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Self-Paced Learning: How One Teacher Does It


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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.

Download a PDF Sample of Natalie’s Chapter Guide

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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  1. Jeff Dowd says:

    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.

    • Jackie K says:

      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 has a lot that are pretty spot-on.

    • Natalie McCutchen says:

      Jeff did you ever give self-paced a go? If so, I would love to hear how it went! If not and you are still interested, please let me know how I can help!! But yes, the front loading for this work is enormous! In the past couple of years, I have found that it’s sometimes easier to self-pace for a day or a few days because it’s somewhat easier to prepare for a shorter amount of time.

      • Heidi Wood says:

        I have just discovered this podcast and would love to try your method, Natalie! I teach 4th grade in California. We had a very wide range of learning in math last year. My partner teacher and I were constantly consulting on when to move on to the next section. We employed videos we found on line, which students watched to pre-load the concept before coming to our small group. We discovered Khan Academy in May, right before testing, so haven’t utilized it to its full potential yet. Your templates and the article are extremely helpful! If you’d like to contact me, I’d love to pick your brain or receive any other advice you may have to share! Thanks Jennifer, for another highly worthwhile episode!

    • Miah says:

      Khan Academy has great online tutorials. For example, for math, you can start at the basic fundamentals and move up through Calculus! They also have many other subjects you can self-study aside from just math topics. Science and Engineering, Economics, test prep, etc! IMHO, it’s an amazing resource site!

      • Stephanie Hammes says:

        Khan Academy introduced “Course Mastery” in the fall of 2019 for mathematics. It is CCSSM standards-based. If you have not yet checked it out, it’s really great for self-paced learning. I on-boarded teachers & kids in grades 4-6 to KA CM before our winter break & they loved it. It allows teachers, students, and parents to monitor learning, find gaps, and fill them with linked lessons/videos, then retake quizzes, unit tests, or complete Mastery Challenges to demonstrate mastery.

        KA CM pushed their reading & ELA materials for gr. 2-8 out early in response to the Coronavirus crisis & school closures. I especially like a recent webinar by Tim Vandenberg on “How I Helped My Sixth Graders Ace Math…By Taking Them Back to Kindergarten!”

    • Lamika Wilson says:

      I knew some steps to individualized learning ;yet this article hits key points and steps on methods to focus on both areas of improvement/strengths. “Mixed in with a digital token economy. “🥰

  2. Lynda Hahn says:

    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. C.J. Miller says:

    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!

      • Marissa says:

        I love this idea. Has anyone tried It with writing or reading. I’m starting a memoir unit, teaching remotely, next week. I’d live idea of how I could do this.

  4. Josh says:

    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.

      • Matthew Abel says:

        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.

      • Kandra Thomisina Coleman says:

        I am wondering how this could work in an ELA class.

        • Kandra, scroll through the comments — Jacki K shared how she did this in ELA. Hopefully, it will give you some good ideas!

    • Dave says:

      As she mentioned this could be tried as a one unit venture. But if you were to convert your whole school year to this format this is how I would see and try doing it. For students new to this way of learning, the first unit of the school needs to have more structure to it, because you are establishing expectations and molding/modeling their behavior. Subsequent units can be created/developed to give more flexibility. Just as we all understand the importance of scaffolding when working from basic to more complex, so to do students need scaffolding to achieve PBL Just my opinion

  5. Jeremey says:

    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?”

    • Jackie K says:

      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. AnnMarie says:

    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. and

    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. AnnMarie says:

    Sorry about posting twice, but I found a typo and just couldn’t let it go.

  8. Jackie K says:

    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 ( 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.

    • Lisbeth says:

      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?

  9. 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!!!

  10. Claudia says:

    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.

    • Suzonne says:

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

    • Tonika says:

      I agree I love the idea and I was also wondering if this would work for grades P-3.

  11. Laura Ramsbottom says:

    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: Thanks!

    • Natalie McCutchen says:

      I loved the fact that you used self-paced learning for another subject and I’m glad that it worked so well! Are you still using it today?!

  12. NanciM says:

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

  13. 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

    • Natalie McCutchen says:

      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.

  14. Margaret Nolan says:

    Really enjoyed this podcast – thank you for sharing!

