Student Driven Learning

Guiding Principles

The learning and teaching is structured around the concept that students bring into the learning environment their unique experiences (tangible and intangible) and strengths to build upon and contribute to their own learning.

Each student has the opportunity to learn through flexible times and opportunities; the development of extended learning opportunities (ELO) begins with student passions and desires.

Performance assessments are at the core of putting students at the center of their own learning.  At the heart of this work are projects that are student-generated.

The learning in and out of the classroom is collaborative in nature and includes regularly structured opportunities for reflection, feedback, and refinement.

Moderation of student scores is the vehicle to insure that the deepest learning possible is occurring; a vehicle for demonstration of knowledge.

The learning is deeper, as students demonstrate mastery through a competency-based approach. Personalized exhibitions, portfolios, and other gateways require students to initiate, design, conduct, analyze, revise and present their work in multiple ways; there is common scoring for uncommon learning tasks. 

Allison's Journey: A Vision for What's Possible

by Josh Gould, Site Coordinator, Noble High School

The night before the first day of freshman year, Allison lay awake fretting about fitting in, forming new friendships, defining a role on a soccer team, and auditioning for the fall musical.  What she didn’t consider was just how different her educational experience at Noble (ME) High School would be.

On the first day of classes, her Earth science instructor asked a question: “Where do we get our water?” The teacher probed further by asking, “Is all water quality similar? Will we have enough quality water?”  Ten minutes later Allison was collecting water samples from three sources: a local stream, a retention pond on the campus, and the water fountains located inside the school. She worked with three other students to conduct tests on the three samples before analyzing the data and drawing conclusions from their findings. The teacher brought the groups back together using a collaborative discussion protocol where each student was required to share part of their findings. Ten months later Allison prepared for her end of year Roundtable discussion.  Before her parents, her math teacher, and two of her soccer teammates, Allison presented the story of her freshman year and answered three simple questions:  1) Who am I?  2) Where am I going? 3) How will I get there? 

Little did Allison know that while the questions would become more rigorous,s and the inquiry more sophisticated, the same experiences would manifest during her sophomore year.  Her English, math, social studies, and biology teachers began the year by asking all 80 heterogeneously grouped students assigned to Sophomore Team 1: “What is community?” Within the first month of school she examined the essential question through the lens of each subject area.  Her English class incorporated an analysis of community while reading George Orwell’s text Animal Farm, while her Social Studies class began analyzing the community envisioned during the writing of the United States Constitution.  At her student led conference in June, she had a much better idea of who she was and where she was going.  She spoke with passion about what strategies she would use during grade 11 and 12 to help prepare her for college.

At the start of junior year she was working with the Community Engagement Center at Noble to locate authentic learning opportunities related to her potential career interests.   She worked with a local technician at a science laboratory and parlayed her job shadows into a summer internship.  Real-world experiences gained during the summer served as a springboard for her senior project, which explored the relationship between pesticide use and a waning fish population in Maine’s lakes and rivers.  Her exhibition, delivered to a panel of teachers, students, and experts earned her a designation of Accept with Distinction.  

Allison had teachers who understood competencies and authentic, inquiry-based performance assessment.  By the close of high school she, like many of her peers, had engaged in four end-of-year student-led conferences, delivered numerous presentations, and engaged in several inquiry-based research projects 1 2. Most fundamentally, she was allowed to define what she needed from school. As a result, Allison’s high school experience served the dual purpose of building critical 21st century skills and exposing her to enough real-world experiences that she left high school understanding how she could fit into a changing world. 


The Student Driven Approach

Student driven learning represents the deepest and most engaging kind of learning and is at the heart of personalized learning and teaching. Students bring their unique life experiences and interests into the learning environment. In most schools, where the emphasis is on covering content, those experiences and interests are seldom called upon. A student-driven learning environment begins with the development of trusting relationships and solid structures that allow all students the opportunity to plan and develop their own personalized pathways. Students take ownership and responsibility for what, how, and sometimes where they learn. It offers students the chance to make meaning and connect with the world through rigorous academic experiences – both in and out of school – in a way that builds on their interests as well as their learning needs.

At its best, student driven learning is authentic, open-ended, problem based, and requires application of skills with clear standards of mastery set in advance. It is thoughtful and reflective—requiring students to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate information toward the creation of new knowledge. This approach is not entirely new, but its efficacy has been fully validated over the past decade by cutting edge neuroscience.  This large and growing body of research points to the importance of intrinsic motivation in learning.  In other words, when a student is provided an opportunity to make choices about what they want to learn, they are more engaged in the learning experience.  Greater engagement, in turn, leads to better learning outcomes.  In a student-driven learning environment, students develop skills that will prepare them for the demands of a rapidly changing society: the capacity to integrate knowledge, to communicate clearly, to see the relationships and connections among phenomena, and to be responsive to new challenges and ever-changing conditions.

