What You Need to Know About Self-Paced Learning


Many students can recall at least one instance of silently panicking in the classroom as a teacher thunders ahead in the lesson without a pause to take questions: staring at the chalkboard in confusion, feeling embarrassed to raise their hand, and becoming even more lost when the next chapter only compounds things not yet understood.

And yet, there’s usually at least one subject where the opposite is true, where the teacher is going over a module for the third time and the same student that struggles to keep pace in, for instance, language arts is daydreaming in math because they are ready to surge ahead.

As a parent, you may have watched this unfold in real-time in your own family—especially if you have more than one student. Maybe your eldest is a visual learner that thrived with physics demonstrations, but it just takes a quick read-through in a textbook and your youngest is an expert on the material. Doesn’t this make you wonder why education was designed to cater to the masses instead of the individual? In recent decades, this is what many educational institutions are trying to do: shift the focus from the quantity of children in the classroom to the quality of each individual school experience.

What is self-paced learning?

Simply put, a self-paced learning approach is one in which the course does not progress until the individual has a thorough grasp of the module they’re currently in. This means that one student might spend a week on a lesson that took a peer just a couple of days—and that’s OK! With self-paced learning, a student can reread or rework their material when things aren’t coming together easily.

Self-paced learning is considered to be closely synonymous with asynchronous learning, which just describes an education strategy where students aren’t expected to report to class at certain times of day on certain days of the week, rather than being confined to a classroom for eight hours a day Monday through Friday. Instead, they tune in when and where it works for them—and then, with the self-paced aspect, the material meets the student where they’re at, allowing them to take as long as they need.

Self-paced learning doesn’t change the coursework—only the approach

Parents may be uncertain of boundless learning styles because they break free from familiar traditional norms. However, it’s not the academics at self-paced institutions that change. Instead, students are given the power to choose how much material they consume in a given setting and where that setting takes place.

With self-paced learning, students face less pressure to “keep up.” They are expected to not only absorb but process and understand the same amount of information within a 40-minute class period as their peers —no more, no less. When a student is following a learning schedule set by someone else, especially someone with zero insight into that particular student’s strengths and weaknesses, they are under pressure to keep pace with their classmates even if they are being challenged too much or not enough.

Does this mean that all self-paced learners will graduate early? Not necessarily. For some, it certainly opens up that possibility, while for others it’s a sigh of relief that there’s no calendar confinement to their schooling. For others yet, it might be a wash between the classes they soar ahead in and the ones they take longer to master, and they graduate perfectly on time. That’s the beauty of individualized learning.

Autonomous approach caters to different learning styles

When students, parents, and teachers can collaborate to decide the approach that best benefits each individual learner, unique learning styles flourish. And since some experts suggest there are as many as 170 different learning styles, creating space for each child’s best approach is important! We certainly aren’t going to make you read through 170 bullet points, but here are eight widely-accepted learning styles:

  • Visual (spatial) learning, where students best respond to visual aids like graphs or color-coding
  • Aural (audio) learning, which explains students that retain information presented through music, rhyme, or audiobooks
  • Physical (tactile) learning, also described as “hands-on” or “learning by doing”
  • Verbal (linguistic) learning, where learners prefer obtaining information through language whether spoken or written—such as group discussions, role-play, or presentations
  • Logical (analytical) learning, which caters to those who prefer inference and interpretation, problem-solving, facts, and reasoning
  • Social learning, where students thrive on learning alongside others in group participation
  • Solo learning, which describes students that absorb material best when studying alone. Such as through journaling or individual projects

What makes self-paced learning’s role so important is that these learning styles are not mutually exclusive; a student can have characteristics of multiple with some being more prevalent than others, and they may also exhibit one learning style more strongly in one subject but a different learning style in another.

Retention, memory, and more: The many benefits of self-paced learning

In addition to taking ownership of their learning trajectory and moving at their own pace, self-paced education may be instilling lasting skills in the way students process information from the world around them.

Without hurriedly keeping up with a class that’s moving too quickly or losing interest because of an under-stimulating program, it’s more likely that a student will retain information without the sensation of cramming only to info-dump later. They develop a more explorative method of thinking and grasp the importance of understanding a subject thoroughly—to the point of being able to identify problems, understand and explain solutions, and elaborate on context. This concept is known as mastery-based learning and is closely related to self-paced learning in that students are in the driver’s seat of their school progress.

Rest assured, this doesn’t mean that your child is learning alone. Students in online schools like Laurel Springs School receive individualized feedback from their teachers—who are still on the lookout for signs of a student in academic distress, even if that student isn’t right in front of them in a classroom—and are still at liberty to seek elaboration and guidance.