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Book 6: Self-Directed Learning
November 1999
Rural Education Program
Based on the September 1989 publication
of the same title written by Bruce A. Miller
Susan Vincent, Editor
Joyce Ley, Director
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
101 S.W. Main Street, Suite 500
Portland, Oregon 97204
The following selections have been reprinted with permission:
Cohen, E. (1986). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom
(pp. 207–209). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. (Reprinted
with permission of publisher.)
Emmer, E.T. (1987). Classroom management and discipline. In V.
Richardson-Koehler & D.C. Berliner (Eds.), Educators’ handbook:
A research perspective (pp. 233-258). White Plains, NY: Longman.
(Reprinted with permission of publisher.)
Evertson, C.M., Emmer, E.T., Clements, B.S., Sanford, J.P., & Williams, E.
(1981). Organizing and managing the elementary school classroom. Austin,
TX: University of Texas, Research and Development Center for Teacher
Education. (Reprinted with permission of Carolyn Evertson, Peabody
College, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.)
Gaustad, J. (1994). Nongraded education: Overcoming obstacles to implementing
the multigrade classroom [Special issue]. OSSC Bulletin, 38(3
& 4). (Reprinted with permission of author.)
Gibbons, M., & Phillips, G. (1978). Helping students through the selfeducation
crisis. Phi Delta Kappan, 60(4), 296–300. (Reprinted with
permission of publisher.)
Kagan, S. (1989). Cooperative learning: Resources for teachers. San Juan
Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers. (Reprinted with permission
of publisher.)
Karweit, N. (1987). Diversity, equity, and classroom processes. In M.T.
Hallinan (Ed.), Social organization of schools: New conceptualizations of the
learning process (pp. 71–102). New York, NY: Plenum Press. (Reprinted
with permission of publisher.)
Kentucky Department of Education. (1996). Nearly all Kentucky schools show
improvement in latest KIRIS scores, but middle schools lag behind [Press
release]. Frankfort, KY: Author. (Reprinted with permission of author.)
Murphy, J., Weil, M., & McGreal, T. (1986). The basic practice model of
instruction. Elementary School Journal, 87(1), 83–96. (Reprinted with
permission of the University of Chicago Press.)
Oregon Department of Education, & Ackerman Laboratory School. (1994).
Mixed-age programs, 1993–94. Salem, OR: Oregon Department of
Education. (Reprinted with permission of publisher.)
Pavan, B.N. (1992). The benefits of nongraded schools. Educational
Leadership, 50(2), 22–25. (Reprinted with permission of author.)
The Multigrade Classroom
Slavin, R.E. (1987). Ability grouping and student achievement in elementary
schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research,
57(3), 293–336. (Reprinted with permission of the American
Educational Research Association.)
Slavin, R.E. (1988). Synthesis of research on grouping in elementary and
secondary schools. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 67–77. (Reprinted
with permission of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Slavin, R.E., & Madden, N.A. (1989). What works for students at risk:
A research synthesis. Educational Leadership, 46(5), 4–13. (Reprinted
with permission of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Thomas, J.W., Strage, A., & Curley, R. (1988). Improving students’ selfdirected
learning: Issues and guidelines. Elementary School Journal, 88(3),
313–326. (Reprinted with permission of the University of Chicago.)
The Multigrade Classroom
The preface describes the process used in developing this handbook,
including the multigrade teachers who shared their classroom strategies
and ideas for improving the usefulness of the handbook.
The history of multigrade classroom instruction is presented, along
with the background information that describes why multigrade
instruction is an important and complex issue for educators.
Book 1: Review of the Research on Multigrade Instruction
In this book, the research on multigrade instruction is reviewed
in order to answer two questions: (1) What effect does multigrade
instruction have on student performance? and (2) What kind of training
is needed in order to teach in a multigrade classroom? Detailed
information focusing on organizing and teaching in a multigrade classroom
is also presented.
Book 2: Classroom Organization
This book describes strategies for arranging and organizing instructional
resources and the physical environment of the classroom. Sample
classroom layouts and a “design kit” for organizing your classroom are
also included.
Book 3: Classroom Management and Discipline
Establishing clear expectations for student behavior and predictable
classroom routines has been shown to improve student performance.
In this book, research relating to classroom management and discipline
are presented, along with a checklist for planning management routines
and discipline procedures.
Book 4: Instructional Organization, Curriculum, and Evaluation
Research-based guidelines for planning, developing, and implementing
instructional strategies are presented. This book emphasizes the development
of cooperative work norms in the multigrade classroom and
explains how to match instruction to the needs of students. An overview
of curriculum and evaluation planning concepts is also provided. This
book is a close companion piece with book 5: Instructional Delivery
and Grouping.
