Self-Paced Learning: How One Teacher Does It


Listen to my interview with Natalie McCutchen (transcript)


With few exceptions, I would bet that most teachers feel they could be doing a better job of differentiating instruction. It’s not that we don’t want to do it—we know our students learn at different rates, that some need more help and others could be moving much more quickly than we let them. The problem for many of us is that we just can’t figure out how to manage it. How do you run a classroom where each student is working on a different thing at a different speed?

The first time I ever saw a truly self-paced learning environment was on my visit to a Montessori Elementary School two years ago. And although I was completely enchanted by the student-centered environment there, the class size was small. I wondered whether that method could really be scaled up to class sizes at a typical public school.

So I was excited when, at a recent TeachMeet, I saw that there would be a session on self-paced learning. At the session, Franklin, KY, middle school math teacher Natalie McCutchen showed us how she has converted her pre-algebra class to a completely self-paced system, where students work on different skills at their own pace, and how she’s gradually introducing self-paced learning in her other math classes as well. I found her system to be astonishingly simple, and I thought a lot of other teachers might like to try it for themselves, so I interviewed her for my latest podcast episode (see player below) and asked if I could share her methods here.

How Self-Paced Learning Works in Natalie’s Class


Natalie McCutchen

Here’s a quick snapshot of how she does it: For each chapter in their math textbook, students take a pre-test to determine which skills they have already mastered and which ones they still need to learn. For the skills they still need to master, they work independently on lessons (either reading them in the textbook or watching them on videos) and do practice problems until they feel they’ve got the skill down. This is the true self-paced part: Students decide how many lessons they need. They decide how much practice to give themselves. “Maybe there are five videos that you could watch today,” Natalie explains to her students. “You watch as many as you need. If you watch two videos and you understand it, then you move on to the practice. If you need all five, use all five.” Rather than forcing students to follow the same path in lockstep with one another, practicing page after page of skills they already have down, this system gives them a chance to build the metacognitive muscle they’ll need to become lifelong learners.

When a student feels he is ready, he takes a mini-assessment for a single learning target, usually made up of just a few questions. If he does well on that small assessment, he can move on to another skill. Once he has mastered all the skills in the chapter, he takes a whole-chapter assessment—this is the same test he was given as the pre-assessment. If he does well on that, he’s ready to progress to the next chapter.

Q&A on Self-Paced Learning

How do students know which lessons and practices to work on, and when?
Natalie creates a Chapter Guide for each chapter. It includes each learning target, the pre-test question or questions that align with that target, the lessons students should watch or read to learn about that target, the practice problems that match up with that target, and the assessment question or questions for that target.

Look at the example below. If this student missed question 2 on the pre-test, she should do Lesson 2.4 on pages 102-104 and may need to do Skills Practice 2.4 on pages 403-406 in preparation for the assessment for that learning target, which is item 2a on page 38. She might only need to read through the lesson and do one or two practice problems in order to do well on the assessment, or she might choose to do them all. Likewise, if she got question 6 correct on the pre-test, she doesn’t need to do the lesson, the practice, or the assessment for that learning target at all—she’d just mark that as mastered on the chart.




Do students get the answer keys?
Students have access to the answers for all of the practice questions, so Natalie does not need to check these; it’s up to the student to do the practice problems, then self-check them to see if they’re getting the skill down. There’s no real incentive to cheat here, because if a student doesn’t teach herself the skill, it will show up in the mini-assessment for that target: The mini-assessment IS scored by the teacher, and students are not given an answer key for it.

What does class time look like?
“It’s very much organized chaos,” Natalie says. “They keep the chapter guide in a composition notebook. We glue all their items in there. So they have that with them on their desk every day, and I’m able to go by and say Okay, what have you done? Where are you today? And at the end of class, I can say, How much did you get done?” Because students are all working independently, the amount of work produced on any given day can vary. “Some kids may turn in two assessments per class period, depending on how hard they worked. Some kids may turn in one. Some kids, maybe they didn’t get to an assessment that day.” And because Natalie encourages collaboration between students, the room is busy: “I really prefer them to work together on the lesson, especially with my pre-algebra students, because they are such good math thinkers, they understand and can talk math, I want them to work together. You know, two or three in a group seeing if you can figure it out on your own using the video.”

