3. Encourage self-reflection and goal-setting to support student-directed learning.
    • Are students able to preview material?
    • Do students have structures for self-reflection around content and the structure of their days?
    • Are students setting attainable goals?

Getting started

1. Develop expectations and parameters for independent work

Research and experience both highlight the importance for routines and structures in any learning environment. Routines help children feel safe, promote accountability, provide clarity, minimize behavior problems, and help students to build independence as they take ownership of their daily routines. Structures and a supportive workspace also ensure that students have the infrastructure needed to focus and succeed. Consider the following tips and resources when providing your students with guidance on how to set up a schedule, space, and expectations for independent work.

Setting up a workspace

  • Encourage parents and students to create a dedicated place for learning. Ideally, this space will be the same every day and will have minimal distractions (i.e., not in front of the TV or anywhere with a lot of foot traffic) and minimal clutter.
    • Allow students to be a part of creating their workspace to help boost investment and build autonomy. See what a flexible learning environment with embedded student choice looks like in a school-setting and consider how this strategy can be applied to home.
    • Have students keep any necessary materials at their workspace and keep technology charged.
    • Get creative! A desk isn’t the only place for students to work from, and for many of our students, space is limited, so think outside the box – maybe a small table or bench can work or a part of the kitchen table.
    • Leverage technology to minimize distractions. Check out this list of recommended apps to help students focus.

Establishing a schedule

  • Ensure that students have a clear daily schedule – this might be one you suggest, or that parents and students create together. (Don’t assume the same schedule will work for every student, or even for the same student routinely. Families have competing commitments, so aim for suggestions and flexibility.).
    • When building a schedule, it is important to think about must-haves (e.g., time for food, content, activity), ways to kick off the day (e.g., a warm-up to help students set goals, assess their progress), and a way to complete their schedule in a consistent manner (e.g., daily reflection, setting future goals, brain dumps)
    • Multiple organizations have compiled resources to help educators and families establish schedules:
      • Transcend has created a homeschool schedule generator which contains curated and categorized activities, resources, links, and the ability for you to add your own resources and automatically generate a schedule tailored for your students.
      • Wide Open School has created daily schedules with linked content and suggestions for activities for each part of the day.
  • Include opportunities for students to lead their learning and be explicit about what is optional and what is a must-do.
    • Provide built-in times in their schedule to allow students to choose the activities they would like to complete. This could include choice boards, playlists, independent research time on a topic of their choice, or reading a book of their choice, etc.
    • For mandatory activities that don’t involve choice (e.g., specific readings, problem sets, assessments), clearly mark them as such.
  • Ensure students are clear on what they should be working on. If possible, hyperlink the content in the schedule to provide foolproof guidance.
  • Have a clear plan for what students should do if they finish early. Do they have free time? Should they work on another task? Consider creating differentiated playlists so that students always know what comes next (read on below for more on playlists!).

Creating choices

  • Use playlists and choice boards to encourage self-directed learning. Playlists minimize the need for students to ask, “What next?” as they’ll know what to move onto once they’ve finished a certain task. Choice boards allow for student autonomy and agency as they let students choose their own learning paths.

2. Set up structures for students to seek help when needed

Knowing where, when, and how to seek help is an important skill to address when shifting to independent and/or student-directed learning. You can begin this process by chatting through different scenarios and helping students understand which supports are appropriate and match their needs, as well as when to seek out answers on their own. One approach that works both in the classroom and at home is “three before me,” a strategy that forces the student to look for additional support (both “outside” and at home) before reaching out to the teacher directly. These supports can include peers, Google, their families, and more. By “scaffolding” help-seeking, you are building students’ skills and confidence around working independently and driving their own learning. Explore additional considerations, resources, and approaches to building students’ skills around “outside” and at-home supports below.

“Outside” supports

  • Set up office hours via Zoom, Google Classroom, or by phone, and let students and parents know when you’ll be available to provide real-time support.
    • Consider hosting small-group office hours where students can get not only your support, but the support of their classmates as well.
    • If you teach multiple subjects, create separate office hours for the different content areas you teach.
    • If you have a co-teacher, discuss splitting office hours based on content or by day or time to help lessen the workload.
    • Send frequent reminders to parents and students about your availability to help encourage them to reach out and feel comfortable asking for help.
  • Encourage students to connect with other students to process content. In a classroom setting, students would engage in think-pair shares, small-group work, and class discussions. Have students reach out to one another when possible to reflect on their work and share ideas.
    • For older students, create virtual “table groups” with discussion threads in Google Classroom to allow students to ask one another questions and discuss assignments.
  • Apart from designated office hour times, set up opportunities for students to connect quickly and via GChat, Slack, or other chat-based channels.

At-home supports

Just as structures for support outside of the home are important, students also need to know when and how to connect with caregivers throughout the day.

  • Encourage families to establish clear times when caregivers will be available – if possible – to help with schoolwork.
  • Have families set up time at the beginning of the day to help students preview their work and at the end of the day to review their child’s work.
  • Ask students to track questions they have throughout the day on sticky notes and have caregivers review with them and answer what they can. Questions that can’t be answered by caregivers can be saved to share with teachers.

3. Encourage self-reflection and goal-setting to support student-driven learning

One of the most important parts of building student capacity for independent work is helping students see the big picture to inspire motivation. Both formal and informal reflection and goal-setting serve as ways to boost engagement and help students become self-directed learners as they determine what they’d like to accomplish in the short and long term. During reflection time, students are given the opportunity to make connections, self-assess, and better understand their learning needs. Read below for suggestions on how to help students create structures for reflection and goal-setting.

Formal reflection and goal-setting

  • Provide students with a clear structure for formal goal-setting and reflection. Embed these structures into their daily schedule with set time dedicated at the beginning and end of each day.
  • Have students set daily mini-goals that are easily attainable, such as reading for 30 minutes. More complex goals around mastery of content will come later once students become more familiar and comfortable with virtual learning.
  • Introduce Visible Thinking Routines to target different types of thinking and provide a routine structure for reflection.
    • Assign a different core routine to the end of different lessons that students complete to encourage them to continue reflecting after the lesson is over.

Informal reflection and goal-setting

  • Have families create time during dinner for students to share their reflections of the day and to celebrate accomplishing their daily goals. Students can also share what they would like to accomplish the following day or talk about other areas where they’d like to grow.
  • Encourage students to connect with classmates to share their goals. This creates accountability and helps students to clearly articulate and internalize their goals.
    • Consider opening up a discussion on Google Classroom for students to chat about their goals and provide one another with encouragement.
    • Add a celebration to your morning meeting or other live calls for those who have met their goals.

We hope you’ve found these resources helpful! Check in with us each week to learn about more vetted resources for remote learning. You can also follow #TLAOneThing on Twitter to track all of our tips in the coming weeks.

Looking for more help? TLA has partnered with GetSetUp.io to help teachers access free group-based online training on screencasting and video tools. TLA has also released an Insight on learner-centered design in virtual and hybrid learning environments.

We would love to hear your feedback on this series – or your requests for additional help! Feel free to reach out to us at info@learningaccelerator.org to share your thoughts and questions.

Bianca Davila

Bianca Dávila

The Learning Accelerator

Bianca Dávila is Chief of Staff at The Learning Accelerator. She blends her expertise and passion for educational leadership, team culture, process innovation, and organizational management to support the TLA team.