Book 5: Instructional Delivery and Grouping
This book emphasizes that instructional quality and student grouping
are key components for success in the multigrade classroom.
Instructional methods such as recitation, discussion, and cooperative
learning are reviewed. Planning guides and examples are also included
where appropriate. Strategies for organizing group learning activities
across and within grade levels, especially those that develop interdependence
and cooperation among students, are discussed.
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning
Developing skills and strategies in students that allow for a high level
of independence and efficiency in learning, either individually or in
combination with other students, is essential in the multigrade classroom.
Ideas for developing self-direction are presented in this book.
Book 7: Planning and Using Peer Tutoring
This book provides guidelines for developing skills and routines whereby
students serve as “teachers” to other students within and across differing
grade levels. The research on what makes for effective tutoring in
the classroom is also reviewed.
The Multigrade Classroom
The development of this handbook began in 1987, when a group
of people involved in rural education raised several issues regarding
multigrade classroom instruction.
In their discussions, members of the advisory committee for the
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s (NWREL) Rural Education
Program agreed that multigrade teacher training in their respective states
was either lacking or wholly inadequate. They also were concerned about
the availability of research and training materials to help rural multigrade
teachers improve their skills.
As a result of these concerns, the Rural Education Program decided to
develop a handbook to assist the multigrade teacher. The handbook evolved
in several stages. The first was a comprehensive review, conducted by Dr.
Bruce Miller, of the research on multigrade instruction that included articles,
books, and research reports from the United States, Canada, Australia, and
other countries.
From this review, six topic areas emerged that are considered essential for
effective multigrade instruction: classroom organization; classroom management
and discipline; instructional organization, curriculum, and evaluation;
instructional delivery and grouping; self-directed learning; and planning and
using peer tutoring. Dr. Miller developed the handbook around these six
instructional areas, and a draft was completed in June 1989, with support
from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).
The second stage occurred in July 1989, when a conference was held in
Ashland, Oregon, with multigrade teachers who were recommended by educational
leaders from throughout the Northwest and Pacific Island regions.
During the conference, participants were organized into workgroups,
each focusing on one of the topic areas. Their tasks were to review the
appropriate handbook chapter for clarity and content, to suggest alternative
and/or additional instructional strategies to those presented in the handbook,
and to write case descriptions of activities drawn from their classrooms.
For example, Joel Anderson from Onion Creek Elementary in Colville,
Washington, described how he grouped students for cooperative learning.
Darci Shane from Vida, Montana, presented a school handbook she had
developed for parents that included a class schedule and other school-related
information. (A full list of participants appears at the end of this preface.)
The final handbook was completed by Dr. Miller in September 1989.
Based on the growing interest and research on multigrade instruction
the handbook was revised and updated in 1999, also with support from
OERI. The final version, completed with support from the Institute of
International Education (IIE), is now composed of a series of seven standalone
Book 1: Review of the Research on Multigrade Instruction
Book 2: Classroom Organization
Book 3: Classroom Management and Discipline
Book 4: Instructional Organization, Curriculum, and Evaluation
Book 5: Instructional Delivery and Grouping
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning
Book 7: Planning and Using Peer Tutoring
Purpose and Scope of the Handbook
The handbook has been written to serve three general purposes:
To provide an overview of current research on multigrade
To identify key issues teachers face when teaching in a multigrade
To provide a set of resource guides to assist novice and
experienced multigrade teachers in improving the quality
of instruction
However, because of the complexity of multigrade instruction and the
vast amount of research on effective classroom instruction, this handbook
can only serve as a starting point for those educators wanting to learn new
skills or refine those they already possess.
Each book of the series presents information, strategies, and resources
considered important for the multigrade teacher. While all the books are
related, they also can stand alone as separate documents. For example, the
books on Classroom Organization (Book 2) and Classroom Management
and Discipline (Book 3) contain overlapping information. Ideally, these
two books are best utilized together. The same is true of the books on
Instructional Organization, Curriculum, and Evaluation (Book 4) and
Instructional Delivery and Grouping (Book 5). Wherever possible, these
relationships have been noted in the appropriate books.
