Self-Paced Learning: Lessons Learned for Moving Forward

What is self-paced learning?

At its simplest form, self-paced learning is a model of instruction where most of the content delivery, practice, and assessment is digitized and hosted somewhere that all students can access when they need it. It allows students to spend more time where they need it, while other students can move quickly through things they already know.

Why is it worth trying?

  1. Differentiation: No two people learn the same thing at the same rate and in the same way. With self-paced learning, addressing this issue becomes a feasible task to tackle. If multiple different formats of instruction are hosted on the digital platform, one student can watch a video and be ready to move forward, while another student might need to read an article and then watch the video, and they have the time and space to do that.
  2. Individual/Small Group Instruction: I have never been so able to work individually with students as I was during my self-paced unit. I spent almost my entire class period having conversations with individual students and small groups. It felt incredibly valuable compared to other traditional models.
  3. Results: It works. I've never had such high marks on formative assessments. More importantly, students could effectively apply the concepts to their culminating project.

How do you create a self-paced unit?

  1. Identify your platform for hosting materials. 
    • I would recommend Google Sites. It's super easy to use, and you can embed everything you want while making it more visually appealing than other formats. If you aren't fully comfortable with that, try a HyperDoc in Google Docs. Whatever you choose, make sure you can link to all the resources you will need.
  2. Compile your resources. 
    • Either curate or develop a collection of instructional materials to help teach students the concepts. I used YouTube as the primary method of instruction, but I also made sure to include text-based instruction (websites, PDFs, etc.) 
    • Once you have your instructional materials, develop your practice materials. This can take a bunch of different forms. I used Quizlet to develop practice sets for some of the terms. You could use something like Quizizz for formative assessments.
  3. Develop your assessment(s).
    • Make sure that students have benchmarks where they have to demonstrate their learning in a more formal capacity. This gives students an opportunity to self-assess and determine what they need to do next.
  4. Develop re-teaching opportunities (optional).
    • While this is something that you could do with small groups, it can be helpful to have resources available to re-teach specific concepts or content. 
  5. Put it all together.
    • Whatever format you choose, make sure there is a clear progression of steps, especially if this is the first time your students are seeing it. Without guidance that first time, it can go haywire. The more times you do it, the more you can take off some of the restraints and let students choose their process.

What did I do that worked?

  1. Embed time for reflection.
    • I made sure that the document students used to guide them through the unit had a place where they had to score themselves on each of the unit objectives. We did this every morning. The metacognitive element of self-paced learning is absolutely crucial and needs to be at the forefront every single day. 
  2. Vary the activities.
    • Novelty is a powerful thing. For each activity, I changed up what students needed to do. For example, when they learned about the concepts the first time, they added their learning to a collaborative Padlet board. When they practiced the skills, they played games through Quizlet. When they had to analyze a text, they recorded a video using FlipGrid. It can become monotonous if students are doing the same thing every single day.
  3. Ensure accountability.
    • Students are amazing at not doing things when no one holds them accountable. In fact, so are teachers! Make sure that every step of the process involves some sort of accountability. This could be accountability with the teacher or with peers. For example, FlipGrid is peer accountability. I would have students share out what they got done that day and what they learned in that process for more peer accountability. I would have individual conversations with students. Whatever you can do to increase the amount of accountability, not just to doing things but to actual learning, do it. It's vital.
  4. Assess students when they're ready.
    • This was probably my favorite part. Students had to earn the right to take an assessment. They only got to take it when they knew they were ready. It completely changed the dynamic of the assessment. It truly became an opportunity to demonstrate learning.

What did I do that didn't work?

Reflection is huge for me. It's how we all get better. Here are just some things that didn't go well and how I want to change them for next time.
  1. Increase creativity.
    • We are creative beings. It's how our brains are wired. I want to include more opportunities for students to create things (student-generated digital review games, physical models, infographics, etc.) to ensure that their brains are fully engaged in the process while also allowing students to contribute to the learning of others.
  2. Integration of project/problem-based learning during the process.
    • While we did a project after, I want to introduce the project early so that students have the project and the resources at the same time. This way it will create more of a need for the information. 
  3. Extension opportunities that excite.
    • I had an extension activity set up, but students weren't very interested in it, so it fell flat. I already have reworked the extension opportunity into something that will be more engaging and interesting for students.

Final Thoughts

I know what everyone's thinking. "This is so much work!" I won't pretend that it's easy. It is more work to front load everything. However, it's better for students and for learning, and if that's not why we're teachers, then what are we doing? 

Even though it feels like more work at first, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that you are going to enjoy your class time more. No more lectures. No more trying to get all students to do the same thing at the same time. Instead, you get to facilitate learning. You get to see more of those "Ah-ha!" moments that we live for as educators. 

It's worth it. It's absolutely worth it.

Thoughts or ideas? Comment below.

Want to continue this conversation? Find me on Twitter at @Mr_Rablin or shoot me an email at