  15. Josh says:

    I teach 5th grade and launched it due to behavior. Myself and the majority of students were frustrated by interruptions caused by disruptive students. I wish I would have led off with this at the beginning of the year but have had pretty good success. Similar struggles with breaking that “get it done” mindset and into the “gain understanding” mindset.

    I love the idea of having a teacher guided group however at 5th grade responsibility is a big issue but I think if I incorporated a teacher group and tightened up my progress monitoring(using ‘live’ google spreadsheet) and/or pacing guide/requirements I could make it work even better.

    I make a lot of my own videos then edit them with formative assessment to the videos). Yes, time is required, but holy cow the product is perfect!

    • Natalie McCutchen says:

      I am loving that you are using this with younger students. I know some are wondering if it will work with elementary students. I think it can be tweaked to work with any age group given the right structures in place. Is it still going well?

  16. Louie says:

    Wow! This is perfect for what I am looking for! Like Josh (Commented 4/2017), I am also looking at EdPuzzle as a way to launch this self-paced learning model in my classroom. It is the perfect tool! 😀

    I do have a question regarding assessments… In a true self-guided classroom, I would imagine that assessments would be staggered. I read further up in the comments that teachers can set a date for an all-class summative assessment. I’m wondering if anyone has any experience in assessing students on a staggered basis. I’m a very organized person, but I’m wondering if keeping track of each assessment can be too much.

    I have so many questions but I am going to keep reading to learn more!

    • Hi Louie!

      I realize you might not even see this response since its so long after your original comment, but I think I have some advice for you on your staggered assessments question. I followed Natalie’s model for the unit guide and placed quizzes in the unit where I felt appropriate, and then the students just tell me when they’re ready for that particular quiz.

      I haven’t found it to be too confusing to keep track of because I have my gradebook set up to match (the only things the students get grades for are tests and quizzes) so I can always tell who has and hasn’t passed certain assessments. The students have also been really good about telling me which quiz they’re on in the unit. “I’m ready for the first/second/third quiz” is something I hear quite often. I do not set a date for the final test in each unit. I have a suggested pacing guide for the students to finish the material in the appropriate amount of time but I do not hold them to a deadline. They tell me when they are ready for the unit test just like the quizzes.

      I hope that helps!

  17. Hi,
    I just came across this site tonight because I have been trying to differentiate my math class based on ability of the students so that those who need more support are in one group and those who seem to know the lesson already are more independent. I base this on one pretest.
    Recently I found that even though I am differentiating, it isn’t enough for those students who know more than the others. I find that there still wasn’t much challenge being given to them even with the resources I have.
    So for my next unit, dividing fractions, I am going to try to run the self paced math class…
    I think a few questions I have are:
    – when someone finishes the lessons, is there some sort of enrichment they can continue on while others are finishing the unit…any resources people use for enrichment at an elementary level?

    I think that is all I have right now..oh, also, I just read a mention of quizzes, how are those different than the daily assessments or the assessments they will be completing as they finish a lesson?

    • Cheryl, this is exciting! There are a lot of great suggestions and variations that people have shared in the comments section — if you haven’t already, read through those to see what might work for you. Jenn’s podcast interview with Natalie offers more details too, if you’ve not yet had a chance to listen. Natalie has come back here before to jump in and answer questions and we’re sure she will again, but in the meantime you can also reach out to her via Twitter @NMcCutchen.

      For now, my understanding is that for each lesson, kids self-check practice questions and then take a quiz before moving on to the next lesson. As far as planning enrichment activities, I think a lot of that will depend on what you know about your kids, their interests, and what they’re ready to do with the skills they’ve learned. Sometimes just posing a really good, “What if…” question can lead to effective transfer of knowledge and problem solving. Any time you start something new, just take baby steps — it’s easier to make what’s working, work even better and easier to tweak what’s not. And have fun!

      • miah says:

        If students need more support to catch up than what can be provided in the classroom, they should probably have a 504 or IEP plan drafted with goals to remediate areas of deficit and additional instruction in addition to the instruction in the classroom, as well as offered and provided accommodations to level the academic playing field for them in the general ed classroom.

