Home » Teacher Tips » The Self-Paced Classroom

As Teachers, we must understand every student has different needs. 

Some race through instruction, while some need more time to digest the incoming information. 

Some can get help at home, and some miss classes. Sadly enough, in our traditional educational settings, the demands of pacing guides and age-based promotion make meeting these needs difficult.

If we look back at the days of the one-room school house, educators and teachers have longed for a better system, where all students have the time they need to achieve true understanding. 

To put it in perspective, a self-paced learning atmosphere like we know, form self-paced learning models in Montessori schools, alternative schools, and cyber schools, yet so far it hasn’t reached the masses. The one-size-fits-all model stirs along, leaving far too many students behind.

But now we know how to combine self-pacing into our own classroom without lowering the students’ expectations or replacing ourselves with mindless technology. But first, let’s understand the concept of the self-paced model of education.

A self-paced classroom is one where students can complete learning tasks at a speed that suits their personal abilities. This means they may take longer with the material they struggle with, or they can skip topics they already know or repeat topics and subjects if needed.

The concept of self-pacing is intuitive. Anyone who has raised a child will tell you kids learn how to do things at varying speeds. Even from the basic skills like walking, talking, or stacking blocks, kids learn differently and need to respect their differences. Research has long demonstrated that students learn at different paces, and the variations in learning rates are considerable.

But for some reason, the large majority of K-5 schools, and middle & high school, education has ignored this fact. Instead, we take the opposite stance that students should actually learn at the same pace as their peers or the benchmarks the systems have made, and if they can’t keep up, we fail them or push them through the system with no regard for what they have missed. 

Many of the systems that still dominate much of primary education make it difficult for teachers to imagine a world of flexible pacing in their classrooms.

Now that we know what a self-paced classroom is, let’s talk about implementing self-paced instruction in your classroom. And if you are interested to learn about the benefits you can reap, stay tuned.

The First step towards self-pacing would be to let go of whole group instructon

It is one of the main reasons most educators don’t build self-pacing into their classroom; they rely on whole-group direct instruction. This is not a surprise, given that this is how most teachers are trained to educate. But as long as your students depend on you delivering a live lecture or set of instructions at the beginning of class, you’ll never be able to leap self-pacing. So before you consider self-pacing, you have to develop a concrete plan for replacing whole-group direct instruction with lessons students can access on their own. 

To be clear, whole-group direct instruction is distinct from whole-group discussions and activities. Any effective self-paced classroom naturally introduces collaborative experiences. The keynote here is to reduce and ultimately eliminate those times when kids are simply waiting for you to tell them information so they can get started on a task. 

This is where many educators struggle and don’t understand how they can make the shift; this is where technology kicks in. in these challenging times when lessons are delivered via distance learning, this provides a perfect opportunity for every educational institution as well as educators to make an effective elimination of the whole-group direct instruction method.

You can try to build your own instructional videos and send them to individual students or small groups so they all can have a chance of understanding the same content, but according to their own level of understanding. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; let’s dive into the idea of how you can introduce SELF-PACE within the constraints of school. 

Let’s take a look at the 8 steps

Number 1: Self-Pace Within Each Unit of Study 

Self-pacing has real power, but if it is implemented without guardrails, it can present substantial challenges. 

Take this for an example, if you go overboard and let students self-pace for an entire year, you run the risk of having the faster learners fly through content while those who require more time grow frustrated and eventually lose motivation. 

This only widens the gap between students. To prevent this, it is better to let students self-pace within each unit of study, and in many cases, even shorter bursts than that. This gives students the structure they need to flourish, and frequent opportunities for fresh starts as they refine their ability to be effective, self-regulated learners. 

Self-pacing within each unit of study is not only effective for learners; it also enables educators to follow district and school-level expectations around pacing. Set your end-of-unit or mid-unit deadlines following the expectations provided to you, then cultivate a self-paced learning environment within those constraints. 

Number 2: Classify Your Lessons

What happens if students don’t master all the lessons in a unit by the deadline? This is the right question to ask, and there is research to support that students in a self-paced learning environment might take longer with the material they struggle with. 

Therefore, some students can be expected to be unable to master every lesson before the unit deadline. To navigate this challenge, you would want to classify lessons based on importance, which will empower you to send kids on personalized pathways based on their needs. 

To get you as an educator to fast track, here are some extra tips for dividing the lessons in MUST, SHOULD, AND ASPIRE to do 

Must-Do: These lessons cover essential skills and content, without which end-of-unit assessments cannot be completed. These lessons are non-negotiable.

Should Do: These lessons give students valuable opportunities to develop their skills or knowledge and include skills that are still considered to be “grade-level expectations.” However, when students fall behind and are working hard, they can be excused from these lessons and can still transition to the next unit comfortably.

Aspire to Do: These are the toughest lessons in a unit; they serve as extensions for students who are ready and able to learn skills and content beyond the normal scope of the lesson/unit. You should feel comfortable excusing kids from mastering these lessons if they run out of time.

