How to Foster Student-Directed Learning in Your Classroom

For the past 21 years, I have been teaching high school science, from environmental and earth science to college prep, honors, and Advanced Placement biology. During my first 15 years as an educator, I taught science based on how I was taught when I was a student: students read the chapter, I would review and provide additional information through a lecture and PowerPoint, students took a quiz, we reviewed the end of chapter questions, and students took a multiple-choice test—rinse and repeat, unit after unit. A few times per month, I would provide the students with a recipe-style lab that, if followed step-by-step, resulted in all students getting the same results and answers.  

If you observed my classroom during this time, you would have found students sitting quietly in uniform rows writing information down as quickly as possible while I clicked away from the corner of the classroom. I had a difficult time seeing that this way of teaching was not reaching all of my students or challenging them to think critically, discover new ideas, experience wonder and apply information to novel situations.  

Furthermore, I was 15 years into my teaching career, and I was starting to get bored. I needed a change. Doing the same thing year after year was boring—boring for me and boring for my students. Sure, I tried to insert some interesting lessons, articles, current events, and pictures from various trips I would take but, in the end, it was the same concept and way of approaching teaching and learning.  


A shift in standards and perspective 

My wife had just taken a new job as a districtwide STEM supervisor. She took me through the curricular design and the pedagogical shifts she was initiating with her teachers. She was using engineering design and design thinking processes to drive teaching and learning with a focus on problem-solving and critical thinking.  

I began to draw parallels between what she was putting into practice in her district and the shifts that I was seeing in the Next Generation Science Standards. Our daily conversations helped me to see how this way of teaching and learning aligned with the newly revised standards I was supposed to be implementing. Student-centered learning experiences were central to the implementation. She also challenged me to try to implement the engineering design and design thinking processes into my classes. More importantly, this change would allow for my students to engage more deeply in the learning process. If I needed a change, I’m sure my students needed a change as well! 

So about six years ago, I threw away the PowerPoints and multiple-choice tests. Through trial and error, I figured out how to teach for knowledge retention and application and how to truly engage students. I was working to provide my students with an opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and develop lifelong skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, questioning, and collaborative discussions. I removed myself as the “lord at the board” or “sage on the stage.” I created an environment where students took charge of their learning, and I became simply the facilitator of their learning process.  

It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time to really flesh out what works and how to make this new approach possible. I began with the engineering design process using claim/evidence/reasoning (CER) in lieu of the scientific method. 


No PowerPoints, no books, and no multiple-choice tests 

At the beginning of the school year, I make three promises to the students: there will be no PowerPoints, no books, and no multiple-choice tests. I explain to them that I want them to discover the information they will be learning during the year through prompts, discussions and collaboration. I then introduce the students to my process of teaching and learning with a simple question for the students—and a simple way for me to test out this new way of approaching teaching and learning: What is your definition of “life?”  

This is a foundational topic in biology. In the past, I would provide the students with the book definition and characteristics of life. But why not challenge the students to come up with their own definition of life? Without the use of the book or the internet, the students discuss, collaborate and ultimately create a class definition of life and then apply this definition to various “creatures” or items in the classroom.  

What I find every year now is that the students are engaged in the lesson. They are making their own adjustments to their definition, making sure it is applicable based on what they notice. They are actively participating and debating with one another.  

As I began to integrate more and more of these types of learning experiences into the classroom, I saw how the students were transforming into active members of our learning environment. I realized that we educators must design learning experiences that are student-centered and exploratory in nature. This helps students to realize that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer. There are typically multiple ways to approach and solve authentic and real-world situations and scenarios.  

Our projects and lessons should mimic real life and provide students with an opportunity to think critically and solve problems. Our classroom and teaching style should help students to understand that there are myriad correct answers. Our approach should lead students to see that when any of us “fail” we actually succeed because we learn from our mistakes.  

Unique and authentic assignments enable students to work collaboratively to investigate concepts, apply problem-solving techniques and use CER to demonstrate their thought processes.  