What if some kids can’t handle all that independence? What if they just fool around the whole time?
Natalie’s solution to this problem was what really impressed me about her system: Not all students get to do self-paced; some have to work with her in a more traditional teacher-led setup. Self-paced learning is a privilege reserved only for kids who take it seriously and work hard. If you mess that up, you can lose the privilege, returning to a group that’s working directly with the teacher. “Sometimes they have to come back to the pack,” she explains. “I’ll say You know what, you really didn’t work that hard yesterday. I’m not even sure what you got done, I don’t see anything on here. Just come back with us today.” For some students, this is a step backward, but they get other chances to move ahead later. “They like being ahead. You know, they think it’s kinda cool. Sometimes I’ll let them go out in the hallway, sit at a little table. They like that, but I stress to them you still have to work.”

Self-Paced Learning: A Step-by-Step Guide

Natalie McCutchen developed her system through some trial and error, and she’s constantly refining it, so none of this is set in stone. But if you’d like to try and replicate her approach to self-paced learning, here are the steps to take:

Step 1: Select a Unit of Content
This can be a chapter in a textbook or a batch of skills or content you would typically teach as a unit over a couple of weeks. This unit should have clearly defined learning targets, which are likely dictated by whatever standards your school follows. If you’ve been teaching for a while, you probably already have this step taken care of. In Natalie’s class, each chapter in her math textbook represents one unit.

Step 2: Create the Assessment
Decide what students should be able to do by the end of the unit and create an assessment that measures it. The simplest type is a test with clearly identified right and wrong answers, where each item (or small group of items) in this assessment is aligned with one learning target. For skills that require more teacher interpretation to measure, like writing, the assessment could be a writing task, such as an extended response question with a prompt and a rubric. Each skill listed in the rubric would align with a specific learning target.

Step 3: Create the Chapter Guide
Following the model shown above, set up a guide that shows which assessment question aligns with each learning target, then lists book or video lessons students can follow to learn each skill, exercises that will give students independent practice with the skill, and a brief assessment students can take to test their mastery.

Step 4: Give the Pre-Test
Use the assessment you created in Step 2 to pre-test students on the skills for this unit. Use the results to identify which learning targets each student has already mastered, and which ones they still need to learn. [Note: Natalie’s school uses standards-based grading, but that’s not a strict requirement for this system. You could still record mastery of learning targets in the standards-based style and convert those measurements to traditional grades. To learn how, see Matt Townsley’s video on converting standards-based indicators to letter grades.]

Step 5: Help Students Identify Standards to Master
Giving each student a Chapter Guide, have them mark which standards they have already mastered—based on pre-test results—and which ones they still need to learn.

Step 6: Provide Time, Materials, and Supervision for Self-Paced Learning
From this point on, students will begin the process of moving through the lessons on their own. Your job is to make sure they have the materials they need to do the work: If you are sending students to videos, make sure they have devices to access them (and earbuds to keep the audio to themselves). Make sure students know where to look for answer keys, and where they can access the mini-assessment when they are ready to take it. Check in with students regularly to make sure they are making good use of their time.

Step 7: Iterate
Keep in mind that this system probably won’t work perfectly the first time you try it. You may want to try it just once with a short unit, rather than attempt to convert your whole year to self-paced learning. You might want to offer it only to students who have the academic skills and maturity to handle it. You may need to tweak it, then tweak it some more. But speaking for the kids who would love a chance to see just how fast they can learn and how far they can go, I’d say it’s worth a serious try. ♦

Other Resources:


There’s more where this came from.
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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.


  1. I love this idea. However, there is a BIG question left unanswered–where did the videos come from? I understand the need to produce practice sets and assessments and the need to get everything organized. I can even see what my teacher website would look like. Even though I have some of the materials for that, it would still take me many, many weekend hours to set up.
    But the videos! Unless i can download videos explaining my specific textbook topics, I cannot imagine having the time to create them.

    • Hi Jeff! We actually discuss this on the podcast: Natalie used a lot of Khan Academy videos to start with, and over time made her own with Explain Everything. But yes, the up-front work to set this up would be considerable. That’s why I think starting small would be a good way to go here.

    • I don’t know what you teach Jeff, but once you start looking you’d be surprised how many videos you can find. For math and ELA Learnzillion.com has a lot that are pretty spot-on.

  2. I have previously done this when I was teaching math. My students LOVED it…but sometimes, it was difficult getting them to attend to their work, since most were working independently.

    • Lynda, what really struck me about Natalie’s system is that not all kids get to do the self-paced program. In her regular math class (where there is more of a mix of levels…as opposed to her pre-algebra class), she has one group that works directly with her in a more traditional, teacher-directed structure. Students who are able to handle the independence–and who want to work ahead–get to move forward with the self-paced option. If they don’t get their work done, they lose the privilege and return to working “with the group.” They do get second chances, by the way, but I really like the idea of only allowing self-paced learning to kids who can do it; for me, this was such a simple way to address that ever-present problem.