In conclusion, the series of books has been designed to be used as
a research-based resource guide for the multigrade teacher. It covers the
most important issues the multigrade teacher must address to be effective
in meeting the needs of students. Sample schedules, classroom layouts,
resource lists, and strategies aimed at improving instruction have been used
throughout. It is our hope that the handbook will raise questions, provide
answers, and direct the multigrade teacher to resources where answers to
other questions can be found.
viii The Multigrade Classroom
Kalistus Ngirturong
Aimeliik Elementary
Babeldaob Island
Republic of Palau
Robin Lovec
Springdale School
Springdale, Montana
Anthony Moorow
Yap Department of Education
Colonia, Yap
Cheryl Mikolajcvyk
Kaumakakai, Hawaii
Leslie Gordon
Pitkas Point School
St. Mary’s, Alaska
James Makphie
Majuro, Marshall Islands
Edith Nicholas
Andrew K. Demoski School
Nulato, Alaska
Benjamin Bernard
Majuro, Marshall Islands
Linda Pelroy
W.W. Jones Elementary
Arock, Oregon
John Rusyniak
Mentasta Lake School
Mentasta Lake, Alaska
Patricia Reck
Brothers School
Brothers, Oregon
Bill Radtke
English Bay School
English Bay, Alaska
Phil M. Gillies
Stone Elementary
Malad, Idaho
Carol Spackman
Park Valley School
Park Valley, Utah
Barbara Robinson
Arbon Elementary School
Arbon, Idaho
Monte Phoenix and Karrie
Orovada, Nevada
Joel Anderson
Onion Creek Elementary
Colville, Washington
Marty Karlin
Trinity Center School
Trinity Center, California
Troy Smith
Dixie Elementary School
Dixie, Washington
Jill Bills
Sanders Elementary School
Sanders, Arizona
Darci Shane
Southview School
Vida, Montana
Eileene Armstrong
Melrose Elementary
Melrose, Montana
Pam Cunningham
Sand Springs Elementary
Sand Springs, Montana
Jennifer McAllister
Deerfield Elementary
Lewistown, Montana
Kimberly Rindal
Ayers Elementary
Grass Range, Montana
Sammy Vickers
Grant Elementary
Dillon, Montana
Brian Wolter
Avon Elementary
Avon, Montana
Participants in the Multigrade Conference
In contrast to a historical pattern of children developing within an agevaried
social system, many children today spend a majority of their
time in an age-segregated milieu (Katz, Evangelou, & Hartman, 1990;
McClellan, 1994). The results of this pattern of segregation are thought to
contribute to a declining social support system and compromised development
of children’s social and academic skills.
Coleman (1987) suggests the need for a significant institutional and
societal response to support functions traditionally filled by the family, such
as the development of feelings of belonging and community, emotional and
social bonding, and nurturance. Increasingly, the school has been viewed as
one of the most effective and efficient contexts to address children’s academic,
affective, and social needs before these needs reach crisis proportions.
A growing body of research explores the influence of educational
contexts on children’s development. While interest has focused on the
impact of the classroom environment on children’s attitudes toward school,
cognitive growth, and academic development, less direct attention has been
given to the relationship between classroom context (including the structure
and content of children’s peer relationships) and academic and social development
during the elementary years. One approach explored by theoreticians
and researchers for encouraging children’s academic and social skill
development is multigrade instruction.
In multigrade instruction, children of at least a two-year grade span
and diverse ability levels are grouped in a single classroom and are encouraged
to share experiences involving intellectual, academic, and social skills
(Goodlad & Anderson, 1987; Katz et al., 1990; McClellan & Kinsey,
1996). Consistency over time in relationships among teachers, children,
and parents is viewed as one of the most significant strengths of the multigrade
approach because it encourages greater depth in children’s social,
academic, and intellectual development. The concept of the classroom as a
“family” is encouraged, leading to expansion of the roles of nurturing and
commitment on the part of both students and teacher (Feng, 1994;
Hallion, 1994; Marshak, 1994).
The potential academic and social implications of the multigrade
concept of education are strongly supported by extensive research demonstrating
the importance of peers in children’s academic and social development,
and by studies of reciprocity theory, which demonstrate the positive
effect on child academic and social behavior of sustained close relationships
between children and caregivers (Kinsey, 1998; Maccoby, 1992).
The adequate implementation of a multigrade approach to education
extends beyond simply mixing children of different grades together. A
positive working model of a multigrade classroom allows for the development
of academic and social skills as the teacher encourages cross-age interactions
through tutoring and shared discovery. Social competence develops
x The Multigrade Classroom
for older children out of their roles as teachers and nurturers, and for
younger children out of their opportunity to observe and model the behavior
of their older classmates (Katz et al., 1990; Ridgway & Lawton, 1969).
The multigrade classroom has traditionally been an important and
necessary organizational pattern of education in the United States, notes
Miller (1993). Multigrade education dates back to the one-room schools
that were the norm in this country until they were phased out in the early
part of the 1900s (Cohen, 1989; Miller, 1993). From the mid-1960s
through mid-1970s, a number of schools implemented open education,
ungraded classrooms, and multigrade groupings. Although some schools
continued to refine and develop the multigrade concept, many of these
programs disappeared from public schools. With the beginning of the
industrial revolution and large-scale urban growth, the ideal of mass public
education took root and the practice of graded schools began in earnest.