I no longer front-load information before providing a collaborative learning experience, but rather charge my students with researching information and analyzing data in teams or pairs to solve a problem or make sense of a scenario.They are also provided with a choice of how to demonstrate their learning. For their projects they have the option to write a paper, create a video, develop a computer program or choose their own means to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.  

I find when students are allowed to interact with the content in ways that appeal to their interests and abilities, they are able to develop and demonstrate a stronger grasp of the concepts. Some students love writing, others making videos, and some love sharing their knowledge through presentations and discussions. These types of learning experiences take the form of project-based learning and choice boards that facilitate student choice. They empower students to apply content in real-world situations, seeing how the content is applicable to their daily lives. This motivates students to apply themselves. 


Students choose their own method to demonstrate learning 

One of our units in environmental science focuses on constructive and destructive factors and how they play a role in the creation of rock structures such as Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in Utah. The culminating assignment requires students to choose any method they prefer to develop a model of these forces. They present the content to the class through that preferred model in order to engage in a discussion on how these forces work and the impact they have. 

The creativity of the students always amazes me: some build 3-D models; others create books, draw pictures, or use computer programs such as Scratch to demonstrate their knowledge. One of my special education students asked if he could use Minecraft to build his model. Personally, I had no idea if this would work but he was confident he could create a model that would demonstrate all of the aspects required in the rubric. His model, knowledge and understanding were incredible. I was amazed to see how he was able to make the connections and prove to himself he was capable of doing this project, even though he had initially struggled with the content.  

After nine or more years of traditional test and quiz experiences, students tend to struggle a bit with this assessment method. They are used to “one right answer” assessments and are always looking to me, the teacher, to tell them whether they did it correctly. When I ask them to explain their thought processes to me, they are baffled and confused. But once they get used to the expectations, they love explaining their claims, evidence and reasoning, and engaging in thought-provoking discussions and debates with their classmates. They realize they can work through challenging situations, figure things out, challenge their assumptions (or me as the teacher!), develop problem-solving skills, and communicate clearly.  


Empowering students 

As educators, we have the ability to make a difference in our students’ lives. We can empower them with lifelong skills that can be applied across multiple disciplines and transcend formal education. Even when I was still an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to help students discover a love and interest in the world around them. I wanted to foster wonder and inquiry in my students and the confidence to figure out how and why things work. But it took me years to develop my craft and design learning experiences that enable students to pursue their passion and demonstrate their strengths.  

Over the past three years, I believe I have really started to achieve my goal of student-centered learning. A former student once wrote in an end-of-year exit survey, “While there were times we struggled in Mr. Dagounis’s class, the students always grasped the concept by the end of the project. It would seem like we couldn’t do it, but we always did. Once I realized I had the ability to complete these seemingly impossible projects, I knew I could do anything!”  

So I challenge you, whether you are a novice teacher or one who has been teaching for 10, 15, or more than 20 years, to ditch the PowerPoints and lectures. Provide your students with thought-provoking and authentic prompts that allow them to discuss, debate, wonder and construct their own understanding of the topic at hand. At the end of the day, we should want our students to be authentic, creative, and critical thinkers, not passive recipients of knowledge. Let them wonder and question. Let them create. You will be amazed at what they can accomplish! 


Editor’s Note: In a separate email, Dennis was asked about how his PBL approach has improved student learning of science content. Here is his reply...

I have definitely seen a higher retention rate in my students since I have changed to PBL. Since I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th graders I have seen an improvement in retention rate as opposed to when I just “taught the book.” When the students are more engaged, they seem to remember the information moving forward. Even if the connection is as silly as “I remember light-independent reaction because we did your project on helping Batman stop Poison Ivy. The light-dependent reaction uses ….”  I have also seen scores increase in my AP level classes since the students are learning how to critically think and problem solve early on.

Another aspect of PBL that is not talked about often and I just recently made the connection–since my students are engaged more I have far fewer discipline issues in my classroom than I did in the past. 

About the Author:

Dennis Dagounis is the 2021-22 Union County Teacher of the Year. He is a science teacher at Roselle Park High School. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using @21ctoydagounis. He can be reached at  

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 29, 2022 by the New Jersey Education Association.



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