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Approaches to Personal Learning

Personal Learning in practice | Autonomous learning across the pre-task, on-task and reflection phases | Phase 1: Pre task | Phase 2: On task | Phase 3: Reflection | Reflections on teaching Personal Learning | Show All

Personal Learning in practice

Students need to develop a sense of themselves as learners and develop the knowledge and skills to manage their own learning. As they do this, they move from being supported learners to autonomous learners. Becoming autonomous, or self-regulating, implies the use of strategies prior to, during and after the completion of tasks. The development of personal learning skills and behaviours involves the use of challenging questions such as ‘How do I prefer to learn?’ and ‘What can I do to improve my learning?’.

The following figure identifies the phases and processes of self-regulated learning, including specific processes prior to task engagement, during task performance and as part of reflection following task completion. It incorporates the two dimensions within the Personal Learning domain: The individual learner and Managing personal learning.

Autonomous learning across the pre-task, on-task and reflection phases

Autonomous learning across the pre-task, on-task and reflection phases

Although the above figure identifies three discrete phases of autonomous learning, there are many areas of overlap. Some key questions for students to ask themselves are outlined below. Further questions for each process followed. They are a guide only: some may need to be modified, depending on students’ abilities.

Key questions

Each of these questions is considered below.

Phase 1: Pre task

It is important for teachers and students to recognise the diversity of ability and learning styles within any classroom. Some students may be competitive and be motivated by recognition for achievements, others may prefer to think quietly and work alone, while others may be non-participants. Within any classroom, there will be students who work best in the morning, others in the afternoon; some who are impulsive, others who are reflective; some who like small groups, others who enjoy working in large groups.

The literature identifies visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles. Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple’ intelligences is currently having a significant impact on education as teachers and researchers consider how knowledge of intelligence and thinking styles can affect teaching and learning preferences. While some students might be identified as having a particular ‘intelligence’, a range of other factors can have an impact on student learning. Teachers and students need to consider the influence of context and teaching style, and the student’s family, culture, personality, emotions and motivation on learning preferences.

Within the context of proven learning strategies and principles already in use within the classroom and school, teachers can provide opportunities for students to learn about how they learn.

A key question for awareness of learning preferences is ‘How do I prefer to learn?’ Related questions are:


Intrinsic motivation, where students value learning and strive for mastery by developing strategies to persist and avoid distraction, is a major goal of education. Students may also engage in tasks because they are extrinsically motivated, wanting, for example, to receive rewards and praise, or to avoid punishment.

Questions for students to consider in learning to understanding their motivation are:


Students can use their knowledge of learning strategies and preferences to set goals and plan for the time and effort required to achieve a task. Planning requires development of organisational skills and behaviours. Time management and planning skills can be taught within the classroom as base skills for autonomous learning. A key question for planning is ‘What is important?’ Related questions are:

Phase 2: On task

Monitoring and adaptation
Students constantly monitor what they are doing in response to a learning task. When they are on task they are able to reflect on the success of their learning skills and behaviours. The key questions for monitoring are ‘What’s working for me?’ and ‘What didn’t work?’ Related questions include:

During a task a number of critical junctures (such as an obstacle, problem, critical or interesting incident) may be encountered that require learners to reset goals, manage motivation and to make adaptations, including new strategies, to continue their progress. The key question here is ‘What critical incidents occurred?’ Related questions include:

When on task, students need to remain focused and in control of their learning. Autonomous learners are self regulating: they engage with a task by setting goals, selecting effective and efficient strategies, and monitoring their progress. Autonomous learners take a proactive role in their learning, using their initiative, perseverance and adaptive skills. They are aware of learning principles and strategies and their own learning practices, including the capacity to remain focused on the task.

The key question for focus is ‘What do I need to do to finish this task?’ Related questions include:

Students need to constantly rehearse and practise learning strategies and behaviours. Planning, focus, monitoring and reflection should become routine behaviours for autonomous learners.

Phase 3: Reflection

Self evaluation
Self evaluation involves students using reflection questions as an analytical tool to support their learning and inform their future actions. Self evaluation allows students to make sense of their activity and orient themselves for ongoing success. The key question for self evaluation is ‘How successful was I?’ Related questions are:


Resilience refers to the positive adaptations a student makes to adverse aspects of a task. Two important aspects of resilience are the student’s perceived reasons for poor performance on a learning task and their capacity to improve. (Was it bad luck, a full moon, or a disorganised teacher? Or did students have a poor understanding of the task, make little effort or a messy presentation?) Students who attribute success or failure to factors that they believe they can change or influence are more likely to respond positively to feedback. The capacity to adapt to different contexts and feedback from peers, parents and teachers is a key part of being a resilient learner.