The graded school system provided a means of organizing and classifying
the increased number of urban students of the 1900s. Educators found
it easier to manage students by organizing them into age divisions or grades.
Other factors, such as the advent of the graded textbook, state-supported
education, and the demand for trained teachers, further solidified graded
school organization (Miller, 1993; Uphoff & Evans, 1993). Critics of the
graded school were quick to emphasize this deficiency. The realization that
children’s uneven developmental patterns and differing rates of progress are
ill-matched to the rigid grade-level system has resulted in a growing interest
in and study of the potential benefits of multigrade education in recent years
(Miller, 1996). This growing interest is due to a greater focus on the importance
of the early years in efforts to restructure the educational system
(Anderson, 1993; Cohen, 1989; Stone, S.J., 1995; Willis, 1991) and
an awareness of the limitations of graded education.
The multigrade classroom is labor intensive and requires more planning,
collaboration, and professional development than the conventional graded
classroom (Cushman, 1993; Gaustad, 1992; Miller, 1996). Sufficient
planning time must be available to meet the needs of both teacher and
students. Insufficient planning, staff development, materials, support, and
assessment procedures will have an impact on the success of the multigrade
program (Fox, 1997; Miller, 1996; Nye, 1993).
Despite these constraints, there are special advantages to multigrade
classrooms. Flexible schedules can be implemented and unique programs
developed to meet students’ individual and group interests and needs.
Combined classrooms also offer ample opportunity for students to become
resourceful and independent learners. The multigrade rural classroom is
usually less formal than the single-grade urban or suburban classroom.
Because of the small class size, friendly relationships based on understanding
and respect develop naturally between the students and the teacher. In
this setting, students become well-known by their teacher and a family
atmosphere often develops.
However, many teachers, administrators, and parents continue to
wonder whether multigrade organization has negative effects on student
performance. For most rural educators, multigrade instruction is not an
experiment or a new educational trend, but a forceful reality based on
economic and geographic necessity. In a society where educational environments
are dominated by graded organization, the decision to combine grades
is often quite difficult. The Rural Education Program of the Northwest
Regional Educational Laboratory receives numerous requests from rural
educators with two overriding concerns regarding multigrade classrooms:
What effect does multigrade instruction have on student
What kind of preparation or training is needed to be an effective
teacher in a multigrade classroom?
This handbook will provide answers to these questions and develop
an overview of key issues facing school districts and teachers involved in
or contemplating multigrade classrooms.

What Is Self-Directed Learning? ................................................................1
Conditions That Promote Self-Directed Learning ........................................2
Issues and Concerns ..........................................................................3
Self-Directed Learning Behaviors ..............................................................4
Student Benefits ................................................................................7
Implications for Classrooms ......................................................................8
Activities for Developing Self-Direction ..................................................10
Conclusion ............................................................................................12
References ............................................................................................13
Resources ..............................................................................................16

Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 1
The challenge for the multigrade teacher is to meet the individual needs
of students in a classroom setting characterized by multiple levels of
ability, achievement, and social and physical development. Although
regular, single-grade classrooms also have diverse student levels, differences
found in the multigrade classroom lead to increased demands on teacher
time and effort. Multigrade teachers, therefore, must be well-organized,
resourceful, and able to develop self-direction in students.
A touchstone of effective learning is that students are in charge of their
own learning; essentially, they direct their own learning processes. In a
discussion of indicators of engaged, effective learning, Jones, Valdez,
Nowakowski, and Rasmussen (1995) describe characteristics of students
who are responsible for their own learning. One characteristic is a student’s
ability to shape and manage change, in other words, to be self-directed.
Covey (1989) recognizes the importance of self-directedness, which he calls
proactivity, by including it as one of the habits characterizing highly effective
What Is Self-Directed Learning?
It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are
responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.
We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to
make things happen (p. 71).
Educators can nurture student self-direction and personal efficacy by
providing students with opportunities before, during, and after instruction
to exercise some control over their own learning. This does not mean
students make all the decisions, and it does not mean reverting to the
curriculum of “personal relevance” of the ’60s or the “child-centered
curriculum” of years ago. An emphasis on student self-direction and
efficacy means that students are taught and engaged in specific strategies
that offer them opportunities to make decisions and solve problems on
their own without being told what to do at all times. It means providing
students with strategies designed to help them process information effectively
and be self-confident, believing that they have the ability to succeed.
And perhaps most important, we help students become more reflective
about their thinking and learning processes.