  3. Hi Jennifer,
    I have been reading your blog and noticed that you were a former middle school L.A. teacher and now a teacher of teachers, so I thought maybe you could give me some food for thought. My 7th graders are writing a fiction story of whatever genre they choose, and I am grading several common core standards within their stories. They are working on their own on laptops and using Google Docs so I am trying to come up with some ways to have them share/review/comment on each others work using technology. I thought maybe you have seen some great teachers do this and could give me some advice….I may do an idea from Kelly Gallagher idea, which is reading each other’s story while in progress and passing around a sheet of paper in a small group and simply asking questions. It is a safe, easy way to actually do some peer review and get kids to notice missing pieces…though not really editing, which they are not efficient at yet. Any other ideas? I was thinking of somehow getting them together by genre. Thanks for any thoughts. C.J. Miller

    • Hey C.J.

      So guess what? I have a graduate degree in fiction writing!! Wheee! So of course I have a lot of thoughts about this. But first, I want to make sure you are aware that they can use the comments feature to give written comments right inside Google Docs. Just in case you didn’t know that, go over to my post about Google Docs and watch the third video tutorial, which shows you how to collaborate and comment.

      Okay. Now that that’s out of the way. Here are some of the most effective peer response strategies that I have seen:

      (1) Have students trade stories, then summarize their partner’s story for them, either in writing or verbally (faster!). Listening to someone else tell you what your story is about is a VERY effective and quick way to determine whether or not you’re hitting the mark you want to hit. Have them describe the main conflict in the story, then summarize the main plot points. I think this could also be a good exercise with unfinished stories: With just a few paragraphs, summarize what’s happened so far, what questions you have, and what you think this story is going to be about.

      (2) You mentioned technology (which that last idea didn’t mention!). You might consider setting up groups on Voxer, which allows students to have ongoing conversations (with their actual voices) in a closed chat. They could do this from home, from the classroom, wherever. You could have them take turns discussing one person’s story at a time. As for a format, students could talk about one specific line they liked, one line that was confusing or problematic, and one question they have after reading.

      (3) I think getting them together by genre could be extremely cool and useful. I also think mixing them up later on could be beneficial as well.

      (4) Okay, that last one wasn’t even an idea. I’m at Starbucks getting some work done during my kid’s tumbling class and I’m pretty sure they gave me caf instead of decaf. Anyway, another good approach to getting students to give each other effective feedback is to model it. Put a sample story (teacher-created or written by an anonymous former student) up for everyone to read, collect people’s ideas, then show them how to actually word that feedback in a written comment so it’s genuinely helpful and specific.

      Does that help? If not, ask more questions!

  4. I like this idea as a way to get teachers wedded to a traditional model of teaching away from it in baby steps. I’m concerned, though, that it doesn’t actually get away from the textbook learning model. All it does is give a tiny modicum of liberty of pacing in a rigid framework. If we’re agreed that it’s not necessary to be in lock step as we learn, why keep such a rigid model of learning in areas other than pacing?
    Every step away from the way we do things now is a good one, though- thanks for the insight.

    • You make a good point, Josh. And I agree, this model appears to work especially well with a set program of studies. I wonder, though, whether it only looks that way because the model here is math. What if a science teacher were to simply state the learning targets, provide a variety of suggested resources (both print and digital) for students to access, then give students the freedom to choose how they meet the targets? If a good assessment is created to truly measure whether students have achieved the targets, then as long as students are able to perform well on that assessment, whatever they did to get there is under their control. This is the kind of model posed by Marc Prensky in his book Teaching Digital Natives, and I find it pretty exciting. Prensky didn’t talk about structuring things in the way McCutchen does here, but I think his philosophy could work really well within this kind of framework.

      • I teach Montessori at a public school and am trying something very similar to this with my students. It works really well for social studies topics that students need to research. Any bit of choice is exciting for students.

        “If a good assessment is created to truly measure whether students have achieved the targets, then as long as student are able to perform well on that assessment, whatever they did to get there is under their control.”

        Is this covered in Digital Natives? The only thing I can think of that would work for this would be more of a rubric than an assessment. Pencil/Paper assessments are a huge drag, anyway, it’d be great to move toward a more portfolio style assessment in any way.

  5. It is obvious to me that many of my students would benefit from such a pacing, but it is also obvious to me that many would be well behind at the end of the term. And what does this mean for on-time graduation rates? I feel like there would need to be many structural changes in my school and in my state to make this type of change possible, let alone effective, for me.

