By Pam Clifton

In Stacia Studer’s eighth-grade English language arts classroom, students are inspired to think out loud and take chances.

“Your voice and story need to be heard. What are you going to share with the world, our community, your peers?” Studer tells her class in the St. Joseph School District.

Students share their own stories through writer’s workshops and are immersed in a variety of literary experiences, such as exploring books of various genres. Through Studer’s own passions, students find the security and courage needed to take risks with their own writing. They pen narrative, expository and argumentative pieces and later reflect and share with their peers.

Student-led learning is an environment that allows her students to flourish. Through large group, small group and individual reflection, Studer’s classes are intentionally designed to meet the needs of all students. She crafts lessons that build on students’ passions.

“In my thinking, student-led learning is educating each child for success by growing each child in his or her passion,” she says. This type of learning closes the achievement gap and engages all students in learning, she adds.

She uses the best practices of writing and reading to build rapport with her students through conferencing and small group sessions. Students take on roles and use questions to get their discussions rolling.

“Students get choice, which fosters that lifelong learner growth mindset. There is always a purpose or learning goal for their group,” Studer says.

Students use sentence starters to practice academic talk in small and large group sessions, reflect on what did and did not work, and seek solutions for the next time. Studer finds that students’ words and the opportunity to hear their own voices directly impact learning. She loves using readings to help shape students into individuals who use “empathy, resilience, flexibility, persistence and hope.” Through her guidance, students find just the right book with themes that allow for reflection and internalization on important literature traits. Students’ self-selected pieces help them discover more about themselves and the people they will become as they journey through the writing process.

In her student-led classroom, discipline problems are rare.

“When students are engaged in the learning and they are working on their passion of interest, the off-task behaviors are not there.”

Little learners

A glimpse into Katie Handke’s kindergarten classroom at East Buchanan C-1 reveals students closely working together to graph, chart, weigh and determine volume with brightly colored pumpkins. For this activity, students have taken charge of finding specific information themselves. To Handke, this hands-on approach is the perfect example of student-led learning: where students are engaged with the topic, problem or activity.

“I believe that great teaching and a well-rounded education are a mix of student-led learning but also teacher-led learning,” Handke says.

As an educator of young children, Handke provides a combination of teacher-led learning with tactics for students to solve problems independently.

Handke begins the year by teaching her 5- and 6-year-olds the expectations and guidelines for learning, followed by center time. Students are placed into small groups – not by ability or level – so they can share different experiences and backgrounds as they problem solve together.

Although she finds herself gravitating toward writing for student-led learning, Handke feels this encourages strong independence as students explore their own passions and individual projects. Students select nonfiction topics to complete research.

“I get quality work and the content stays with them,” she explains.

Students also work on a whole-group art project daily to allow them the opportunity to “create, make and express themselves with their own uniqueness.” Handke adds that she does not cut or tell students what color or shape to use, but instead allows them to explore and create.

“As long as the end result makes their [students’] initial goal, I count that as a success.”

Some teachers avoid student-led learning because of disciplinary interruptions. For Handke, class management starts on the first day of school when she begins creating a learning atmosphere that encourages students’ inquisitiveness. She discourages any silly behaviors during learning time and provides a balance of work and play. The focus is on what really matters: sitting in a chair, raising one’s hand, etc.

“If they can stand to learn, I want them to stand. I want students to learn how to hold a conversation where I speak, they speak … so we take turns in speaking in our classroom.”

All of these guidelines help when it is time for group teacher-led learning. Handke’s students know when it is time to listen.

“I try to challenge students no matter the level with the same standard that is being presented.”

This helps with classroom management because students do not have time for boredom. She uses verbal affirmation when she sees other students doing the right thing when she is working in smaller teacher-led groups. Students also have the opportunity to earn learning center time when the class follows the teacher’s expectations.

Secondary learners

Although Leah Mills teaches middle school students, she follows many of the same practices as Handke. She begins class management on the first day of school, followed by detailed explanations of expectations and goals for her new students. To her, student-led learning gives students a say in what and how they learn in a class. “Students control the education,” she explains, “while I facilitate the education.”

Mills’ seventh/eighth-grade science students at West County R-4 Middle School team assess some work, which gives them the opportunity to help each other review assignments before they are due. During hands-on labs, students rate each other’s lab participation to let Mills know if each person truly did his or her share of the work.

Mills uses a timer for student-led learning. Groups work on questions or problems until the timer goes off and then move on to the next task.

“This keeps students focused and productive.”

Mills also occasionally uses the flipped classroom approach when her students first watch a video presentation she created and then complete an assignment related to that video. Students ask for help and then earn free time once they have completed the assignment.

Like Mills, West County R-4 physical science and biology teacher Tara Lewis uses discovery as part of her teaching and learning practices. Lewis, who worked for three years at Potosi R-3 and now is in her first year at West County, primarily uses the 5-E model of instruction: engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. This method of teaching allows students the chance to take ownership of their own learning and to learn information at a much deeper level.

Lewis' non-traditional classroom – in which she teaches first with a discovery lab and ends with notes and lecture – is designed to empower students and put them in charge of their own learning inside and outside of the classroom. She uses a series of alarms and clickers, and clear instruction and communication to keep students on task and help them set goals, communicate effectively and use time wisely.

“If we have high expectations, our students will grow farther than if we had set a lower standard,” she says.

Lewis manages complicated tasks during group work by selecting two to four students each week as the class experts who assist with answering questions. When she divides students into small groups of four, important leadership roles are assigned: leader, communicator, writer and presenter. Students then communicate with group members to complete tasks. By the end of first quarter, students have had the chance to perform each role a few times.

Lewis believes that bringing back many of the elementary-type teaching strategies is beneficial even for older students.

“We teach so much in those first few years and students never forget. Because we haven’t crushed their creativity, learning is exciting and new, they use think-pair-share, shoulder partners, and group work on a daily basis,” Lewis says.

She does all this – but with teenagers. She admits that at first they are resistant to coloring or drawing in their interactive notebooks and hesitate to move from learning station to station. But soon they realize learning can be enjoyable. Students realize they are capable of their own self-improvement, self-worth, self-esteem and self-reliance.

Tools are also important for student-led learning. The interactive notebooks are a cornerstone in Lewis' classroom. Students know the basics of what to put into their journal and how they will be graded.

It is okay to be frustrated when a test or lab does not go as originally planned, Lewis says. She suggests teachers consider alternative means for assessment such as a long project of the student’s choice or group work. One class activity completed in her room could easily be used as an assessment. The students used Play-Doh to build models of the inside of the earth and the sea floor spreading. Students shared their work with other groups and made long-term memory connections.

Lewis adds that all educators should share the same goal for student-led learning: show them, believe in them, and give them an environment to explore, express and grow.   

Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois Co. R-4. She can be contacted by email at