7 Ways to Promote Student Autonomy in Your Classroom This Year

Classroom STEM Teaching Strategies and Tips

A major focus of my STEM certification program last year was structuring the classroom to increase student autonomy.  Why is student autonomy so important?  Here are a few reasons:

  • When students are able to make decisions in the classroom, they are more engaged.
  • Making decisions (for example, choosing lab equipment for investigations) requires higher level thinkings and promotes rigor in your classroom.
  • When students are able to work more autonomously in your classroom, their comfort with science and self-esteem increase dramatically.
  • Students that are able to work more autonomously in your classroom make your life easier.  If they are doing more, it frees you up for the most important aspects of teaching… doing things like small group instruction and assessment.

Here are 7 things that you can do to increase student autonomy in your classroom this year.

7 Ways to Promote Student Autonomy in Your Classroom

1. Establish Clear Routines

Students need to be taught how to move, work and collaborate in your classroom.  Don’t assume that they will know what you want them to do.

Here are just a few things to consider: How do you want them to enter and leave your classroom?  What should they do when they arrive?  How should they get materials?  How do they clean up?

If you want my full list of routines (along with my classroom setup recommendations) sign up for my email list at the bottom of this post.  I put together a list of everything that I wanted my students to be able to do last summer.  It is totally free and I will also send you monthly freebies!

2.Have a Warm-Up Activity

Speaking of routines… make sure that a warm-up routine is one of those things.

Last year I tried to do my warm-ups online and it just didn’t work for me.  (That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you!)  Seeing how poorly it went made me realize the power of a well-established warm-up routine. When I use my regular warm-up routine, it’s so easy that students can set it up and do it completely on their own.  

Warm Ups

A warm-up that students can do gives you the first five minutes of class to take roll, check-in with students, or take a look at the exit tickets from a previous class.

To learn more about my super simple warm-up routine, click here.

3. Use and Share a Digital Agenda

I make an agenda like the one below using Google Presentations and share it with my students.  I have them bookmark it so they can access it whenever they need it.

Google Slides Sample

At the end of the day, I take all of the extra papers and put them into a file for that course.  When students return from an absence, they can see what they missed and find it in the file.

I also post links to all of the documents.  This helps students fill them out electronically (if they would prefer to do a digital notebook), and they can use accessibility features that are embedded in their Chromebooks like increasing font size and text to speech.

This process helps keep students informed and saves me a ton of time.

Notice I also include all three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards.  This makes that connection clear for these students, but it also helps me make sure I am writing three-dimensional lessons.  An editable version of this agenda is available on my TPT store.  Click here to access it.

4. Establish Students Jobs

One of the things that I noticed when my daughter started going to school is that she always had a job in her class.

This started in kindergarten.  Her teacher rotated student jobs every week.  B got the opportunity to contribute to the classroom, and her teacher had the most well-organized, clean and well-run classroom I have ever seen.  The teacher wasn’t running around frantically cleaning up after the students, the students took responsibility for the classroom.

This was a lightbulb moment for me.  If she could take a class of 32 (yes 32!) kinders and get them to take care of the classroom, I could get my middle and high school students to do the same.

I have also included a list of the student jobs that I do in my newsletter sign-up freebie.  I ask for volunteers at the start of each month.

5. Make Equipment Accessible

As I discussed in my blog post last week, if students are expected to choose their own lab equipment (with help starting in 3rd grade) in order to Plan and Carry out Investigations, this means that they need easy access to the lab equipment.

This means that the equipment must be well-labeled, organized and accessible.  It also means that students need to have a strong understanding of how the equipment works.

One of the things that I have done to make sure that this goes smoothly in my classroom is that I have created labels for my cabinets that go into these pockets that I found in Bullseye’s Playground at Target.  I have a label for each cabinet.

Most of the time, I keep the labels for the lab equipment turned so that students can only see the back of the label.  Before the activity, I flip the label over for the equipment that I want them to have access to so that they can see what it says.  Students know that they can choose from anything with a visible label. This is an easy way to control the materials that they are able to choose from.

The labels for drawers that contain rulers and other daily use tools are always visible.  As students become more familiar with the lab equipment, I flip over more labels.  By the start of the 2nd semester, my 8th graders have mostly open access to equipment.

One of my student jobs is a lab monitor.  They are responsible for making sure that all glassware is washed and the rest of the equipment is put away at the end of the period.  This practice saves me a ton of time on lab setup and cleanup.

6. Teach Students How to Resolve Conflict

Perhaps it is because I am a middle school teacher, but it seems like conflict is inevitable.  Most of these are low-level disagreements about the distribution of labor, someone using an item that a student believe to be theirs or a miscommunication between friends.  Students can be taught how to resolve these types of conflicts.

I have this sign posted in my class.  When a minor conflict comes up in class I have students follow each part step-by-step.  It is a bit tedious, but it works really well.

Resolving a Conflict

I mediate the first few times that there is a conflict in class, but students quickly get the hang of working out their minor problems on their own.  This may be because they know that if I become involved, I will make them follow each step. (They may figure that they can resolve the conflict quicker on their own.)

Again, this procedure works well for MINOR conflicts.  If a student is being made to feel uncomfortable in any way, I get involved immediately.

7. Peer and Self Assessment

This tip will need to be its own blog post because there is so much to say.  I will try to keep it brief.

When students have the opportunity to assess each other and themselves, they learn so much.  Also, if you properly scaffold this process, they can come away with valuable feedback.

One of the ways I do this is by having students review each other’s work using the rubric that I will ultimately use to grade student work.  Students can use the rubric to identify areas that need to be worked on and provide substantive feedback.  This process is also valuable to the person providing the feedback.  As they go through each component of the rubric, they can also reflect on their own practices and see another potential method for solving the same problem.

There are a few things to note here:

  • Students should not be evaluating each other for a grade.  I like to do peer reviews in the “rough draft” phase of a project.
  • You can also assign numbers to students to anonymize the work.  Have students write their number rather than their name on their work.
  • Students will likely provide poor feedback if they don’t see the value in the task.  Make sure you explain why it is important.  You can also work in small groups with students who don’t seem to be taking the task seriously.

What are some ways that you help students increase their independence in a classroom?


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