Specific strategies include encouraging students to set their own goals
for personal development and instructional improvement, and planning
ways to achieve these goals. According to Hom and Murphy (1983):
A growing body of research indicates that when students are working on goals they themselves
have set, they are more motivated and efficient, and they achieve more than they do when
working on goals that have been set by the teacher (p. 104).
What kind of environments have been found to be conducive to the
development of self-directed learners? Knowles (1975) clarifies the
distinction between traditional, teacher-directed learning environments
and those reflecting an emphasis on self-direction. Table 1 provides
an overview of Knowles’ findings, indicating the underlying assumptions
about the learner and their implications for the learning environment.
Conditions That Promote
Self-Directed Learning
The Multigrade Classroom
TABLE 1. Assumptions Regarding Teacher-Directed Versus Self-Directed
Learning Environments
Assumptions About the Learner
View of the learner
Role of the learner’s
Learning readiness
Learner orientation
Learner motivation
Teacher-Directed Environment
Starting point, but
not essential
Varies by maturity level
Subject- or content-centered
External rewards or
Self-Directed Environment
Rich resource, essential
for learning
Develops by tasks and
Task- or problem-centered
Intrinsic, curiosity-based
(Knowles, 1975, p. 60)
As Table 1 emphasizes, incorporating self-directed learning into any
classroom requires more than just shifting to a different instructional
approach. Self-directed learning demands a fresh look at assumptions
about the learner, learning, self-motivation, and the classroom environment.
Despite the apparent value of fostering self-directed learning activities in
any classroom, research on the appropriate methodology for achieving it
is sketchy, but growing rapidly.
Thomas, Strage, and Curley (1988) examine five challenges related to
self-directed learning:
1. Much is still to be learned about the spontaneous development of
self-directed or autonomous learning behaviors. Research hasn’t
shown, for example, why certain children are more likely to be
successful independent learners than others.
2. What is known about self-directed learning gathered primarily from
laboratory observations suggests that classroom applications can be
powerful, but implementation will be challenging. Developmental
research on learning indicates that independent, self-directed learning
activities are closely tied to physical maturity.
3. Teacher-directed learning has a well-developed repertoire of instructional
strategies and techniques. Self-directed learning has no comparable
collection of proven practices.
4. Teachers may have a great deal of difficulty learning how to share
control of instruction with students. Teachers are taught to make
the decisions in the classroom, and helping students make their own
decisions will conflict with some teachers’ learned experiences as well
as their feelings about being in charge. The reorientation toward a
student-owned classroom requires not only a cognitive reorientation
but an affective one, as well. For some teachers this is a most difficult
5. Similarly, students who are used to relying on teachers to give them
structure, direction, and information will have to learn to start asking
themselves, “What can I do before I ask an adult?”
Self-directed learning activities are of primary concern to those multigrade
instructors who have prized self-directed learners and have recognized
the importance of encouraging their development. It could be argued that
one of the highest concerns of education in general is the creation and
nurturing of self-directed learners. An adult who has not incorporated
the skills of independent, self-directed learning will go through life with
a tremendous handicap.
Although research on self-directed learning is still in the formative stage,
guidelines for the development of classroom activities that allow and encourage
autonomous learning are emerging. Since many students do grow into
independent learners, it is obvious that some current classroom practices do
encourage independent learning. An excellent starting point for developing
self-directed learning is to observe student behaviors.
Issues and Concerns
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning
Self-directed learning behaviors can be classified into two broad categories:
cognitive and behavioral. Behavioral activities, or self-management
activities, include motivation and volition (will or determination), time
management, and maintaining effort. Cognitive activities include mental
processes that select, elaborate, organize, monitor, or otherwise process
Table 2 presents self-directed learning categories related to student selfmanagement.
Self-Directed Learning Behaviors
TABLE 2. Classes of Self-Directed Learning: Self-Directed
Management Activities
4 The Multigrade Classroom
Category Example Activities
Time Management Recognizing time requirements
Keeping track of elapsed time
Scheduling sufficient time
Distributing time according to tasks
Effort Management Establishing a productive study environment
Setting learning and achievement goals
Initiating effort
Finding materials
Maintaining attention
Motivation or Volition Monitoring attention
Assessing strength and weaknesses of study habits
Tracking time- and effort-management activities
(adapted from Jones, et al., 1995)
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 5
In the multigrade classroom, self-management activities tend to be of
first concern to the teacher. Students who can manage their time, follow
schedules, find needed resources, and stay on task until assignments are
completed facilitate the teacher’s ability to manage the diverse levels found
in the classroom. Successful multigrade teachers create environments that
encourage these skills.
