Promising Instructional Initiatives and New Ed-Tech Features Set the Stage for Upcoming Studies with Collaborative Partner Colleges And Universities

College students working together

Portland State University Students learning online together.

February 14, 2022 | By Rebecca Griffiths

In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled colleges and universities to quickly move their courses online—despite evidence that students are less likely to complete and get good grades in online courses as compared to in-person learning.1 For many students, the lack of access to digital infrastructure compounds inequitable opportunities to develop the independent learning skills needed to succeed in online courses.2

The massive transition to online learning places new demands on students and faculty. Students must manage their learning process more independently, using a set of motivational, strategic and metacognitive skills we sometimes refer to as “self-directed learning”. College professors are experts in their disciplines or trades but may have little training in how to create virtual environments in which students feel supported and engaged or how to teach students skills for managing their learning. But today, I’m optimistic that technology can support better instruction in self-directed learning at scale.

Educational technologies to support instruction in self-directed learning

We all rely on technology in so many areas of our lives—to get where we’re going and know what’s happening when, to share ideas and information in the moment, and as productivity tools to manage our time. Many people also rely on technology to learn new behaviors, such as meditation or exercise routines, and to track progress on their goals, such as monitoring how many steps they took or whether they got a good night’s sleep. Similarly, in virtual environments, technology used well can be an asset in supporting students’ self-directed learning skills.

Educational technologies now have a number of features that faculty members can use to enhance their instructional strategies. And recently, the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative (the “Collaborative”) learned of several promising instructional initiatives at partner colleges and universities. We’re excited to prepare for a series of rigorous studies to help build understanding around which instructional strategies and tools best support self-directed skill-building for which students.

Instructional strategies to help students strengthen independent learning skills

Faculty can leverage the features of widely used applications to support students in applying and further strengthening self-directed learning skills. For example, instructors can:

  • Have students use tools and routines embedded in learning management systems and online homework systems and use built-in prompts to promote reflection and to integrate knowledge.
  • Create pop-up quiz questions to help students monitor their progress or assign students to use a digital note-taking tool to actively mark content areas for focused attention.
  • Assign students to use planning tools to set goals and formulate task strategies.
  • Support students to reflect on their progress by consulting learning dashboards and developing blog posts.

Outsized benefits for some students

Evidence across varied bodies of research suggests that instructional strategies focused on self-directed learning skills can be especially helpful for students from underserved backgrounds. Learning theorist Monique Boekaert (1996) argued that students need to feel safe and supported to focus their intellectual and emotional resources on learning.3 Students who worry about being negatively stereotyped may feel they don’t belong in college or in certain kinds of courses, and can be distracted from learning because of the basic need to protect themselves.

Empirical studies back up these theories. A review commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences (2017) on student development of self-directed learning skills found promising evidence that efforts focused on increasing students’ sense of belonging benefitted students in historically marginalized subgroups, including students who are their family’s first generation to attend college, minoritized students, and women.4 More research is needed about interventions to support instructional strategies related to other components of self-directed learning and to understand how these interventions can work in an integrated way.

Not surprisingly, positive relationships with online course instructors also play an important role in students’ success. In fact, one study found that the strength of instructor-student relationships was the strongest driver of online course outcomes.5 Instructors can use technology to help build personal connections and demonstrate an ethic of care. They can record brief videos to share personal stories and messages of encouragement. They can use polls and survey tools to collect information about their students to tailor topics and assignments.

Collaborative colleges and universities seek models of success to scale up

In recent conversations with the Collaborative’s nine college and university partners, we learned of numerous efforts already underway to support students in strengthening self-directed learning skills. In its research program, the Collaborative can help these institutions gain understanding and confidence in what strategies are working and for which students, and in how best to scale up and integrate these efforts across courses and departments to create more coherent student experiences. The Collaborative will also elevate effective efforts as models of what success looks like.

Educational technology developers, too, play an important role in supporting this work. Developers tell Collaborative staff that they understand the importance of supporting instruction in self-directed learning skills and are already embedding new features to help instructors guide students to plan their coursework and reflect on their progress. Other innovative concepts are still in the pipeline. We look forward to partnering with these developers to identify and test the most promising features to move the field forward.

By bringing pioneering institutions together with educational technology developers and researchers, the Collaborative aims to shed new light on pivotal questions:

  • How should faculty members use technology tools throughout an online course to support students’ self-directed learning, and what changes will we see in student learning and course completion as a result?
  • What resources do instructors need to use these strategies well?
  • How can institutions and faculty take advantage of technology to provide more equitable learning opportunities for all students?

We look forward to taking this journey together to support the success of all students.


1Altindag, D. T., Filiz, E. S., & Tekin, E. (2021, July). Is online education working? (Working Paper 29113). National Bureau of Economic Research.
2Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2013). Economics of Education Review, 37, 46–47.
3Boekaerts, M. (1996). Self-regulated learning at the junction of cognition and motivation. European Psychologist, 1(2), 100–112.
4National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. The National Academies Press.
5Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers & Education, 95, 270–284.

Tags: Equity Instructional Strategies Professional Learning Self-directed Learning Technology