The Learning Accelerator Blog/Student-Centered Environments Foster Independent Learners

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Student-Centered Environments Foster Independent Learners

by Ryan Mick on March 10 2023

At a recent conference session on student-centered learning, the facilitator asked participants to wrestle with the question, “When did you become an independent learner?” My discussion partner Charli — a high school student who wouldn’t describe herself as an ‘independent learner’ — wanted to know when I became one. Her question struck a chord because it mimicked my own feelings: I don’t believe I became an independent learner until after I graduated from high school.

Now, more than ever, independent learning is a crucial skill that students must develop. With the abundance of information available and the rapidly changing technology and career landscape, students must be able to take control of their own learning and continuously adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Hearing Charli’s concern about her own learning, and reflecting on my experience, raised the question: what could educators do to actually ensure they’re promoting the development of independent learners?

Incorporating Formative Assessment Practices

Educators hoping to support more independent learners might first consider how they assess learning and how they bring learners into the assessment process. If anchored to traditional assessment, where the learner applies their knowledge to a standardized quiz or test and receives a grade with little feedback or opportunity for reflection or improvement, a fundamental opportunity to build independent learning is missing.

Educators, instead, should consider implementing formative assessment practices, which can be a powerful way to support the development of independent learners. Rather than using only basic tests of knowledge, formative assessment incorporates ongoing feedback to students during learning, helping them monitor their progress and adjust their approach when needed. By providing students with greater control over their learning and enabling them to take ownership of their progress, formative assessment can foster a sense of agency and motivation that drives independent learning.

Formative assessment doesn’t need to be a hurdle for educators to implement, rather, they could start with offering pre-tests or previews of learning before teaching new content and inquiring where students may need support. This additional data can inform an educator’s lesson plans, individualized or group support, and opportunities for extending learning. And when it’s time to assess knowledge at the end of a lesson or unit, educators can further support independent learning by engaging students in opportunities to reflect on what they learned and to address errors they may have made.

Connecting Formative Assessments to Graduate Portraits

Educators can go deeper in their commitment to developing independent learners by connecting formative assessment practices to "portraits of a graduate," a set of identified competencies and skills that students should possess in order to succeed in college, career, and life. These competencies may include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication, and are growing in use by schools, districts, and state education agencies across the country.

Aligning formative assessment with portraits of a graduate provides a framework for fostering independent learning, enabling students to develop the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. For example, if a student is working on developing their critical thinking skills, formative assessments can provide ongoing feedback that helps them identify areas where they need to improve and adjust their approach accordingly. This can help them develop the self-awareness and metacognitive skills necessary for independent learning.

Leveraging Formative Assessment and Graduate Portraits to Improve Teaching Practices

In addition to supporting independent learning, formative assessment and portraits of a graduate can also help educators identify opportunities for growth in their own teaching practices. By providing ongoing feedback to students, educators can gain valuable insights into how their students are learning and adjust their instruction to better meet their needs. Similarly, by focusing on the competencies and skills that students need to develop to succeed, educators can ensure that their teaching is aligned with real-world expectations and requirements.

If Charli or I had the type of student-centered learning environment that prioritized formative assessment and portraits of a graduate, we’d likely have had more access to flexible and responsive learning opportunities where we would work collaboratively with our teachers and schools to meet our individual needs — core seeds of growing into an independent learner. There’s more work to be done to get there — and lots of barriers, ranging from the pressures on educators to “teach to the test” to mindsets about assessment that are more instructivist than constructivist, that will need to be felled. But, as we look ahead to an uncertain future, the need for and value of developing independent learners will continue to grow in importance for us all.

About the Author

Ryan Mick is the Chief Program Officer at The Learning Accelerator (TLA) and is a national leader in human-centered design, innovation, and continuous improvement methods.