Phil Gillies, a fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade teacher from southern
Idaho, points out that once students develop the work habits necessary for
his classroom, they quickly teach them to younger students. “It was interesting
that during the third year as a multigrade teacher, I noticed that those
students I had for two years would say to the new fifth-graders, ‘This is what
you have to do, this is the way we handle the class.’” A process of socialization
occurred in Gillies’ classroom where younger students learned from
older ones what the teacher expected in terms of classroom routines.
Table 3 presents cognitive categories associated with self-direction,
along with example activities for each category. Unfortunately, these skills
are seldom explicitly taught. This is due to a lack of knowledge on the part
of practitioners about how best to teach them and to the failure of instructional
materials to provide direction and activities (Jones, et al., 1995).
6 The Multigrade Classroom
TABLE 3. Classes of Self-Directed Learning: Cognitive Activities
Category Example Activities
Selection Finding essential information and
rejecting nonessential information
Taking notes
Highlighting main ideas
Comprehension Previewing material
Using context clues
Consulting resources and references
Memory Enhancers Reviewing material
Mnemonic tests
Devising appropriate study strategies
Elaboration Self-questioning
Metaphors and analogies
Integration Paraphrasing material
Relational aids (charts, timelines)
Using multiple but related sources
Tapping prior knowledge
Answers that extend beyond requirements
Monitoring Recognizing what hasn’t been mastered
Awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses
(adapted from Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, & Rasmussen, 1995)
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 7
Creating and maintaining a classroom atmosphere conducive to selfdirected
learning benefits both students and teachers. A self-directed
student or, in simpler terms, a “good” student, enjoys significant advantages
over students who are deficient in self-direction. Classrooms with selfdirected
students provide superb role models for weaker or younger students
to emulate. This is why multigrade teachers tend to devote the greatest
amount of time to younger students who have not developed self-directed
skills. Therefore, by enhancing students’ self-direction, multigrade teachers
can devote a larger percentage of time to students with the greatest need. In
other words, self-directed learners allow the teacher to work intensively with
small groups or individuals who need additional support.
As the multigrade teacher emphasizes self-directed learning, a more
efficient learning environment is created. One of the benefits of increased
self-directed behavior is the accompanying increase in the amount of academic
learning time. Academic learning time (ALT) is directly related to student
achievement; that is, more academic learning time leads to higher student
Encouraging students to have greater control over their learning improves
their feelings of personal effectiveness and increases their motivation to
learn. This bolstered sense of self-control should improve the likelihood
of success in subsequent educational experiences. As the academic demands
placed on students grow, so does the need for an assumption of personal
responsibility for learning.
Student Benefits
8 The Multigrade Classroom
Given that self-directed learning skills and behaviors are of considerable
benefit to both students and teachers, what can teachers do to aid their
development? Can assignments and activities be structured so that
students gradually acquire the skills necessary to work independently? What
instructional approaches best augment self-directed skill acquisition?
Before proceeding with general guidelines and suggestions for increasing
the likelihood of self-directed student behaviors, the issue of student maturity
and development must be briefly explored. Teacher expectations for student
competence can be set too high or too low, with equally negative effects.
Students who are overwhelmed by the complexity of an academic task will
protect themselves by opting out of it in the initial stages. Students who are
insufficiently challenged, or who face repetitive tasks with little relevance to
their skill levels, may become bored, disengage themselves from the activity,
or perform half-heartedly. Careful consideration must be given, then, to the
age, maturity, and competence of the student(s) before designing or initiating
self-directed learning activities. Thomas et al. (1988) identify four general
components of instructional activities that enhance self-directed learning:
1. Appropriate academic demands
2. Adequate instructional supports
3. Opportunities to learn and practice effective self-directed learning
4. Appropriate classroom goal structure
Academic demands should be structured so they are challenging but not
frustrating. Expectations should be explicit and specific. That is, they should
build on skills already mastered, yet force or encourage the learner to attempt
new, more advanced skills. An academic task that places limited or no demands
on a student will not reinforce self-directed learning strategies.
Instructional supports are activities or materials that provide feedback
and progress checks or otherwise guide the student toward an academic
goal. These supports should not replace the self-directed learning activities
of the student, but rather should be a framework for the student’s own
efforts. For example, presenting the student with a list of main ideas from
a chapter is not supportive, but presenting the student with the characteristics
of a main idea is. Students will, in the latter case, discover the main
ideas on their own and strengthen their cognitive abilities.
The more opportunities provided to students for practicing self-directed
learning, the more likely they are to acquire self-directed learning skills. It is
best, therefore, that the classroom climate emphasize self-directed learning.