Classifying lessons like these are not an exact science, and there’s no right way to determine what’s essential and what isn’t. However, having clear expectations in mind, a reasonable bar every student must meet during the unit, plus extensions for more ambitious students, will help you differentiate your instruction to meet every student’s needs.

Number 3: Tracking Student Progress

Teachers can become overwhelmed by the idea of running a self-paced classroom. Both students and their teacher must know exactly what they will work on every day, constantly tracking progress toward achieving learning goals and mastering content. This helps students get right to work. 

To create the structure necessary for students to flourish, teachers should build clear progress tracking systems that are easy to update and reward students for effort. 

Number 4: Public Pacing Trackers

These Trackers are publicly displayed in classrooms and indicate where each student is in the unit. In addition to indicating the lesson each student is on, public pacing trackers often highlight the expected pace and lesson all-stars who have produced ideal work. 

It is important to note that public trackers NEVER display grades, and given the nature of self-pacing, students have ample time and opportunity to catch up. Also, if lesson classifications are used effectively, the tracker should reflect the effort, not the ability level.

Arguably the biggest upside of public trackers is that they encourage organic collaboration. Students can easily identify others who are working on similar lessons for support.

Regardless of which method you use, it is vital to have a method for tracking pace. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning a controlled chaos learning environment into a completely chaotic one. 

Number 5: Classroom Learning Spaces

Unlike traditional classrooms, self-paced classrooms do not revolve around the teacher delivering content standing at the whiteboard. Therefore, student seating should be designed to encourage collaboration and small group instruction. When students are sitting in groups, they are more likely to collaborate with their peers, either organically or by following their teachers’ guidance. 

Number 6: Collaborative Tasks and Activities

Teachers can design assignments and activities that require students to collaborate to achieve mastery. 

Like using a policy of ask 3 before me, if they have any questions regarding classwork, it encourages students to reach out to their peers for support before approaching their teacher. 

You can use student assistance forms to push students to work together and track their collaboration. 

Number 7: Promotes Group Discussions and Activities

Many educators will be able to open each class up with a discussion. The topic can be content-specific or centered around the key 21st-century skills they are developing and reinforcing in a student-centered classroom.

 Remember, whole-group discussions are welcome in a self-paced environment, not live lectures. 

Number 8: Progress-Based Groupings

One of the beauties of progress trackers is they provide concrete data to support effective collaboration. If a student struggles on a lesson, they can identify a peer who has already mastered that lesson and approach them for help. In some cases, teachers will use grouped pacing trackers designed to foster collaboration based on the different lessons. 

Now let’s tune into the 5 benefits of self-paced learning to understand why it is so stressed in a modern classroom setting.

Number 1: It builds self-confidence 

We all know students who walk into class already thinking they are “bad” at school. They might say they “can’t write” or “can’t do math” or “don’t like learning.” We have become accustomed to hearing students express these frustrations, but we don’t spend enough time asking why. The truth is, countless students have spent their whole educational career feeling rushed. Instead of giving them more time, we usually give them partial credit and completion grades to push them through the system. Over time, they grow to hate school because they have never experienced the joy of authentic mastery. Self-pacing allows students to experience the feeling of true mastery because they are given enough time and support to get there. For students who haven’t often experienced that joy, it can have profound effects on their confidence. 

Number 2: It differentiates for students’ needs

Everyone talks about differentiation, but it is tough to pull off effectively in the classroom. A teacher’s capacity to differentiate is fundamentally limited if you aren’t able to modify the speed of learning based on individual students’ needs. There is only so much you can do if every kid has to move on to the next lesson the next day. With self-paced learning, students who understand a skill can move on while providing appropriate time and scaffolding to students who are struggling to achieve mastery. 

Number 3: It supports students’ social-emotional needs

When I first started teaching, I felt pulled in two directions. I was constantly trying to balance meeting my students’ unique social-emotional needs while maintaining “order” in my classroom. These two priorities often worked against each other. Supporting a struggling student emotionally requires time, care, and patience: all things that are limited when trying to manage a whole-class lecture or activity. In a self-paced classroom, you no longer have to choose between nurturing an individual student or tending to the larger group; when a student needs your attention, you can provide it without inhibiting everyone else’s learning. 

Number 4: It supports self-regulation

A critical and often undervalued education element is teaching kids the 21st-century skills that allow them to become better learners over time. Self-regulation is a uniquely important skill that ensures a student can independently or collaboratively tackle a new challenge in a measured way. Skillfully crafted self-paced classrooms allow students to practice self-regulation, taking partial ownership over the planning and managing of the learning process, which has been correlated with faster learning and higher achievement. 

Number 5: It paves the way for mastery-based grading

The final frontier of our model at the Modern Classrooms Project is mastery-based grading. The goal is to cultivate a learning environment where students progress if they have shown mastery of the previous skill. A hallmark of mastery-based grading is giving students time to revise their work and be reassessed when necessary. To accomplish this, self-pacing is not just valuable; it is essential. You have to let some students move ahead while others wrestle with a skill until they achieve mastery. 

Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful,and enjoy hearing about my personal journey.



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Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful and enjoy hearing about my personal journey. Thanks for visiting!

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