    • Natalie McCutchen says:

      Cheryl, so sorry for taking so long to respond-the life of a teacher and mom of 3 can be just a a little busy! I’m so glad that you are trying this out in your class; how did it go? You have a very valid question and that’s one that I tried to tackle this year as well: How to fully engage students and push them further in their learning. One thing I try to do is stay ahead of and prepared for my fastest and smartest student; sometimes it’s a race that I can’t always win!! I’m going to post a copy of a lesson that I have done this year where I tried to be intentional about meeting the needs of those students who needed more enrichment. I try to include one challenging activity in each lesson and in one of the lessons I attached, I included a choice menu.

      The daily assessments are more like formative assessments that are more for practice and not for a grade. I also use them to gauge student understanding if they have been working with a partner or in groups all class. They could do them as an exit ticket so that I know what each individual knows at the conclusion of class.

      Hope this helps!! Let me know if you have any more questions!!

  18. Jacy Spencer says:

    I’m gearing up to try this with my 7th and 8th grade math classes as a trial run to see if I want to pursue this next year. I’ve done a ton of research. I feel like there’s tons of explanation for the self paced side, but not as much for the traditional side. So I have some questions about that part of this.

    For the students who do the traditional learning, do they still complete the mini assessments? If they do, how does this fit into the hour? Do they take it at the end of the hour? Or the beginning of the hour the next day? If they don’t pass it, do you retreach it? If so, what do you do with the students who don’t need a retreach, but still can’t handle the self- paced learning? If they don’t do the mini-assessment, what do you do to check for understanding?

    For those in the traditional environment, do they still get to choose how many problems they do? They don’t have as much time in the hour so I don’t feel they would be able to check their own answers.

    Sorry for the excessive questions. Thank you for any help and for sharing this. I’m so excited to try this!

    • Hi Jacy,

      Sorry for the delayed response. Not sure if you’ve listened to the podcast yet, but Natalie goes into a bit more detail regarding how she manages all this. You might also want to reach out to her on Twitter @nmccutchen.

  19. Julia says:

    I just want to say thank you for bring content that is relevant to ALL teachers. I teach in LA in a M/M and M/S setting at a comprehensive high school. We are technically not a 1:1 school but our kids get the tech they need. Wink wink. Last year I taught science and loved it using schoology and google docs. Once the routine was put in place all students were able to access videos and activities on schoology using google docs. It was super successful but this next year I will be teaching math and I knew I would want to expand on the work we did this school year. I found you blog and honestly made me believe I could do it. Thank you Natalie for doing the work and sharing what works in your classroom. I’m excited to try it out!

  20. Brianna says:

    Hi Natalie,

    I am a middle school science teacher dying to try out this method. I’ve had two moderately enjoyable years, but I have noticed that some students never master a topic before I end up moving on due to time constraints. I love the idea that they get to work with a topic until it is learned.

    One question I have, although I know it’s silly, is what do I do about games and fun activities? I have used escape rooms, which my kids go nuts over! I have created other games that my students like, as well as fun learning activities that include crafting models, drawing pictures, etc. Sometimes we would spend a class period playing these games to review for a test.

    I don’t want to lose this fun element of my class, but I don’t see how I could manage a few students playing games while staying with my lower group to work with them in another part of the room.

    Did you make games/fun activities fit into your self-paced curriculum? Can you please suggest how I could make it work?

    Thank you for this post, it is amazing!

    • Laura Ellsworth says:

      Hi Briana – I am a middle school math teacher in the process of adapting one of my units for next year into a self-paced format, so I cannot yet offer any advice on this! (I am also just finishing my first official year of teaching, so I have a lot to learn!)

      However, I think that Natalie mentioned in the podcast that occasionally they do whole-group activities (e.g., review) and it works as a review of current material for some and a spiral review for others. I think that would be beneficial, since students don’t always seem to retain what they have learned.

      One more thing – as I am trying to visualize how self-paced learning will work in my class, I have thought about some lessons/activities that I think every student should do regardless of pretest results. I teach all ESL students. Some of my strongest math students are newcomers with low levels of English proficiency. And my experience tells me that all math students need to work on using math vocabulary with confidence. I am considering activities related to language objectives that everyone would do. These activities could include vocabulary work, small group discussions, journaling, and more.