This means that students will come to expect that they will monitor their
own progress, be aware of their own skill levels, and be able to identify and
gather the resources required to complete progressively more challenging
academic tasks.
Implications for Classrooms
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 9
Of special interest to multigrade classroom teachers is the emphasis that
self-directed learning places on eliminating the competitive climate from a
classroom and replacing it with a cooperative atmosphere. Self-directed
students must operate in an environment where learning is viewed as a
benefit and a necessity for all, instead of a reward for the talented.
Table 4 displays general conditions for optimizing self-directed learning
TABLE 4. Conditions That Encourage Self-Directed
Learning and Student Motivation
Rewards that are contingent on specific outcomes
Goals and a reward system that are public knowledge
Feedback that is frequent, immediate, and contingent
on performance
An individualistic, noncompetitive environment
Evaluation based on specific, objective criteria
Evaluation that is private, not public
Rewards dispensed for effort, not just ability
Autonomy, including the opportunity for self-scheduling
and reinforcement
Attribution of success to effort, not natural ability
Multigrade classrooms should be at the forefront of future developments
in self-directed learning activities, methods, and assessments. Multigrade
classrooms, in fact, will be a source for many of the promising practices
identified in this area. It is important to note that all of the four components
of self-directed learning activities—appropriate demands, instructional
supports, adequate opportunity, and appropriate goal structures—must be
in place before self-directed learning will prosper. Demands without support,
or excess support without concomitant demands, will not succeed.
10 The Multigrade Classroom
What are some specific activities that multigrade teachers can do to
foster self-direction? Thuy-Kim (n.d.) describes a series of activities
to help students make the transition from teacher-directed learning
to self-directed learning. Although many of these activities were designed
for high school students, they can be easily applied to other levels of
schooling. Table 5 presents activities designed for the teacher, and Table 6
presents those designed for students. In both tables, the activities in the left
column are those that should occur first. As one moves to the right column,
the requirements for student self-direction increase. This means, for example,
that the last activity in Table 6 assumes that the student has a high level of
Activities for Developing Self-Direction
TABLE 5. Teacher Learning Activities for Fostering
Self-Direction in Students
Help students visualize the experience of selfdirection.
Model self-direction.
Teach students to value self-directed learning by
communicating how valuable it is to the teacher.
Help each student create a self-fulfilling prophecy
of success as a self-directed learner. During interviews,
conversations, planning sessions, and
progress reviews, reinforce growth in selfdirection.
Organize a process such as contracting to structure
time and effort. Set expectations and limits.
Help students explore alternative activities.
Teach the new skills students require, such as
goal setting, time management, and locating
Make opportunities for students to demonstrate
their accomplishments. Reward them for their
Establish one-to-one conferences to discuss the
individual’s learning behavior and progress.
Clarify the teacher and student roles in a selfdirected
learning environment.
Provide students with opportunities to be selfdirected
and provide support when they need it.
However, do not “rescue” them.
Model respect for self-directed learning and
encourage respect among the students.
Secure written commitment in a detailed learning
contract and public commitment in peer groups.
Establish work groups where students learn to
complete tasks and projects cooperatively and
with minimal teacher supervision.
Model honesty and risk-taking. Reaffirm the value
of challenge, struggle, and personal growth.
(adapted from Thuy-Kim, [n.d.])
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 11
Students compile a list of self-directed learners
and then list their personal characteristics: ways
of learning and skills common among them.
Produce a profile of the successful self-directed
Students set goals for how they would like to
become more self-directed. List behaviors that
would show progress.
Students assess their progress toward meeting
their goal.
Use heterogeneous, small-group projects to allow
for modeling leadership in self-directed activities
by successful students.
Students rate themselves on scales of time
management, organization, accomplishment,
and resource identification.
Students practice self-directed skills on new,
challenging tasks.
Peer groups discuss behavioral changes achieved
and successes accomplished by each individual.
Students write contracts and practice skills. They
also explore alternative learning activities.
Students gain reinforcement by tutoring peers
and presenting completed projects as evidence
of success.
Students engage in projects where indepth
mastery in one area is required.
(adapted from Thuy-Kim [n.d.])
TABLE 6. Student Learning Activities for Fostering
Self-Direction in Students
12 The Multigrade Classroom
Self-directive behaviors are vitally important in the multigrade classroom.
Students who can work independently, set goals, manage their time,
and locate needed resources free the teacher to help students with the
most need. However, developing self-direction is difficult and requires a
learning environment different than the traditional, teacher-directed classroom.
Self-direction is best fostered in a classroom where the teacher
structures activities that develop such characteristics as independence, selfmanagement,
and cooperation. Such environments are also characterized
by teacher expectations that reward risk-taking, personal goal-setting, and
task completion. Even though the development of conditions that nurture
self-directed learning may require extra effort and the rethinking of many
assumptions about the learner, the benefits for both the teacher and the
student are significant.