For over two decades the Center for Secondary School Redesign team has focused on creating personalized learning environments in high schools.  This vision preceded the advent of both blended learning and competency based education as options to help secondary schools create the personalized culture that allows the goodness and genius of each and every student to thrive.  As one of the early technical assistance providers focused on assisting existing schools to incorporate student driven learning as the central element to school change, CSSR, through the New England i3 Network, has provided intense support to existing high schools to made dramatic changes in their practices that have resulted in significant progress toward that goal.

The model for personalized learning and performance assessment used in the i3 New England Network is grounded in the Five Standards of Authentic Instruction: 1) Higher Order Thinking; 2) Depth of Knowledge; 3) Connectedness to the World Beyond the Classroom; 4) Substantive Conversation; and 5) Social Support for Student Achievement 1. Connectedness to the world beyond the classroom provides authenticity and relevance to a student’s learning. When completed, the work provides meaning to students beyond complying with the teacher’s criteria for evaluation. Student-driven learning depends on the free exchange of substantive dialogue between students and adults, including through student choice in learning and student voice in school governance. See evidence of these five standards of practice in this video 2.

1 Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage, “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction,” Educational Leadership 50 no. 7 (April 1993): 8-12.


Competency Based Education

When schools are organized around personalized performance assessments for demonstration of mastery, learning shifts from a standard sequence of courses (adult controlled) to the selection of personally relevant learning activities that lead towards unique long-term goals (student controlled). Often these personalized pathways do not fall within the standardized framework that uses seat time as a determinant of course-completion (i.e “credit,” or “Carnegie Unit”).  New England is at the forefront of Competency Based Education*, where students progress along personalized pathways by demonstrating mastery of competencies through validated systems of performance assessment. In 2005 New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie Unit, mandating that all high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of materials, rather than time spent in class.  In 2012, Maine legislation began requiring public high schools to award diplomas based on demonstrated proficiency—not passing grades and course credit.  Because eleven of the thirteen schools in the i3 New England Network are located in states that dropped seat time and embraced mastery, they were primed for innovation.

A proficiency-based progression differs greatly from the traditional credit-based progression where a grade of D- earns the same credit as a grade of A+. Competencies ask what a student can do, to demonstrate what they know. They are aligned to state learning standards such as the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, but also apply rigorous 21st century workplace, civic, and social skills. Relevance emanates from authentic learning experiences as students, driven by their interests, build knowledge, concepts and skills connected to their personal goals. See these examples of competencies used in most of the i3 New England Network schools 1, as well as their accompanying rubrics.

The two high schools in Nashua, New Hampshire moved towards competency-based learning in the fall of 2015.  The student body formulated a number of questions about how the change would benefit all students 2.

a panel of Nashua educators addresses student questions about the shift towards competencies.

The competency-based approach requires alignment around five key elements: 1) students advance upon demonstrated mastery; 2) competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives; 3) assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience; 4) students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and 5) learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions 3. More resources on Competency Education from iNACOL and CompetencyWorks can be found here 4.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium (NYPSC)
The New York Performance Standards Consortium represents 28 schools across New York State.  Formed in 1997, the Consortium opposes high stakes tests arguing that “one sixe does not fit all.”  The NYPSC has developed an assessment system that leads to quality teaching, that enhances rather than compromises our students’ education.

NYPSC: Rubrics
Rubrics provide the basis on which to review the quality of student work across four performance tasks: the analytic essay, research paper, science experiment and applied mathematics.

NYPSC: Center for Inquiry
Included are five Exemplar Booklets of Consortium student work. The papers included in these booklets were selected as a result of the Consortium-wide Moderation Study. They represent a demographic sample of the graduation-level work accomplished by students in Consortium schools.

Competencies at Newfound Regional HS

Rubrics at Newfound

Competencies at Kearsarge Regional HS

3 Sturgis, C. & Patrick, S. (2011). It’s not a matter of time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit. Retrieved from:



Personalized Performance Assessment

In a student-driven school, the standards are rigorous and students must demonstrate competency across many subject areas and skill categories. Learning is frequently measured through personalized performance assessments that allow students to master required content while pursuing an area of interest that motivates and engages them in their learning.  For example, students can demonstrate their learning by: designing and creating an interactive product; proving an idea or concept true or untrue; designing and carrying out experiments; or synthesizing large volumes of information for an authentic audience. Personalized performance assessments differ from more traditional pen and paper assessments or standardized tests in that they connect with student interests in a way that makes learning more purposeful and authentic. This chart personalized performance assessments fall on a continuum of assessments 1.