      Good luck!

  21. I am a HS math teacher. What does a grading system look like within a self-paced classroom? How do you grade classwork and homework if students are doing different activities, at a different level and at a different pace?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Dave! Great questions. If you haven’t already, be sure to listen to the podcast interview. Natalie goes into greater detail about planning units around learning targets and using standards-based grading. My thinking is that although instruction may be differentiated and students are working at different paces, in the end, they are all being assessed on their understanding of whatever targets they are practicing.

  22. Ashley Brown says:

    I am absolutely in love with this idea for teaching writing in my library. Some of my kids get it immediately. However, some really need help! I’m totally going to try this after Spring Break. I’m realizing how I’m stunting all of my kids’ growth.

  23. Victoria Herold says:

    What do students turn in daily? How are they held accountable for completing the work and watching the videos?

  24. Krysta Catlin says:

    What do you do if some students make it through the unit in a couple days versus the students who take a. couple weeks?

  25. Tamara Tarhini says:

    Hi Nathalie,

    Let me start by saying that I loved reading your blog.
    My daughter is actually enrolled in a Montessori Program which is based on self-directed activities. As parents, we are given lots of trainings and workshops on teaching our children how to be self-paced since they believe that parent involvement is very crucial in the learning process.
    Therefore, our role as parents is to support creativity by sharing our kid’s excitement as well as providing them with play and learn material. We are expected to maintain order through home organization. This can mainly be done through placing hooks and shelves for children to easily access things and put them away without our help. Another aspect would be to let kids do things their own way by expanding their horizons through common daily tasks. Independence is key to building a child’s self-esteem, therefore we as parents are expected to let children learn to take care of themselves. We are also expected to help our children connect to nature like taking them for walk in the woods. One last thing would be to teach our kids through modelling, without correcting them but rather make them aware of their mistakes in a subtle way.
    I can truly say that following their guidelines has really helped my daughter become a self-paced learner, so why don’t all schools involve parents more? Don’t you think It would make life so much easier educators if the parents use their same approach at home?

  26. Rich Kinsey says:

    This is very good. Is there an update for 2018-19 by chance?

    • Hey Rich,

      I’m just not sure what update you’re looking for. When you get a chance, let us know and we’ll try to help. Thanks!

  27. I love your blog! How will I know if HyperDocs is successful in my elementary classroom? Children love to work on computers, other than assessment, how do you hold them accountable for their work? How do you know HyperDocs is successful in your classroom?

    • Hey Kim,

      A well-designed hyperdoc will include activities that inspire curiosity and engage in critical thinking, creating and collaborating. There are just so many ways kids can show understanding of the content outside of a quiz or some sort of formal assessment. Jenn talks a lot more about hyperdocs in this post. You can also check out this website to learn more about the intent behind hyperdocs and the different ways they can be structured. Be sure to check out some of the other resources and templates that are on the site as well. I hope this helps!

  28. Taylor Bennett says:

    I am thinking about giving this a go in my 8th grade Social Studies class. My main question is how does this work with grading? Our system requires an assigned date and a due date. I am just curious how that works and maybe some tips for how to make it work for Social Studies!

    • Eric Wenninger says:

      Hey Taylor, that’s great that you’re considering giving self-paced learning a go. I think that regardless of the grading system you use or the assessments themselves, self-paced learning is still a viable option. We’re just looking at different pacing of lessons according to student needs. The key would be tying the assessments you currently use or those you create (Step 2) to a self-pacing guide (Step 3). It’s also important to give students a variety of self-check and formative assessment options before they take the final assessment, whatever that may be. For a social studies class, I think there are a variety of things you could try but one tool that might help you is a hyperdoc. You can read more about them here.

  29. Claudia Mathison says:

    Hi! I was so excited to see this–I teach high school Algebra II and we are doing something very similar to this in our upper level classes! My co-teacher and I would love to talk to Natalie if possible. We will be presenting our system at NCTM in April, and are always looking to make connections that will help us to make it better.

  30. Michelle says:

    Interesting method! I’d like to know more about how this could work for reading/language arts. I teach first grade.


