Teachers Supporting Students to Become Self-Directed Learners

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed.
May/June 2013


Evidence-based practices that are implemented with fidelity are effective in improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities.  One such practice is self-management, whereby students set goals and monitor their progress toward improved behavior or academic achievement (Farley, Torres, Wailehua, & Cook, 2012).  Students who engage in self-management “demonstrate a more self-directed commitment to their learning that will result in greater levels of academic achievement” (Lapan, Kardash, & Turner, 2002, p. 257).

Students are aware of their academic achievement and their potential to be academically successful (Hattie, 2009).   This awareness is a key element in the learning process. Thus, “academic awareness builds academic success” (Tomlinson, 2008, p. 30).  Specifically, students who know their strengths and needs are able to have a voice in setting their learning goals and monitor progress toward those goals.  This sense of control is important for success.  That is, to be successful, students must believe that their efforts will make a difference in their learning (Hattie, 2009).  

Students with disabilities may struggle with self-awareness and self-directed learning.  Teachers can help build this awareness as they talk with students about what they have observed, and work with students in evaluating their products and processes (Tomlinson, 2008).  Effective teachers “give students opportunities to reflect on their work . . . and aid them in thinking about their strengths, their weaknesses, and the changes they will make as they approach future work” (Tomlinson, 2008, p. 30).

Students who take ownership of their learning develop the self-efficacy skills needed to persist towards better outcomes.  Teachers who make learning goals transparent, engage in formative assessment practices, and provide clear and specific feedback to students foster self-directed learning (Hattie, 2012).  “To grow as much and as rapidly as possible, students must not only learn essential content, but also increasingly take charge of their own lives as learners” (Tomlinson, 2008, p. 27).

This edition of Link Lines contains a number of articles on practices that support student-directed learning. 

Cooperative learning activities allow students to assume responsibility for the learning process and to become more active participants in this process. A variety of cooperative strategies that can be incorporated into academic learning are described in Lisa Emerson’s article, Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms: Students Who Work Together, Learn Together.

Multisensory structured language education provides students with the reading skills and strategies they need to be independent learners.  Such strategies actively engage students in learning to read.  Instructional Sequence for Teaching the Structure of the English Language, by Mary Stowe, presents explicit examples of an organized sequence for teaching reading components to enhance student success.

Career Preparation: Keeping an Eye on the Finish Line, by Elaine Gould, describes the third step in the career development process – after (a) career awareness and (b) career exploration.  Career preparation provides students with opportunities to design and move toward their futures.  This article emphasizes the importance of students being actively involved in their career development and shares resources that will assist students in this third phase of the process.

When developing IEPs, it is important to keep students involved and to help them understand the supports and accommodations they need in order to access and make progress in the general education curriculum. Describing Specially Designed Instruction, Supplementary Aids and Services, and Program Modifications in the IEP, by Dale Pennell, provides guidance to IEP teams as they develop these components of students’ IEPs.

Finally, technology can help provide the structured tools students need to support implementation of self-management strategies. Cathy Buyrn, in her article, Featured Apps:  Tools for Establishing Goals and Tracking Progress, describes electronic and paper tools that may assist students as they create goals and monitor their progress towards those goals.

Students and teachers can be partners in the teaching and learning process.  Self-management strategies support students in taking responsibility and ownership of their learning.  Teachers can assist students in developing these skills and in becoming more active participants in this process.  This issue of T/TAC Link Lines offers resources and strategies that are student-centered and enhance this partnership.


Farley, C., Torres, C., Wailehua, C. T., & Cook, L. (2012). Evidence-based practices for students with emotional and behavioral disorders: Improving Academic Achievement.  Beyond Behavior, (21)2, 37-43.

Hattie, J. (2009).  Visible learning:  A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012).  Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lapan, R. T., Kardash, C. M., & Turner, S. (2002). Empowering students to become self-regulated learners.  Professional School Counseling, 5(4), 257-259.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2008, November).  The goals of differentiation. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 26-30.