Performance assessments enable teachers and parents to get a far more detailed and nuanced account of what their students know and are able to do. With that information, they can more easily support their students with targeted learning strategies. Students often report that the work is much harder in a student-driven learning environment, but that it is also far more satisfying because there is greater flexibility in meeting the standards. Performance assessments in a student-driven learning environment provide evidence of student learning, which often compels students to work harder because the work is not an isolated exercise, but something that has enduring value and can be shared with others.

Student Driven Learning provides a vision of the possibilities for student engagement leading to deep learning by exploring the various ways that the i3 New England Network schools have implemented personalized performance assessment.  However, implementing personalized performance assessments alone did not and most likely would not have resulted in the progress made here.  To be sure, these improvements required a much broader effort than simply suggesting that personalized performance assessment could be transformative.  Without support to develop inquiry teaching2in each classroom, and the development of student agencyin school governance, no progress would have been made.

In the following sections we describe examples of personalized performance assessments. Each school in the i3 New England Network interpreted this work differently based on their unique school settings. The components of the assessments are similar—requiring students to drive their own learning process by selecting an area of interest and building a learning experience that includes a proposal, a portfolio of work, a product, and a presentation. What made these practices part of the everyday learning environment in each of the schools was a deep and abiding belief system and culture that embraced student-driven learning4.

1 Assessment Progression Continum by Linda Darling Hammond

2 Culture of Inquiry

3 Student Agency

Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School: Academic Programs to include Advisory, Gateways, Assessments and Habits of Learning
A six-year public secondary school of choice, the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School was started in 1995 by area parents and teachers committed to the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools.  Established in 1984 by Theodore R. Sizer at Brown University, the Coalition of Essential Schools is a national network of over 1,200 schools and Centers engaged in restructuring and redesigning schools to promote better student learning and achievement.  Essential schools share a common set of ideas known as the Ten Common Principles which call for schools to set clear and simple goals about the intellectual skills and knowledge to be mastered by all the school’s students; to lower teacher-student loads, personalize teaching and curriculum, and make student work the center of classroom activity; to award diplomas based on students’ "exhibition" of their mastery of the school’s program; to create an atmosphere of trust and respect for the school, faculty, students and parents; and to model democratic practices and honor diversity.

4 Plymouth South High School: Authentic Assessment and Learning
Teachers from Plymouth South High School provide sample authentic lesson plans  In addition, learn more about the Credit for Life Fair, Plymouth South’s authentic learning opportunity for students in personal finance decisions in the REAL WORLD.  Students gain a better ubnderstanding of credit, budgeting and financial planning. Watch Video:



Extended Learning Opportunities: New Pathways to Graduation

Many i3 New England Network schools offer Extended Learning Opportunities as one way of demonstrating mastery of required competencies (or earning course credit.) Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) are a form of self-directed learning in which students access learning experiences in a field of their choice outside of the traditional classroom.  Students are supported by a school-based ‘advisor,’ and in many cases, students also have a mentor who is based in the community and embedded in their field of interest. These ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning experiences are uniquely rigorous, and can include apprenticeships, community service, independent study, online coursework, internships, job-shadowing, performance or private instruction.

Beginning in 2007, the New Hampshire Department of Education, with funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, began developing four comprehensive ELO pilot sites. Since then, the state has been a leader in the development and articulation of ELO programming. The state recognizes four components of an ELO that result in the highest levels of academic and personal learning for students: 1) Research; 2) Reflection; 3) Product; and 4) Presentation. These four components allow multiple opportunities for both formative assessment – as the ELO is occurring, and summative assessment – in the culminating product and presentation. Most ELO programs have common rubrics for assessing the uncommon activities associated with the individual experiences1.

Student ownership of the planning and execution of the learning experience are critical components of an ELO2. Success is measured by the ability of the students to master competencies as they relate to the chosen field of study as evidenced through the presentation at the end of the experience. This process requires students to make a connection between the competencies and the activities that led to mastery. Metacognition through reflection is a complex process that deepens students’ understanding of the work and themselves.

ELOs are offered for as many reasons as there are interested students. Each student brings to the experience their own story, and ELOs add to those stories by shaping students’ learning pathways and future goals.  Students in the i3 New England Network successfully completed numerous ELOS, including the following sampling: job shadowing at a physical therapy office; restoration of an antique tractor; learning sign language; interning at a local newspaper; serving as an assistant DJ for a local radio station; working with the police department’s forensic division; learning tae kwon do; and learning a musical instrument.