  31. Chad Husting says:

    Here is my struggle with this. Science classes. Bottom line, the educational research is pretty solid that students need a hands on experience in science and there is a huge value with working in groups and gaining soft skills. I have seen self paced before and when I ask them about science, working in groups or educational research, I get a blank look from them……

  32. Linda McKee says:

    These are great ideas, but I’m having trouble wrapping my head round how ELA would look. T
    Thanks for any input!

    • Hi Linda,

      Check out the Playlist post – there are a few really good ELA examples there. Same concept. You might also take a look at the hyperdoc structure. Hope this helps!

      • Brittany Murphy says:

        Hey, I love this idea! However, when you began to implement it did you have any push back from your administration or parents? I also have a limited amount of technology for students to watch videos and Be self paced. Are there any more ideas instead of videos?

        • Hi Brittany,

          Full disclosure – I’ve been retired for 5 years and didn’t know about playlists or hyperdocs at the time, but I did provide self-paced learning opportunities that looked more like the self-paced Montessori model that Jenn shares in this post. Take a look – with limited tech options, this might work really well for you.

          As far as pushback goes, no, I didn’t experience that. I think the main thing is to first really know why you’re putting a process like this into place and to include activities/lessons that are intentional, purposeful, support the learning target(s), and can be differentiated. And be proactive. Let your administration know that you’re wanting to try this out. Share the research and why you think this would be good for your kids. Then communicate to parents this new thing you’re really excited about putting into place and why. Parents basically just want to know their kids are learning and that their needs are being met. Hope this helps!


    I’m wondering if the students that are 2 or more chapters ahead could maybe have built into their self-pacing opportunities to teach their peers that are not so far ahead or grasping the targets at a regular pace or able to get started as was described. I have observed that students often times get a more clear understanding of some of my science concepts from their peers or the “student teacher” even discovers that they have new questions themselves or need to come back for clarity but at the same time they’re enhancing their comprehension of the concepts.

  34. Corey Gordon says:

    The system that Natalie is using sounds like a well-oiled machine. I teach a grade 6/7 homeroom in British Columbia and I too organize my lessons into a self-paced/ self-directed structure. I find that if students are motivated, they will be self-regulated learners. In 2017 our curriculum underwent a massive shift from content-based learning outcomes to inquiry-based learning objectives. It really gives teachers the flexibility to deliver curriculum that is much more motivating for students. Many teachers have struggled to adapt to this, finding it hard to let go of textbooks and answer keys, but a growing number of us find this paradigm shift can be used to engage students tremendously. Personally, I find Math, Reading and Writing to be the most challenging to do this with. I still rely on “canned” lesson content as it’s just too prep intensive to do it otherwise. Also, learning outcomes are much more specific in those subjects. However, the other subjects are a different story all together. An example of a science learning outcome in the new curriculum is “Demonstrate a sustained intellectual curiosity about a scientific problem of personal interest.” I approach it like this:

    1) Model and instruct inquiry on a topic that I know motivates them. The project itself might be a poster, experiment, mini essay, scientific drawing, ect…

    2) Guide independent inquiry on whatever topic they might be interested in and help them establish a project goal. The gathering of materials for this is usually a shopping list of roughly 30 of the most random items you could imagine.

    3) Assess and provide feedback throughout the learning process.

    This is by far the most challenging piece of the puzzle. With so many brains going in so many different directions, it can be a lot for me to juggle. And let’s be honest, I’m not an expert in most of the concepts they choose. They key here is that they are truly motivated to engage in the project; motivation is everything. At that point, all learning happens organically and genuinely. It’s fun for them, and it’s fun for me (and very exhausting)

    Thanks for reading!

  35. Chris Kelley says:

    I have 2 questions. 1. Are the preassessment questions taken from the post-assessment and how long is each one? 2. If posting assignments in Google CLassroom, what does the student see for each unit?

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Hi, Chris – great questions! In the section “How Self-Paced Learning Works in Natalie’s Class,” the post talks about the pre-assessment and post-assessment process. Hopefully this helps you out. In regards to your second question, there are some other people who were curious about this same aspect in the comments. Jackie K (2015) had some great ideas, and there may be others as well!

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