    I teach a one-semester High school economics course with a state mandated exam at the end, in the 15th or 16th week of the semester. My main concern w/ self-pacing, is with course pacing. If it’s a Move-on-when-ready kind of operation, how do we ensure the student completes the course by the end of the term?

    Also, how do we mitigate the space issue? I’ve got 30ish students per period in a classroom that feels like it’s built for 25. “All groups” works out well, but how do we manage noise from group to group, not so hard perhaps, but with one group doing direct instruction with me talking, probably a lot, this could be a problem.

    And what do we do with the student who can blow through the course in 5 or 6 weeks? We could “differentiate” and give them “deeper” assignments, but how do we hold them accountable? If they have mastered the content and skills? That student’s question will be “Why should I, if the other students don’t have to”? Or, “Why should I not be able to do the easy work too?”

    • Hi Jermey,
      I can’t answer all your questions, but I can tell you what I know. I’ve seen teachers who self-pace give students timelines. The material still needs to be covered in the same amount of time. I’ve seen these same teachers set daily and weekly goals for students and give them daily and weekly grades to ensure they are moving at an appropriate pace.
      As far as space issues, my problems seemed to disappear with self-pacing. I have students who choose to sit on the floor, go to the computers, etc. And because they all have an assignment to focus on, and something to do when they are finished, I don’t have a noise issue.
      If they finish the course very quickly, or have mastered the content, the idea is that they can then move into deeper differentiated instruction. My students take this type of instruction very seriously. They consider it an honor that they get to do move advance work; however, that may be the difference between middle school and high school. That is also the work I use for my GT kids. They are accountable to that.

  6. This reminds me of Dr. Kathy Nunley’s work about Layered Curriculum but on a smaller scale. You might find some good stuff on her website for all disciplines. http://Help4Teachers.com and http://Brains.org

    I teach HS science using some of the layered curriculum parts and it is a lot of work up front, but after your kids get the hang of it becomes much easer. I did have to fight the urge to go back to ‘traditional’ teaching when I would hear whining from the kids and grumblings from parents that wanted me to lecture to the kids instead of having the kids develop their own understanding. (hmmm….what do you say to that). The best advise (that of course I didn’t listen to) is to start slowly, work a few things in here then add another part in another unit. If you look at the Layered Curriculum it does take care of the kids that get through the unit quickly in the “A” layer…

  7. Hiiiii Jennifer!

    I started using self-paced learning in middle school ELA earlier this year. Over the summer I started participating in a two year program (grant?) offered through GRREC (http://kidfriendlyky.com/) that introduced me to self-paced learning. I highly encourage anyone who has the ability to participate next summer to do it. In addition to gaining strategies you also get mini grants for technology in your classroom.

    The above link is great introduction to self-pacing. It breaks it down and helps you digest it a bit better. The idea of self-paced learning can be overwhelming at first. These two ladies from Taylor Co, KY are amazing.

    So, before I start breaking down my self-pacing, I want you to know that I have never seen an ELA example. I have seen a million examples for math and a few for science, but absolutely zero for ELA. So I jumped in with two feet. I took a unit I already had pretty well together and broke apart my standards – I had 6. At this point in time we had also been going over parts of speech, so I added two parts of speech to make 8 “standards” or topics. Rather than breaking my pacing guide into chapters or daily assignments, I broke it up into topics. Then I started adding assignments to each topic. I started with some kind of introduction. Sometimes it’s a video (learnzillion is awesome), a short questionnaire, a power point, etc. And then I started adding assignments. Depending on the difficultly of the standard or topic that could be anywhere from 4-10 assignments. I also noted where the student could find each assignment, Google Classroom, paper assignment, etc. With each topic I added how many days each student should spend. Some of the topics are only 2 or 3 days and some of them are 5-6 days. When they reach the end of the topic they take a mini assessment. If they make an 80% or higher they can put a sticker up on their sticker chart showing they’ve mastered the standard. If they do not make at least an 80% they will need to sign up with me to get one-on-one assistance with that topic.