Because of this variability of ELOs, several common structures were critical to their success. First, each school designated an “owner” of the ELO program who provided oversight for the ongoing ELO projects— coordinating the diverse ELO placements in the community; ensuring that students were accounted for and safe while working outside of the school building; planning for professional development and compensation for teachers serving as ELO advisors; and so forth. Second, each school put in place a well-vetted process for assessing ELOs and validating scores including through the calibration of rubrics and reviewing artifacts of student work in professional learning communities. Third, schools shifted their schedules to accommodate students’ placements in ELO sites without comprising their other coursework. Finally, an intentional system of support was created so that students practiced important life skills that would serve them beyond high school. These four structures enabled adults and students to stretch and grow through an ongoing scaffolding process. Learn more from New Hampshire educators who are navigating the path to ELOs3


Newfound Regional High School: ELOs
Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs): ELO’s are an opportunity to acquire knowledge, skills and experience outside the traditional classroom while still meeting core competencies. ELO’s involve four components: research, reflection, product, presentation. Students must work with the ELO Coordinator to craft a written Individualized ELO Student Plan (ESP). This plan must articulate how competencies will be reached that meet or exceed the academic standards of a specific course offered by Newfound Regional High School, or for a course that is more advanced or not offered at NRHS. This plan must also identify the team responsible for the ELO which includes the student, ELO Coordinator and a Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT). Ideally, this team will also involve a community stakeholder or mentor.



Caleb's Story: Invested in Learning Again

Caleb was a very bright student, but typically was not very engaged in the traditional coursework offered at his school. After becoming very interested in an online college lecture series about the brain, Caleb decided to do an ELO on brain functioning The ELO was modeled on an independent study in which he viewed the lecture series, summarized the lectures, and met with his advisor to discuss them. His midterm product was a Claymation (a video using clay models) that demonstrated how brain synapses work. His work was very detailed, and he became very adept at using the technology to produce the short film.

Later in the year, Caleb began using his computer skills to develop a multi-level video game. He was very engaged in the problem solving needed to figure out how the code he wrote translated to the game he was building.  Typically a quiet kid, Caleb would talk at length about his latest technical dilemma. He advocated to earn his required computer credit by learning code and creating software.

Caleb often felt that the traditional classroom was a waste of his time. He was failing art because he found the selection of art projects in his introductory art class too limiting. At the end of the year, he completed a required presentation of his ELO to earn credit in biology and computer science—and used these two ELOs as demonstrations of competency for the introductory art class. Given the opportunity to demonstrate competency in his own way, he successfully earned credit in three content areas, while engaged in deep learning experiences driven by his own interests. 

Richard's Story: Painting a Foundation for College

Richard ran his own painting business, and with the support of his father he was able to establish a limited partnership. He oversaw all of the tasks involved in running a small business: he managed customers and employees; scheduled work; figured estimates; and wrote up working contracts. He was fully committed to his work, and determined that the painting business would support his college tuition and related expenses. Richard applied the concepts and vocabulary of economics to his work and earned economics course credit through this ELO experience. The credit was valuable, but the experience was invaluable. The ELO presentation turned out to be only the beginning of a lifelong journey that was sparked by a personal interest.

David's Story: Engineering IT

David, a senior at Pittsfield High School, who was interested in a career in engineering, approached a science teacher about developing a course called Engineering IT. David co-designed the course, and taught many of the classes. Under the supervision of his teacher, David created lesson plans for the yearlong course that had students designing and building their own structures.  David found the experience to be so rich and satisfying that he changed his post-secondary plans by applying to Keene State College to major in secondary education rather than engineering.

The Senior Project: A Capstone Experience

Senior Project is a capstone experience1 for high school seniors to demonstrate a diploma-worthy set of skills and abilities . Many i3 New England Network schools use Senior Project as a mechanism to drive students to engage in thoughtful inquiry, and to demonstrate their abilities before an authentic audience. Projects are linked to state standards, and frequently tied to competencies. On the eve of their graduation, students are called upon to hone their academic skills, such as reading informational text, writing, research and public speaking.

Senior Projects typically require students to complete a project proposal that defines the topic, states the essential question, and outlines the learning progression – including the final product and exhibition; create a portfolio including a research paper, as well as document correspondence with project mentors, reflections, and signed agreements; develop a product that demonstrates mastery of the topic – these vary widely depending on the scope of the project for example: a musical piece; hosting a fundraiser; or a prototype; and present a final exhibition in which students answer the essential question, reflect on their experiences – both good and good, and deliver a lecture in front of a juried panel. These projects enable students—as well as teachers, peers and others—to take ownership of a substantial piece of work, thereby signaling an important coming of age milestone.

