Self-Paced Learning in a High School Math Classroom
Updated: Aug 4
My co-teacher and I anonymously surveyed 76 students across our algebra classes this past spring. All of the students were part of our two-year algebra intervention program and most have a history of struggling with math. For the questions below, students were asked to select “agree,” “somewhat agree,” “somewhat disagree,” or “disagree”:
“I know how to catch up if I miss class”
67% agree, 25% somewhat agree
“I am getting better at learning math this year”
62% agree, 32% somewhat agree
“I am learning to be more independent in math class”
65% agree, 29% somewhat agree
“I am more confident in my math skills this year”
55% agree, 33% somewhat agree
“I have had useful conversations with my math teacher(s) this year”
63% agree, 30% somewhat agree
I’ve done surveys like this before, but this one was especially important because over the last two years, my co-teacher and I have radically changed our approach to teaching math. The transformation we undertook was unlike anything I’ve tried before. It took lots of effort and an adjustment period for our students. But it has led to exciting positive student outcomes and has reinvigorated my love of teaching.
Why try something new?
The 2020-2021 school year was a miserable one for students and educators. My school adopted a hybrid learning model, but many students were doing school remotely. Attendance and engagement were poor. We were in a learning purgatory, struggling for traction and mostly waiting for the world to lurch back to normalcy.
As many have noted, the pandemic had disparate effects on students depending on their life situation. Even with school set to resume normal operation, we anticipated huge learning gaps. Figuring out how to meet the needs of all students in a diverse classroom, always a top teaching challenge, became even more critical post-COVID. It was appeared that attendance patterns had been jolted into new lows at least for the near future. We would need to find an approach that was engaging enough to lure kids back to stay while creatively ameliorating iffy attendance in the meantime.
The summer following that uninspiring school year, I learned about a non-profit organization called the Modern Classrooms Project (MCP). In a series of interviews on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, MCP co-founder Kareem Farah made a compelling argument a new approach to teaching. I decided to jump in with both feet, fully revising my first few units for the coming year. My co-teacher and I started that year teaching with self-paced learning and never looked back.
What is the Modern Classrooms Project model?
When Kareem Farah co-founded MCP, he was struggling to differentiate for his own students who were coming to him with a wide range of abilities. He found that the traditional structure of a class (some form of whole-class lecture followed by practice) was reaching only a slice of his students. The model he developed uses short, teacher-created videos to deliver instruction. His insight was using the flexibility this enabled to set up a self-paced course of study for his students. Meanwhile, a mastery-based grading grading structure ensured that student grades reflect skills and knowledge. A key feature of the MCP model is that students don’t proceed to a new lesson until they prove they are ready.
Teachers like to know the details of how this actually works in the hurly burly of the classroom. I’m not going to dig too deep into that here, partly because I know that it would look different in different classes and age groups. But for the curious, here are the bare-boned basics of how we run self-paced learning in our classroom (9th and 10th grade algebra):
Students have access to a set of “unit slides” that they use for a full quarter (ten weeks). Each slide constitutes a “lesson” that includes links to videos and a list of the practice that is required for the lesson. These are displayed in the order that they should be completed. The typical unit has 7 - 10 lessons.
Sample unit slides (video links will not work for non-enrolled persons)
We create guided note sheets that match the ones we use in the linked videos. Students watch the videos and take notes on their sheets. They can choose to watch all the videos for the lesson at once or intersperse the videos with practice. The videos follow the best practices laid out by MCP and backed by research. Videos are no longer than 6 - 8 minutes, are fully created by one of their teachers, feature a video feed of us talking at a natural pace, and include interactive elements. We require students to use our wired headphones and their Chromebooks for videos. Some students watch videos and take notes together if they are working on the same lesson (they are consistently astounded by a headphone splitter I have on hand, purchased at RadioShack in the early 2000’s!).
Students bring their practice assignments to us to check. This is an opportune moment to have a conversation with a student about how the lesson is going. We are able to answer questions and talk about any difficult problems. Sometimes, we offer an extra problem to try. When a student has had all of the practice for a given lesson checked and feel they are ready, they can try the “mastery check.”
Mastery checks are the main way we assess students. They are usually one page, are “open notes,” and students must earn a certain number of points to proceed to the next lesson. We score these with student watching and give feedback in real-time. If a student does not earn enough points, they will need to do more practice before trying again (we developed several forms of each mastery check). Aside from two longer assessments at the midpoint and end of each quarter, these mastery checks form the bulk of a student’s grade.
We track student progress using our “mastery tracker.” This document is truly the heart of this system and students become highly invested in keeping it accurate. We publicly review and update the tracker at the start and the end of each class period. We also discuss which lesson is considered “on pace.”