    One of the things that I was taught with self-pacing is that all students must still move at a certain pace. The kids who are struggling to self-motivate themselves cannot use this as an excuse to not do their work. They cannot spend a week on an assignment that should only take 45 minutes (which is why I put how many days it should take them to get through the assignments). One way I’ve seen self-pacing done is that there is a day set for the summative test. Rather than taking the summative when they finish their guide, the entire class takes the summative on a set day. Kids who are working ahead can stop and go back and summative test (they should have retained that information, right?). This helps keeps the slower kids on a pace that is still at least as fast as what you would normally be doing. For my first unit this is the route I took. I figured up how much time the unit would normally take, added a few extra days (figured in time for assemblies, fire drills, a separate Halloween writing assignment, etc.) and scheduled the test date. Rather than my students moving on to the next unit as soon as they finished this pacing guide, they had the option to do some extension activities. This seemed to work as a motivator for kids to move through their assignments.

    For my next unit after Christmas I want to create two pacing guides, one for advance students and one for the rest. My next unit includes a novel and I am hoping to differentiate the guides with different books.

    Whew! I could go on forever. I hope I didn’t ramble too much.

    • Um. I loved your rambling. I’d love to read more. I’m also a middle school LA teacher looking to better deliver differentiated content and delivery via self-pacing. Do you have a blog or anything?

  8. Use a version of this.
    I build a word document of all the resources and tests hyperlinked in a mapped out format. I call this my Welcome Maps.
    Pupils come in access a short video or text then complete an online quiz with instant feedback or a worksheet I’ve made. They save to their own area (I teach ICT secondary school UK) where I can pick up later or mark as I travel the room. All assessments they do they have to then print their score. I mix up the tasks with text videos games and tests but everyone moves at their own speed. Half way through the lesson I stop everyone for a video to make sure they’re on track or a whole class quiz splitting them into 2 teams or hands up. I facilitate rather than teach now but there is now time to work with weaker or less focused pupils so progress goes up. It just takes planning.
    More on my website! Feel free to visit. It’s a free self help cpd portal for teachers and includes videos of techniques I use as well. Thank you for this very positive post!!!

  9. Hi, I love the idea, and noticed that it is geared to secondary teachers. I wonder if there is anything for kindergarten and first grade teachers.

    • I am wondering the same thing. I teach second grade and would love to see what’s out there for us.

  10. I loved the idea of this self-paced math program so much, that I tried it for myself with my Grade 7 Late French Immersion students. It was great and exactly what my students needed. You can read a reflection about my experience with self-paced math here: https://deltalearns.ca/180daysoflearning/ Thanks!

  11. Thank you for sharing this! I’ll be sharing this with my Blended Learning Cohort this fall! Great example!

  12. Hello. I am new to the “Cult” and first looked at your podcast #30 with Natalie McCutchen, Self Paced Learning, How One Teacher Does It, discussing how she incorporated a self-paced system in her pre-algebra class. I found this to be very useful in helping me to jump in with both feet and implement something similar in my Algebra 2 classes this year. For most students I am finding this to be a good move. However, I am struggling with a group in each class who tend to procrastinate on working outside of the classroom to keep caught up. They typically will not work on their math skills once they leave the room for various reasons and are falling behind. Natalie had stated that some kids cannot be on a self-paced system due to lack of self discipline in keeping caught up. She said that these students would have to come back to the pack until they could handle the pace. My question is, can I have some more information or suggestions specific to the situations where students are not part of the self-paced system? Are these students taught in a traditional classroom setting where a lesson is taught, an assignment is given and is due the next class period? In this situation, is there basically two classes going on at the same time? One a self-paced and one a traditional setting. I love your website and everything you have to offer teachers. I appreciate your help! John

    • Hello John! Thanks so much for your comment! When I first began my journey with self-paced learning I was so excited that I just assumed that it would be the perfect fit for every student. I only implemented it with my Pre-Algebra class which is my advanced math class and I just assumed all students would enjoy this process and that all students possessed the self-discipline and motivation needed to work within this system. Boy, was I wrong!! There were some students who were more than capable of excelling in this system that just simply lacked the self-discipline needed to stay on track and focused with the learning. There were others that lacked the solid math skills to navigate through the content on their own without needing quite a bit of support. For these students, I did teach them in a more traditional classroom setting. So while some students were working at their own pace through the content, those students were either getting direct instruction from me as a whole group, direct instruction in small groups, working in small groups, or working individually while in class. They were basically doing what I was doing with my normal math classes. They completed the same lessons and content that were in my chapter guides, they just did it with my supervision, guidance, and help. So, yes, basically two classes at the same time. And there were times where students would join me in the more traditional classroom if they needed some additional support and then once they were caught up or were more comfortable with the content, they would go back to being self-paced. I initially came across this idea because I wanted to better meet the needs of my students; using a traditional model along with the self-paced model was a no-brainer because it helped me better meet the needs of all my students.

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