Other components of resilience are learning from inevitable mistakes and failures, taking risks, optimism and being creative. While an important part of learning includes rehearsal, practice and routine, a counterpoint is provided by experimentation, trial-and-error and creativity. Also, when students are faced with a stalled task, optimism and an innovative approach are often required to restart the project.

A key question for building resilience is ‘What can I do to improve my learning and/or performance?’ Related questions are:

Reflections on teaching Personal Learning

The following reflections were written by two teachers who worked with the VCAA during 2008 to develop a unit of work focusing on Personal Learning. They then trialed this activity in their classes to obtain annotated work samples to form part of the Personal Learning assessment map.

Jenni Whiffin

Jenni Whiffin

Grade 3 teacher
Glen Iris Primary School

At the end of July this year I was asked if I would be interested in working with the VCAA to develop student work samples for the Personal Learning Assessment Map. Being a third year graduate teacher, I was excited to participate for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would help me to develop a greater understanding of the VELS Personal Learning domain and develop my professional learning and teaching practices on assessment to support student outcomes. Secondly, it would give me the opportunity to work with the VCAA and develop collegiate networks.

The focus for the project was goal setting and The individual learner dimension.  However, as I discovered, some of the work students completed could also be used to assess the Managing personal learning dimension.

I developed five steps in order to complete the goal setting process. The first step, which took three sessions, was to ask students to do an analysis and reflection of their preferred learning style to help students discover/realise how they like to learn. This involved the students completing a Learning preference survey and class discussions about the type of learning environment that suits our class. Part of the class discussions raised the connection between how our behaviour impacts on our learning and the learning of others. The multiple intelligences student survey can be found at: http://depts.gallaudet.edu/TIP/manual/tutors/MIChecklist.pdf

The second step was for students to write a reflection of their achievements in 2008 and what they still wanted to achieve this year. This was important so that students realised how much they had achieved already.  It also gave them ideas for goals they might like to work towards.

The third step moved on to setting goals. One of the most important parts of the project that I found was the explicit teaching of how to set goals. We had a class discussion of what a goal is and how, if we have a big goal, it can be overwhelming and we don’t know where to start.  I used an example of wanting to become an AFL footballer.  As a class, we made a list of what skills were needed.  We chose one skill (to become better at marking the ball) and broke that down even further. This took one teaching session.  In another session we discussed setting our own learning goal.  On a piece of paper, students wrote down their goal and how this goal would help their learning, then checked with me to make sure it wasn’t too big.  They then attempted to break down how they would achieve that goal.  I then worked with each student to help them set a goal and break it down into achievable steps. I used a ladder as a visual aid to assist in the process. The students responded very well to this particular visual aid.

In another session, I asked them: “What is your behaviour like in this classroom? How should you behave?” We repeated the process outlined above. Students now had two goals – one work goal and one behaviour goal. An example of this was one student indicated she needed to speak up during class discussions. This was not only related to volume but in fact her participating in large and small group discussions.

The fourth step was to give students time to work on their goals. Their work goals were generally completed in their own time. Students kept their goal booklets in their bags so that, if they wanted to, they could work on their goals at home. About two to three times a week I would ask to see students’ goal booklets and, if needed, give them work such as practice sheets or advice on how to achieve each step. If a student thought they had reached a goal, they would check with me. If they had, they received a reward, which was chosen by them.

The fifth step was for students to do an analysis and reflection of how they were going with their goals. They completed a Force field analysis of what created success and prevented growth. Students then answered some reflection questions. This was an important step, as it encouraged children to think about the goals they had set. For example, if they achieved a goal quickly, was it challenging enough? If they had not achieved a goal yet, was it because they just needed more time or was it because they really did not want to achieve that particular goal?

Students really enjoyed the goal setting process. Most were really motivated to achieve their goals and were always letting me know when they were doing well. A handful of students were not motivated to achieve their goals for a number of reasons such as:

I found class discussions where students shared their goals and the strategies they were using to work towards them were important in providing examples and ideas for those struggling with their goals. It also provided an opportunity to discuss how sometimes a strategy does not work or some goals are too big or not really achievable.