High school seniors tend to be the most vociferous advocates of the Senior Project, often commenting that the experience prepared them well for post-secondary life, as expressed by these two students:

“I found myself learning a lot more than just my topic though. It helped me learn how I work the best, allowed me to become more confident in public speaking and how to properly research, all of which I have found extremely helpful in college.”
Noble High School graduate Rebecca Cosgrove

“The senior project allows a student to explore at least one of the possibilities they see in their future, and they're granted access to valuable resources like teachers who can provide research help, experts in the field, and real-world experiences. High school needs more of these kinds of projects, if anything.”
Noble High School graduate Matt Wood

Plymouth North High School: Senior Projects
The purpose of the Senior Project at Plymouth North High School is to empower all students to explore an area of great personal interest that extends beyond the classroom.  Through this project-based learning, students apply knowledge and connect research that culminates with a showcase demonstrating their learning stretch.  Learn more about the Plymouth North Senior Project here.

Kearsarge Regional High School: Senior Project
Senior Project at Kearsarge Regional High School is a personalized learning experience that allows students to branch out into an area of interest to explore, research, create, and present your findings to the school community. It is a requirement for graduation.  The school believes that the ability to function effectively and resourcefully within student surroundings is an important life skill. Active participation in education results in higher quality learning. It develops ownership of learning and provides an opportunity to develop a set of skills to continue learning throughout life.  Download the Kearsarge Senior Project Packet here.

Noble High School: Senior Project & Portfolios
Learn more about Senior Projects and student portfolios at Noble High School -

Personal Learning Plans (PLPS) and Student Led Conferences (SLC)

In a student driven learning environment, each student develops a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) as a formal structure for reflecting on his/her academic and personal development. The PLP contains evidence of learning progress, information about personal strengths and challenges, as well as goals and dreams.  Each student is paired with an adviser, who helps guide them on their path to graduation. Given the often-fluctuating interests of adolescents, the PLP does not press the student into prematurely selecting a career path, but rather, makes the space for an ongoing conversation about a student’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. The PLP also enables parents and guardians to see inside a student’s high school experience and his/her thought processes related to future endeavors.

The PLP also becomes the centerpiece of the Student Led Conference (SLC) during which time a student shares his/her PLP with a small group that includes an advisor, parent(s), and additional trusted and invested individuals (coaches, pastors, school staff, friends, etc.) The SLC experience holds students accountable to the progress they make towards their short and long-term goals. Parent attendance at the SLC is dramatically greater than for traditional Parent Teacher Conferences, a testament to the authentic meaning of the experience. Parents often express joy and surprise at what their children are able to articulate about themselves, and students assume much greater ownership for their learning when they are genuinely held accountable to their community.

This video illustrates how students share their personal learning plans during student-led conferences1.



Student Driven Learning presents a vision for what is possible for student engagement and deeper learning. Schools in the i3 New England Network have been working towards transforming their existing schools into student-driven learning environments over the five years of the i3-funded period, and for many schools, even longer. The rich learning experiences presented in this guide were developed over the five-year period, with deep commitment to the other areas of focus.

A Culture of Inquiry1 encourages students and teachers to exercise and amplify their authentic voices, and to return to what comes so naturally to very young children:  asking their own questions. Student Agencyensures that students have the opportunity to govern their school beyond token contribution, and to exercise their voice as part of the day-to-day running of the school.  This looks different in each school because context is all-important, but the value of full student participation is consistent across every location. The Power of a Network 3 allows schools to share challenges and support each other with peer mentoring and to receive outside professional support that validates their strengths, helps manage their challenges, and helps them grow as professionals. Shared Leadership4 is necessary because of the frequent turnover of those in positions of authority and because those who exercise leadership—whether students, teachers, principals, superintendents, or others—are co-owners of the change process.  This assures the long-term sustainability of the change efforts. 

There is a vast array of potential entry points for creating a more student-driven school and classroom environment, but many seeds must be planted before lasting change can take root.  For some schools, Personal Learning Plans and Student-Led Conferencing can be a first step toward putting students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. Other schools might explore the articulation of competencies and inquiry-based teaching. Still others may be ready to move toward demonstration of mastery through personalized performance assessment. The thirteen member schools in the i3 New England Network, representing a diverse group of educators and students, across a spectrum of readiness for transformation, were all able to make progress by confronting their beliefs about traditional student and teacher roles and taking important first steps into a journey of discovery.