4 Ideas for Student-Led Learning During Emergency Remote Teaching

I was lucky enough to “Zoom” in with a group of educators and was asked the following question by Carrieann Sipos, which inspired this blog post (paraphrased):

Now that we have educators really focused on having students create digital materials, how can we keep up with all of the feedback?

What I have learned to default to in my mind to when thinking about teaching and learning is an essential question from AJ Juliani and John Spencer which I shared in “Innovate Inside the Box“:

“What are you doing for students that they can be doing themselves?”

Could we ask students to provide feedback to one another? If you think about it, many young give feedback to others online through different social media platforms, but is it helpful?  Is it possible to take this opportunity to not only help our students learn strategies for effective and thoughtful feedback, while also creating ways for students to connect? As well, this is an opportunity to take something off of a teacher’s plate.

I didn’t think of this as only a “teaching” strategy, but also a way we can create opportunities for students to connect. I know that if I was in school right now as a student, the social interaction with one another would be what I would miss the most.  I have been sharing how essential relationships are for our work right now (more than ever), but that is not only schools with students, but students with each other. How can we intentionally create those opportunities for connection with and for our students?

Catlin Tucker reaffirms this idea in this incredible post discussing “5 Tips for Teaching Online”:

#4 Prioritize Student Communication & Collaboration

Learning remotely can be an isolating experience for students who are used to seeing their classmates every day. I encourage teachers to prioritize student communication, collaboration, and interaction when they design their online lessons. Instead of simply disseminating resources and assignments and collecting student work, consider the following questions:

  • How can I use the online space to connect learners?
  • How can I leverage tools, like online discussions and video conferencing software, to allow learners to engage with each other?
  • How can I utilize the collaborative nature of the Google Suite or Microsoft OneNote to get groups of students working on shared tasks together?
  • How can I make time to meet with my students to work with them virtually?

The more opportunities students have to communicate and collaborate with their peers online, the more likely they are to stay engaged in the learning happening online.

As I have been contemplating this idea in my head, I have been thinking about the importance of student ownership through this process. In this video, I discuss the thought of starting our thinking as educators with student learning, as opposed to what we are teaching, which resonated with many:

I know it seems like a simple shift in semantics, but I do believe the change is crucial. For example, it is easy to say as an educator (and I have been guilty of saying this myself), “I need to get through the curriculum,” but what happens if the students haven’t learned the content?  Technically, you “taught” the curriculum, but it doesn’t mean the students understood it. What was learned and what has been taught is not always the same.

Through the suckiness of “emergency remote teaching,” there are some positive opportunities to try some different things, as Dean Shareski suggests in his post “This Is The Time“:

“Let your students lead. When they are ready, this is the perfect time to let them follow their passions and interests. As the learning expert, you can be there to guide, support, encourage and question. I’ve long practiced self-assessment in my courses and there is no better time than to use this strategy. Whether you want to dive deeper into portfolios or even the idea of going gradeless, you may never have a better time to do so.”

What I am hoping to provide in this post are some ideas on student-led learning that are meant to empower and tap into the passions of our students. I used to think that “empowering” students was merely about student creation, but as I shared in “Innovate Inside the Box,” empowerment can be evident in both consumption AND creation:

Ultimately, empowerment is about ownership and agency. Providing opportunities for voice and choice in learning is how we create learning experiences that empower learners. Students are more likely to develop as lifelong readers, for example, if they are empowered to choose books based on their interests, as opposed to being limited to only books at “their level.”

As I provide these ideas, there are a few things we need to consider. First and foremost, are the personal needs of our students and staff at this time. This image from Jay Dostal puts a lot of things in perspective:



As I have said before, “Focus on connection first, everything else second. And a very DISTANT second.”

We also need to appreciate the personal situations of every one of our learners and staff.  These three things should be considered:

  1. Accessibility (Do our students have access to what they need to be successful at the highest levels?  How do we ensure that they do?)
  2. Flexibility (Do we provide options for learning that are both synchronous and asynchronous while ensuring that every learner situation is unique?)
  3. Privacy (Where and how is this posted? Do we have the proper permission to share student learning and voice?)

Below are a few ideas of how to empower students moving from easier to harder to implement.  Please feel free to modify and adjust as needed, but also share any student-led learning opportunities you can provide in the comments. I would love to have this space as a place for teachers to share ideas.



1. Reading for a group of their peers.

I have seen many educators reading books online to their students, which is incredible. I know my daughter, who is not in school, has had the opportunity to listen to these readings herself and enjoyed them. 

A simple shift could be that we have students choose books that they would read to others and share why they loved the book.  As a parent, I would love to see my daughter have this chance to share with her peers what she is reading and why.


2. Involving students in providing feedback.

As mentioned earlier, feedback should not be the sole responsibility of the teacher. Receiving feedback to move forward is a valuable skill, but providing feedback with the intent of helping others grow is also essential.  A simple example of how this could be implemented is by having students blog. Once they write their own post, encourage them to comment, and provide feedback to three other (or more or less) students in their piece that would promote more writing as a response.  Before this is done, think about some criteria that can be created with your class on what feedback in an online setting could look like, which would be valuable to not only school but how we interact online.  I discussed these three points in “Innovate Inside the Box” for interactions in how we help others grow:

As Catlin shared earlier in the post, “The more opportunities students have to communicate and collaborate with their peers online, the more likely they are to stay engaged in the learning happening online.”


3. Online Identity Day 

As an educator, “Identity Day” was one of my best experiences.  As shared in “The Innovator’s Mindset,” this day was one where each student and staff member  “had an opportunity to share something they were passionate about with the entire school.” Simple but powerful. 

I expanded on this in the book:

This event helped build relationships, which, I’ve noted, is foundational to creating an environment where people are willing to take risks, work together, and innovate. Allowing students to share their interests created an environment where they felt that their voices mattered and that what they cared about mattered as well. Students talked about their love of creating things with Legos; others shared that they wanted to be musicians and played songs they had developed. Some talked about how they wanted to be inventors and showed their latest creations.

The event gave everyone a voice and created bonds in our community that might not have been there before.

This could be done at all levels of K-12 and would help to build connections while allowing students to share their passions.

Here is a post I wrote on Identity Day in 2010, which could still be something done in an online setting with some planning.


4. Student-Led Personal Development

In “Innovate Inside the Box,” I shared Dr. Erin Lawson’s idea for “Student Personal Development day.” Here is what she shared with me:

“In March 2016, we had the first Student Personal Development day for high school students. How to change a tire, cook simple meals, create YouTube videos, buy a car, prepare for college, etc., were a few of the many sessions that our students voiced they needed. They even got to register for sessions so the entire Student PD day was personalized for their wants and needs.”

I believe this process could be adapted to an online environment. Could we have students lead sessions on different topics that we could partake in as educators? You could do this synchronously or asynchronously, but I would love to see students teach skills to their peers. The Joseph Joubert quote, “To teach is to learn twice,” resonates here.  When students have the opportunity to teach a skill or concept, they will know it in a much deeper way.



I am hoping that some of these ideas shared can be of service to educators. Please feel free to modify or remix any idea I have shared in this post, or also provide some ideas for student-led learning in the comments.  

The more opportunity we can provide for students to lead in meaningful ways (to them) in their learning today, the more likely we are setting them up to be the successful leaders of tomorrow.


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