Students move through the unit at their own pace. They have free access to all note sheets and practice sheets. We talk about how certain lessons may take a student longer while others might be faster. This varies widely depending on the student. We have bonus lessons for students who are moving rapidly through the unit and these are an opportunity to expose students to more challenging and interesting content. Mastery check grades are entered into our online gradebook according to the deadlines we discuss with students daily. Any missing assignments (zeros) are replaced with scores when students complete the mastery check. The end of the quarter is the only “hard” deadline since our grades are due for report cards. However, we encourage students to finish units after the quarter ends and are able to change old quarter grades to reflect their progress.
Why it feels right
The Modern Classrooms Project webpage thoroughly describes the benefits of this model and is worth a visit. However, I personally have noted these benefits for myself and my students:
Compared to traditional methods, self-paced learning is better aligned with how humans learn new things. It just makes more sense than the lockstep approach to instruction that is unsatisfactory to almost all students. It is exhilarating to watch students fly through lessons instead of waiting for the median student to catch up. Alternately, students who need more time with a lesson work at their own pace and actually feel competent before continuing on. New research is finding that this feeling of competence may be key to feelings of well-being for adolescents. Traditional instruction (especially in mathematics) often leaves students feeling lost as they are moved along to lessons and units that they are not ready for.
Teachers have been told to differentiate their instruction for decades. In reality, this is an almost impossible task in certain classrooms. In contrast to traditional instruction, a major component of self-paced learning (pacing) is differentiated at baseline. Although there is a need for other differentiation strategies within self-paced learning, it’s been my experience that flexibility in pacing is more significant for students than most other common differentiation strategies combined.
A critical advantage of self-paced learning is that we have more time to connect with students. We are not spending much time lecturing in front of the whole class. This frees up almost all of our time for 1:1 conferences with students as we check their practice, score mastery checks, and coach them through the learning process.
As mentioned above, attendance has not fully returned to pre-COVID levels. Unfortunately, declining school attendance was a serious problem even before the pandemic in many places. With self-paced learning, a student who is returning from an absence can easily pick up where they left off. This means that their teachers don’t need to scramble to slot them into a current traditional lesson that they are woefully unprepared for. The MCP model also works well for students who are out for medical reasons (they can work on most aspects of self-paced learning outside of school if needed).
With ongoing coaching, self-paced learning builds self-agency, metacognition skills, ownership of learning, and accountability. These are all essential life skills that students develop through our approach. This is my favorite benefit of self-paced learning.
Self-paced learning and Building Thinking Classrooms
A serendipitous book study choice in the summer of 2022 led us to add some enhancements to our self-paced learning program. In his book Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, researcher Peter Liljedahl describes a series of exhaustively researched (and often unorthodox) strategies for the math classroom. Some teachers might miss more structured group work when trying self-paced learning. In his book, Liljedahl describes several research-based strategies that work surprisingly well with the MCP model, including the use of random small groups working on vertical, erasable surfaces. We have integrated this as a daily warm-up routine for our classes and love how it builds collaborative problem-solving skills while also serving as a balance to self-paced learning. Liljedahl’s book is worthy of a separate post of its own (and we’ve only implemented a few of his strategies so far). However, his book complements self-paced learning so well that I couldn’t resist mentioning it here.
A heavy lift (but a worthwhile one)
Making self-paced learning work in a classroom is not easy. It requires fully rethinking how the classroom runs. Creating lesson content is time-consuming and much of this work must be done in advance. This is because certain students will quickly realize that they aren’t restrained by a traditional timeline. Woe to the teacher who is unprepared for them! MCP recommends trying their model with an isolated unit first and building more content each year. We found the model to be so preferable to our old way of teaching we (perhaps inadvisably) undertook a full curriculum rewrite in a single, extremely busy year.
Another challenge is the shift in thinking that self-paced learning requires for students and parents. Ongoing communication about how the program works is a must, especially for students undertaking self-paced learning for the first time. The biggest misconception we encountered was that students misunderstood self-paced learning to mean they were allowed to remain stuck on a single lesson for weeks without consequence. Students must be made to understand that they are still accountable for learning a certain amount of material, even if the timeline is more flexible. Proactive communication with parents is essential as are daily conversations with students about what lessons should be completed in order to be considered “on pace.” We also use Google Classroom assignments to emphasize our “due dates” and we make sure that our online gradebook reflects student progress through the unit.
Despite the hard work involved, I am enjoying teaching more than I have in years. Our most recent survey indicated that most students prefer self-paced learning to how they have learned math in the past. Our failure rate is lower than in past years and our Regents pass rate was 91%. Most importantly in my opinion, student attitudes towards learning math have shifted in some perceptible and positive ways.
If you are an educator, could self-paced learning be something to consider? Modern Classrooms Project offers a free online course, sample curricula, and a more intensive mentorship program if you are interested this innovative approach to teaching and learning.