Reflections on Student-Centered Learning Part 1- Student Perspective

November 27, 2015


The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) hosted their annual Symposium in Orlando, FL. last week. I attended—along with over 3,000 educators, experts, thought leaders, and innovators—and left with a sense of both the enormity of the charge of educating all young people to succeed in the world of the future, and the importance of taking up this charge with the vigor and passion that was exhibited by symposium presenters and attendees.

Though I attended several thought-provoking and engaging sessions, the two that stand out for me are the ones that featured voices of the students and educators who are doing the hard (and rewarding) work to personalize learning. In these two sessions—the first a panel of high school and middle school student respondents from Charleston, South Carolina and Clermont, Florida, and the second a conversation with iNACOL Teacher of the Year Paula Barr— I was struck by how closely aligned these student and teacher experiences are with both what research tells us about the best approaches to teaching and learning, and with each other—the teacher experience with the student experience across age level and school district.

Here are my observations:

What does your classroom look like?

For the high school students, personalized learning classrooms are set with different work areas for students to move among throughout their day, including couches, comfy chairs, and modular circular tables that can be reconfigured into singles or small groups. The tables have white board surface so students can work out problems together directly on the tabletop. Students acknowledged that teachers and administrators might be reticent to put living room furniture into classrooms, but from their perspective having more comfortable chairs doesn’t make them relax; “it’s much easier to fall asleep in rows.”

Relationships (peer to peer and student-teacher)

Students note a significant change in their peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships as a result of personalized learning. Students are encouraged to seek assistance from their peers before consulting the teacher. Unlike traditional stand and deliver education, it also gives them the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of their classmates as they learn that different peers have strengths in different areas. The peer interaction frees up teacher time for more one-on-one interaction with each student.

Student ownership

The students clearly and passionately conveyed that personalized learning has empowered them to take ownership of their education. They don’t feel that they need to get permission from the teacher for every move they make in the classroom, and are more frequently turning to their own problem-solving or the aid of peers as a first resort. This is derived from the class’ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which states that when students encounter an academic hurdle, they will first consult a peer, second revisit course material, and third ask the teacher for assistance. Students in both schools had similar classroom procedures that were developed and agreed to by the students. This allowed them to feel that they had a stake in their classroom community. “You don’t want to agree to something you didn’t have a say in.”

Overall, the biggest change for these students was going from being told what to do every day to having to guide their own paths. With the help of their roadmaps, and after acclimating to the new way of learning, student love this new sense of ownership and responsibility.


These students clearly feel increased ownership from personalized learning and are building strong relationships through their education. What about achievement, though? Are they learning as much as they did in traditional learning environments, or more?

The high school students spoke at length about their transition to mastery-based grading. Students compared this to growth mindset grading—the categories of “emerging” and “near mastery” make the students feel much more hopeful than Cs, Ds, and Fs. While they are only required to achieve the “mastery” level before moving on, students often strive for the “exceeding mastery” distinction. Students who have earned “exceeding mastery” are eligible to teach mini lessons for their peers.

One of the panelists shared that in more traditional classrooms, he often struggled with material but was reticent to raise his hand and ask additional questions because he didn’t want to slow the whole group down when everyone else was ready to advance. In the personalized learning environment though, “I can do everything at my own pace and actually learn it,” he said, “I can master it.” Their classroom is a no-judgment zone—it’s OK that some students are ahead and others are behind, and those students that are ahead are often capable and willing to help those that need support.

Preparation for the future

The students were very aware of the role high school plays in preparing them for college and their futures. They acknowledge that taking responsibility for their progress and learning is a skill they will use in college and beyond. They are learning important time-management skills and how to structure their workload to avoid procrastination. Finally, many of the students spoke about growth mindset and how they are applying growth mindset principles to their schoolwork and beyond. One student explained that he has been mentoring his older brother to adopt a growth mindset in his professional life to move beyond the career he feels stuck in to something more aspirational.

Advice for those who are just getting started

For the last question of the session, the moderate invited students to give advice to those just getting started with personalized learning.

For educators:

– Teachers need to know who their students are, what they’re learning, and how to respect the way they learn best
– Adjustment and learning how everything works will take a while, but in the end it will help us with our future

For students:

– Be open to your teacher—don’t think they don’t know what they’re doing because they’re trying something new
– Trust your teacher—they’ll be there for you even after you’re done for your classes
– Don’t procrastinate
– Keep track of your progress

For anyone:

– Personalized learning is awesome. You guys should try it!
– Stay positive. It takes time to adjust—it can’t be implemented over night
– Teachers and students need a growth mindset

Stay tuned for perspective gleaned from iNACOL Teacher of the Year Paula Barr’s featured session, next month on Students at the Center Everyday.

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