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The Benefits and Challenges of Student-Designed Learning

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SLA students interviewed their classmates on skin-tone politics within the African-American community. (Joie Nearn, Imani Weeks, and Sydne Hopkins)

Science Leadership Academy (SLA)English Language Arts teacher Joshua Block decided to take the independence he and his colleagues have been cultivating in their students since freshman year to a new level.

SLA students have many opportunities throughout their four years to choose how and what they investigate in their classes, and by senior year they are adept at choosing their own essay topics, meeting deadlines, staying focused while working online and coming up with creative projects that matter to them personally. But when a group of seniors at the Philadelphia school were given even more independence over their own learning, it was a challenge.

Block wanted seniors to have more than freedom within a set of constraints (the usual SLA teaching style) -- he wanted them to try designing their own learning. Students had complete freedom to pursue topics they were passionate about, but they also had to motivate themselves without the firm deadlines and rubrics that had become standard to them. Block was mindful that if he threw students in without a lifeline, they would struggle.

The first quarter of this one-semester class looked more like a “traditional” SLA class. Students read the same book, chose themes within the reading that mattered to them and wrote thesis papers. But in the second quarter, Block told his students they could work on whatever they wanted, including making radio pieces, planning and teaching a middle school lesson, writing papers or anything else. And they could pursue any area of interest that they were passionate about, as long as they kept making progress toward agreed-upon goals. Because everyone was working on different projects and at different paces, the main way students knew they were on task was through weekly meetings about their productivity, which resulted in a “productivity grade.”

“It was really about what they got done, and the quality of work, and did they respond to our feedback about the plan,” Block said. The point was that students should be making progress on their work, and if they finished one thing, they should begin something else that caught their interest.


“A real challenge is how to figure out the gradebook for something like this because suddenly I’m not putting in the same grade for everyone,” Block said. He admitted it took effort to let go of the idea that he’d be entering the same number of points for each student.

The foray into self-designed learning was an experiment for both Block and his students, but it yielded some helpful results and feedback from students.


A common reaction from students to this experiment was that, without concrete deadlines, it was hard to motivate themselves. Students expressed excitement around the ideas they were exploring, but often found themselves stagnating somewhere between idea conception and execution.

“When we hit a wall or a lull, we didn’t really know what to do,” said senior Aaron Block (no relation to his teacher). “There were times when we were really on it and we were really productive, and then there were some classes where we hit a wall and that didn’t happen.”

Block worked with four other students to produce a radio piece about gentrification in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia. The students interviewed residents about their experiences of change in the neighborhood, pairing those personal viewpoints with research on gentrification. Block felt that being forced to be self-motivated made the work go slower.

“But on the other hand, we also have this high-quality tangible thing that we’re leaving the class with, and I think that’s worth it,” Block said. In his reflection at the end of the class, Block said he was more proud of the radio piece he worked on than any other project during the semester. His groupmates agreed, adding that because the radio project took a long time, they were all juggling other assignments while working on it. During the second quarter the whole class read "The Namesake," and many class periods were devoted to discussion, cutting into time for the group to work together.

“The freedom. of course, in theory is good, and it forces us to be adults about the work that we’re doing. But on the other hand it would have been nice to have had a little more structure and not be so free-floaty,” said student Anna Sugrue.

Several students had no problem motivating themselves, but universally these were students who had hit upon a subject that had become all-consuming to them. Imani Weeks, Joie Nearn and Sydne Hopkins-Baker chose to research “colorism,” a very personally motivating issue to these three African-American women.

They found the topic after reading “On the Run: Fugitive Life in An American City,” by Alice Goffman about police interactions with African-American men in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The book got the three young women talking about other issues that face the black community, and they became incensed by something that has affected all three of them: a sense within the black community that lighter skin is more beautiful.

The three students interviewed more than 15 classmates and teachers about the subject and made a documentary video and website to showcase their findings. They wrote personal reflections about the research they had done,  and even when the project was finished, all three still felt fired up.

“It made me very upset to hear some people’s views,” Nearn said. “In a way, I think some people are brainwashed.” These three students, along with two boys who worked on a radio story about skateboarding, were so passionate about their projects that they liked working on them, and felt no difficulty motivating themselves to work without deadlines. Their passion fueled them, which seems to be a hallmark of the most rewarding self-designed learning experiences.

Even students who wished there had been more structure recognized the value of learning how to motivate themselves, including coming up with strategies to set personal deadlines. “I hated [design your own learning] at first and part of me still does,” said student Kara Rosenberg. “But I think it’s challenging, which is why I do like it.”

Rosenberg partnered with another student who had attended the same middle school to design a lesson around gender stereotyping. Together they went back to their middle school and presented the lesson to a group of sixth-graders. Rosenberg loved the experience, partly because it gave her some perspective on how much she has grown and matured since middle school, and partly because the lesson hit home.

“I had a girl talking about how she loves to go camping with her dad and they go all the time, but when it’s just her and him he will tell her she has to do the dishes because it’s her job, and that’s what women have to do,” Rosenberg said. The girl was hurt by her father’s words, but didn’t really know why. Other students also shared personal stories and seemed glad to have a framework to name why those experiences had unsettled them.

Researching, planning and delivering the lesson took only a few weeks, so Rosenberg also worked on a radio story and wrote a thesis paper. Most students seemed comfortable with the idea that when they had finished a project, they would naturally move onto another one. And, surprisingly, very few students expressed concern about how the class was graded.

“I don’t think it’s fair to compare someone to someone else,” Rosenberg said. She thinks it’s important that there be a standard for quality work, but thinks it is totally appropriate for each student to be judged “on their own scale.” Many students expressed this sentiment, aware that some classmates were more verbal, while other excelled at writing, but that each had valuable thoughts to offer.

Several students said creative projects were actually harder than more traditional assignments, like analyzing literature and writing papers. “I feel like creative projects might be a little harder because there’s more to do,” said Jada Terrell. “With thesis papers you’re thinking of a thesis, writing a draft, getting peer reviews and then writing your final draft, and that could be the end of it.”


Her radio story, on the other hand, has required extensive research, interviewing, transcribing, script writing and revision, time in the WHYY studios and recording. The payoff is the chance to have her work aired on public radio, recognition all the radio groups hoped to achieve.