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 13
Anderson, R.H. (1993). The return of the nongraded classroom. Principal,
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Coleman, J.S. (1987). Families and schools. Educational Researcher, 16(6),
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in: Choosing and using educational technology. Washington, DC: Council
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Chicago, IL: Follett.
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An historical overview. Developmental Psychology, 28(6), 1006–1017.
Marshak, D. (1994, March). From teachers’ perspectives: The social and psychological
benefits of multiage elementary classrooms. Paper presented at the
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for the New Millennium,” Chicago, IL.
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develop social skills and a sense of belonging. The MAGnet Newsletter
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Retrieved May 8, 2000 from the World Wide Web:
McClellan, D.E. (1994). Multiage grouping: Implications for education.
In P. Chase & J. Doan (Eds.), Full circle: A new look at multiage education
(pp. 147–166). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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America’s schools. The multiage resource book (pp. 65–83). Peterborough,
NH: Society for Developmental Education.
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learning: Issues and guidelines. Elementary School Journal, 88(3),
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from A manual of self-directed language learning activities by Devon
Woods & Clare Myers]. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University,
Vietnamese Language Program. Retrieved October 10, 2000, from
the World Wide Web:
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A case study of multiage grouping and teaching. In D. Sumner (Ed.),
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resource book (pp. 36–38). Peterborough, NH: Society for Developmental
14 The Multigrade Classroom
Willis, S. (1991). Breaking down grade barriers: Interest on nongraded
classrooms on the raise. ASCD update, 33(3), 4.
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 15
16 The Multigrade Classroom
Blakey, E., & Spence, S. (1990). Developing metacognition [ERIC digest].
Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 327 218)
Available from: Eric Clearinghouse on Information Resources
5207 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Costa, A.L. (1991). Developing minds. Alexandria, VA: Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development.
This staff development program is designed to increase students’ true thinking
time by helping teachers improve their classroom questioning techniques.
Asking more effective classroom questions can encourage all students to
think at higher cognitive levels and ask questions of their own that will
ultimately lead to improved learning.
Available from: Appalachia Educational Laboratory
PO Box 1348
Charleston, WV 25325
Della-Dora, D., & Blanchard, L. (Eds.). (1979). Moving toward selfdirected
learning: Highlights of relevant research and of promising
practices. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development.
This book reviews the research on self-directed learning, provides practical
strategies, and presents background information useful to anyone working
to develop self-directed learning in students.
Available from: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
225 North Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
McKisson, M. (1983). Chrysalis: Nurturing creative and independent
thought in children. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press Learning Materials.
Chrysalis consists of eight units designed to develop thinking, creativity,
appreciation of self and others, self-reliance, and abilities in independent
learning and research skills.
Available from: Zephyr Press Learning Materials
430 South Essex Lane
Tucson, AZ 85711
Book 6: Self-Directed Learning 17
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (1995). Critical issue:
Working toward student self-direction and personal efficacy as educational
goals. Oak Brook, IL: Author. Retrieved September 26, 2000, from
the World Wide Web:
This article describes characteristics of students who are responsible for
their own learning. One characteristic is a student’s ability to shape and
manage change, in other words, self-directed. Great emphasis is placed on
recognizing the importance of self-directedness, which is often referred to
as proactivity. The book encourages teachers to provide opportunities for
students to take initiative. Students should be/are responsible for their own
learning and lives.
Available from: Efficacy Institute
128 Spring Street
Lexington, MA 02173
Piskurich, G.M. (1993). Self-directed learning: A practical guide to design,
development, and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
You will learn how to develop self-directed learning packages that are
applicable in many situations, from basic industrial and technical skills
training to academic classroom training. This detailed but easy-to-use guide
shows you how to match training needs with organizational needs, determine
tasks that must be learned to meet those needs, and develop objectives
and design materials that are in line with those needs.
Available from: Jossey-Bass
350 Sansome Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
Pressley, M., Wood, E., Woloshyn, V., Martin, V., King, A., & Menke, D.
(1992). Encouraging mindful use of prior knowledge: Attempting
to construct explanatory answers facilitates learning. Educational
Psychologist, 27(1), 91–109.
This article explores strategies for encouraging self-directed learning.
Students learn more effectively when they already know something about a
content area and when concepts in that area mean something to them and
to their particular background or culture. When teachers link new information
to the student’s prior knowledge, they activate the student’s interest
and curiosity, and infuse instruction with a sense of purpose.
Available from: North Central Regional Educational
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, Illinois 60563-1486


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