Personalized Learning through Student-Led Research

Independent student research is making a comeback! After years of moving away from student-centered learning, due primarily to the over-emphasis of standardized testing, the movement toward differentiated instruction and personalized learning has reignited teachers’ interest in helping students conduct research on topics and themes that they find personally interesting and relevant.

Perhaps as the year winds down, you are looking for a resource that you could explore over the summer to help you jump-start student-led research next year. If so, consider checking out The Research-Ready Classroom: Differentiating Instruction Across Content Areas. This book, which I coauthored with friend and colleague Andy Dousis, grew out of our classroom experience leading exciting research projects with our students. Honestly, when our students were engaged in research projects, teaching was more fun than at any other time. Our students were fired up—curious and tenacious about learning—and often begged for extra work time. No joke…I had students asking to come into school on weekends to keep working on their projects!

Are you thinking about having students try a research project? Here are few tips to consider!

Help Students Choose: Make sure to help students find topics that are personally relevant, within their cognitive reach, and that fit within the scope of the theme or standards you’re teaching. Consider having students choose three possible topics and then coach them to the best fit of the three.

Directly Connect to Standards: There are tons of standards that can be embedded in research work. You may be working on a science or social studies theme and have connections there, but don’t forget speaking & listening, reading, and writing standards as well. Students will have more personal investment in working toward these standards within the context of work they love.

Share the Assessment Workload: Have students set specific goals they have for their research work and co-create an assessment checklist with them. You can each add five standards and skills to keep an eye on and use this checklist as an on-going formative assessment to help guide their work.

In our book, there are many other topics and strategies that will help you plan and facilitate great learning through student-driven research including…

  • Effective classroom organization
  • Mapping out a timeline
  • Teaching students how to ask good questions
  • Teaching research and organizational skills
  • Creating effective projects
  • Facilitating engaging presentations
  • Balancing student choice with teacher structure
  • Offering students control within the context of mandated curricula

There are many ways you might explore this resource. Concise and teacher-friendly, this book makes a great summer read. You might consider reading it with a few colleagues in a book group and try some group planning for the fall. Andy and I also each offer customized professional development on this (and many other) topics. Connect with Andy at or visit his website. You can connect with me through my site, and more specifically, check out my PD page about this topic.

  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Mike Anderson
    Leading Great Learning
    Durham, NH
    Phone: +1 413.658.7907

    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.