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Students at the Center of Their Own Learning




The nature of the learning process

To help fifth and sixth grade students understand the concept of survival as it relates to both the human and the animal world, the students develop working definitions of survival and adaptation.  Based on this knowledge, they then create a comic strip with a survival theme. The students also research to find ways that animals survive through adaptation in one of the five biomes--Polar Region, Desert, Rain Forest, Savanna, and Mountain Area. They complete a survival guide for some aspect of their home, school, or community life.


            Forte,  I.,  &  Schurr,  S.  (1994).   Interdisciplinary units and projects for thematic instruction.  Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications. 

Goals of the learning process

The primary goal of this activity for eighth graders is to examine selected aspects of the American culture over time to uncover some of the talents, traditions, and trademarks of its continued growth and success.  To do this, students take part in the following activities: “investigate the early crafts of colonial America; discover how slang words evolve from historical events; research a famous American hero of their choice and present the information in a monologue; and collect quotes from history and interpret their meaning” (Forte & Schurr, 1994, p. 39).


            Forte, I., & Schurr, S. (1994).   Interdisciplinary units and projects for thematic instruction. Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.  

The construction of knowledge

In a fourth grade math class, the teacher helps students make connections between new information and what they already know. The first step is to review prerequisites to help students recall the information they will need to understand new material. For example, the teacher might ask, “Who can tell us the definition of a quadrilateral? Is a square a rhombus? What did we say yesterday about how you can tell? Today we are going to look at some other quadrilaterals.”


            Woolfolk, A. (2001).  Educational psychology (8th ed.).  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Higher order thinking

The purpose of this activity is to develop problem-solving skills and decision-making skills for students in ninth/tenth grades.  The activity uses the attraction of a typical shopping center or mall as the major springboard for applying a variety of math and consumer skills. Since a lot of teenagers spend a great deal of their time at the local mall, it makes sense to use this popular “hangout” as a source for investigating mathematical concepts in the real world.   

Specific objectives include:

  1. The student observes shoppers entering and exiting a mall and draws some conclusions about their preferred traffic patterns.

  2. The student examines a floor plan of a mall to determine which types of stores have the highest percentages of floor space.

  3. The student analyzes the stores in a mall to develop ratios of stores that sell products to stores that provide a service.

  4. The student discovers the methods retailers use to attract customers into their stores.

  5. The student designs an ideal mall for kids based on their unique needs.

  6. The student plans a food budget for the day and does comparison shopping of the best food values available in the mall. (Forte & Schurr, 1994, p. 150)


            Forte, I., & Schurr, S. (1994).   Interdisciplinary units and projects for thematic instruction. Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.


Motivational influences on learning

Students identify classroom experts for different assignments or tasks in this project for sixth/seventh graders. Who knows how to use the computer for graphics?  how to search the Net?  how to use an index? These students should tutor their peers in those skills that they have mastered (Woolfolk, 2001, p. 354).


            Woolfolk, A. (2001).  Educational psychology (8th ed.).   Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


The intrinsic motivation to learn

This activity is designed to relate content objectives to student experiences. For instance, students in the same school can establish pen pals across the classes. "Through letter writing, students can exchange personal experiences, photos, drawings, written work, and ask and answer questions ('What are your favorite readings? Why? What are you doing in math now?')" (Woolfolk, 2001, p. 367).


           Woolfolk, A. (2001).  Educational psychology (8th ed.).  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Characteristics of motivation-enhancing learning tasks

To develop middle grade students’ natural curiosity and intellectual tendencies for thinking about the future, try having them complete one future-oriented task in a geography lesson. Have them pretend that six space ships were dispatched from a planet in a different galaxy. Their mission is to land at these places: Disney World in Florida; Beijing, China; Boston, Massachusetts; Athens, Greece; Cairo, Egypt; and the Amazon River in Brazil. Have the students design answers to the following questions for each location:

  • What is the climate like?

  • Describe the terrain.
  • What do inhabitants eat, wear, and do?
  • What special events or places were of most interest?
  • What is most unusual or unique about the area? (Schurr, 1994, p. 89)

            Schurr, S.  L.  (1994).  Dynamite in the classroom: A how-to handbook for teachers.  Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.


Developmental constraints and opportunities

Students have different learning styles, which is why teachers strive to find activities that suit diverse learners. For instance, for fifth/sixth grade bodily/kinesthetic learners, a teacher can ask the students to record their heart rates.  Some students can be instructed to move and others to relax by lying down or standing still.  The students can then compare the heart rates of those who were moving and those who were still in order to better understand the workings of the heart.