I presented this process to my school during a PD session.  I have since had a number of teachers’ comment that they are going to use this process and give me feedback on how they are going.  The process is also going to be used when the school is developing their Learning to learn unit at the beginning of the year.

My class is continuing with the goal setting process. Some changes I have made are to give students small rewards each time they achieve a step towards their goal. We have discussed that other people can help them achieve their goals and are putting more specific time limits on each step.

Taking part in this project has given me a clearer understanding of the Personal Learning domain and The individual learner and Managing personal learning dimensions. It has made me realise how important explicit teaching of the goal setting process is. I now have student work samples as evidence which I can use more confidently to assess the students’ achievements.

I am looking forward to seeing what other goals my students achieve this year and starting the process again with a new class from the start of the year in 2009.

Jenni Whiffin

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Steve Harvey

Level 3 Teacher
Kilsyth Primary School

I recently became involved in a project requiring a couple of Level 3 teachers to undertake some explicit teaching and assessment in The individual learner dimension of the Personal Learning domain.

For the first time this year, Victorian government schools have had to assess students on standards in Personal Learning. Teachers are now required to report against those standards and be accountable to their students and parents for their professional judgements. It will not be enough to largely mirror the results from the Managing personal learning dimension; there are plenty of students out there who can organise their resources and get their tasks completed in a timely manner, who still have no idea of what they need to be doing today to make themselves a better learner tomorrow.

For all intents and purposes, the explicit teaching and assessment to be undertaken would be a ‘vehicle’ for the VCAA to produce work samples or interview ‘sound bites’ which would be moderated, annotated, and then used to further populate the Assessment Maps resource on the Victorian Essential Learning Standards website

While some annotated work samples are already available online for The individual learner dimension at the progression points around Level 3, there was very little in place to help teachers make consistent and valid decisions about how well their students are able to address the Level 3 standard of: “… make and justify some decisions about their learning and, with support, set learning improvement goals”. Our ‘mission’ was to fill that void.

Interestingly, I went in to the project with very little expectation of what it offered me professionally. Personally however, competitive sport has always been a massive part of my life. As a junior sportsperson, I had dealings with a sports psychologist whose ‘gift’ was to teach athletes how to use the practical strategies available to them in the pursuit of continuous ‘PB’ (Personal Best) performances. Here was my chance, THE chance, to pass on some of what I had learned at that time to my students, by building and presenting a sequence of lessons based on: where they are now (primarily as learners, but also as people, as athletes, musicians, artists…), where they want to be, and how to best manage the compelling forces that will both help and hinder them along the journey.

For about six weeks leading into the end of Term 3, my students and I ‘officially’ visited and re-visited the project once, maybe twice per week. Informally however, it was much more often than that. We started with simple self assessment surveys where the students rated themselves on their existing competencies and qualities in terms of the effort and attitude they were willing to dedicate to the cause. We also did a survey to rate how each of us handled failure. So my baseline data armed me with a strong feel for whose learning fuse was already lit, and whose was at most risk of being snuffed out at the first fork in the road.

The thing that stood out to me most is that students are really quite good – naturally – at the ‘setting the goal’ bit. Ask many of them how they are going to achieve it however, and they tend to glaze over in disappointment: “What! You mean I actually have to sacrifice time and effort to this thing!?! Hmph”. So early on, my explicit teaching revolved around how to make our goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited.

Some of the students just ‘got it’ – the squad swimmer to whom PB’s were daily targets, the budding businessman who already had financial goals for his home chores … They knew what they needed to achieve, by when, how to use what they already knew, and who and what they would use to get to their target. Some of the students could – with assistance - put the ‘plan’ together, but didn’t have the self discipline to maintain their work-rate or focus. Others did, and moved swiftly on to bigger and better goals. Some of the students… I’m still working with! The results have been as mixed as you would expect from any class or lesson.

There are plenty of things that I will do differently next time. It occurred to me halfway through this first effort that Dr Seuss’s book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, is a terrific means of linking such a program to the classroom in a way that the students can enjoy and relate to, and so that it didn’t feel like something that had been ‘tacked on’. That will be my starting point in 2009.

For the time being however, I know that the students in my class have had the unambiguous opportunity to demonstrate their learning in an area of the curriculum that, for the first time, must now be reported against. I can report against it with confidence, and the students have a head-start on a self-improvement strategy that many adults in society can’t or don’t use.

With their work or their face on the world wide web, a few of my students may even feel like they’re famous!

Steve Harvey


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