Social and cultural diversity

In this activity for eighth grade, students learn that “overlapping circles in math are called Venn diagrams. They are used to show similarities and differences between two or more people, places, or things. The part where the circles overlap is called the intersection of the circles.  It represents what the people, places, or things have in common”(Forte & Schurr, 1994, p. 178).

The teacher asks students to draw a pair of intersecting circles that represent them and their best friend.  In the non-intersecting parts of the circle, the students write down the things that make them different from their friend.  In the circle intersection, they write the ways they are like their friend.  Students could consider physical, personality, and social traits as well as individual preferences and interests.

Next, students draw a third intersecting circle that represents a mutual friend of the first two students.  In the intersection, they write the common traits that all three friends share.  Ask students to add a fourth or fifth friend to this diagram and show how the diagram would work.


            Forte, I.,  &  Schurr,  S.  (1994).  Interdisciplinary units and projects for thematic instruction, p. 178.  Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.


Social acceptance, self-esteem, and learning

The teacher organizes an eighth grade classroom into a mini-society complete with all the services that any real community would have.  She or he creates a Government Council that includes a mayor and a set of council representatives.  

The class elects a different mayor and council representatives each marking period or semester.   The class is divided into groups of four, and each group elects a council member.  The groups of students should sit together at tables or clusters of desks. Council members meet with the mayor to set classroom laws and fines as well as to plan community events and discuss community concerns.


            Forte, I., & Schurr, S.  (1994).  Interdisciplinary units and projects for thematic instruction, p. 42.  Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.  


Individual differences in learning

Students who prefer to work alone activate their “intrapersonal intelligence” (Gardner, 1999). A suitable activity for such learners in eighth/ninth grades would be the Decision Letter to let them practice letter-writing skills using an incident that revolves around an important decision. This activity  can be used during a lesson or unit to encourage students to establish their own criteria for success. For this activity, the teacher can do the following:

  • Show a model letter on the overhead or give each student a copy of a selected letter

  • Review the formal parts and structure of a letter (i.e., address, date, salutation) and the criteria for success (e.g. grammar, structure, punctuation, spelling, interest, clarity)

  • Assign students to write a two-page letter to a friend about an important decision they have made

  • Review how this is done

As a class or in small groups, brainstorm a list of ideas for the students’ decisions and topics” (Bellanca, 1977, p. 42).


            Bellanca, J. (1997).   Active learning handbook for the multiple intelligences classroom.  Arlington Heights, IL: IRI/ SkyLight Training and Publishing.

            Gardner, H.(1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century.  New York:  Basic Books.                                                                                                                        

Cognitive filters

This activity for high school health education students helps them recognize perceptual filters and the impact they have on students’ thinking. The teacher asks the students to write in their journal their ideas about the importance of sleep in their lives and the amount of sugar they eat every day.  After this short activity, the teacher introduces a physician as the guest speaker for the day.  The physician presents information on the negative effects of the lack of sleep and the danger of too much sugar in students’ lives.

At the end of the class, the teacher has students again write in their journals their ideas about sleep and sugar. This time, the teacher compares the new journal entry with the previous one and notices that the students have a broader perspective and have given more information than the first time.

Obviously, the doctor’s visit to the class helped the students acquire more information about sleep and sugar. This can allow the students the opportunity to modify or change their perceptual filters so they now see sleep and sugar intake in new ways.


            Callahan, W., & Cimpoeru, C.  (2000).  Cognitive filters example.  Unpublished manuscript.  


Student-centered teaching

A ninth grade science teacher wants his students to practice designing experiments with variables.  He first demonstrates a simple pendulum, explaining frequency as the number of swings in a certain time period.  He asks the students for some common examples, and they identify a metronome and a pendulum clock.  The teacher then asks students what variables might affect the frequency of the pendulum's swings.  They offer as answers length, weight, and angle of release. 

The teacher then gives students directions for designing their own experiment to show how those variables affect the frequency of the swing.  He forms groups of four students and asks them to conduct the experiment by dividing the tasks. 

The students first tie a string to a ring stand and measure its length.  One student measures the string length while another records that number.  As a group, they discuss how to proceed. They think of equations they will need to use to find how the variables affect the experiment.  They work together, having control over their own learning.  With a ruler in front of the string, they measure the highest point of the pendulum swing when the string is different lengths.

For the second test of a variable, the students add a paper clip to the string to make it heavier. For the third test, they experiment with different angles of release. They collect the results after each experiment. The students are involved in a hands-on activity that enables them to understand the physical process of the effects of variables.  The teacher monitors the students’ work but does not work with them; the students are responsible for their learning.


            Eggen, P.,  &  Kauchak,  D.  (1999).  Windows on classrooms (4th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill. 

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