Why Should I Use Self-Paced Learning?

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Unit overview

The purpose of this unit is to introduce you to some of the fundamental concepts underlying self-paced (SP) learning, as well as offer reasons why it may be an effective tool for content delivery. You should finish this unit understanding the perceived advantages of the SP approach, as well as focusing on those benefits that are most appropriate to the courses you are teaching.

Activity: what's my motivation?

Activity overview

Presumably, your decision to take this course means that you are hoping to make some changes in your teaching approach. Let's consider now what some of your reasons for taking the course might be. Open a word processor or a text-editor (Word, Notepad, or Textpad are fine) and create a new document titled "Current self-assessment". Next, complete the following sentence: "My current approach to delivering instructional content to my students is... ". Try to write a few sentences that explain the reasoning behind this approach.

Example: "My current approach to delivering instructional content to my students is to use the in-class lecture, because it is the best way of ensuring that each student receives the same body of material at the same time."

Identifying what works

Now make a bulleted list containing at least 4-5 aspects of your current content delivery technique that you feel are effective.


  • Lectures can be carefully planned in advance
  • Content can be easily recorded for future use

Identifying areas of concern

Finally, make a second bulleted list, this one containing at least 3 aspects of your current technique that are not working as well.


  • Students with different learning styles may not adapt as easily
  • Students feel low/no ownership of the overall direction of the class.

What is self-paced learning?

Self-paced (SP) learning is an approach to content delivery that attempts to give students the ability to progress through a body of material at their own speed, rather than at a rate determined in advance by the teacher. The fundamental idea underpinning SP learning is that students are all unique, and must therefore process the course material differently. Rather than having each student absorb a different quantity of a fixed body of knowledge in an identical time frame, we construct the unit so that the amount of knowledge absorbed is the same for each student, but the time dimension is allowed to vary.

The SP model is not new; in fact, it was developed by Keller in the early 1960s and called the Personalised System of Instruction. This model consisted of several fundamental principles:

(a) students proceeded through the course at their own pace;
(b) students were required to demonstrate mastery of each component of the course before proceeding to the next, although summative assessment was still provided by means of a final examination;
(c) the teaching materials and other communications between teachers and students were largely text-based;
(d) 'proctors' provided tutorial support and assessed the achievement of students on individual components of the course; and
(e) lectures and demonstrations were intended to motivate students rather than to deliver core course content.
(Hambleton, p. 189)

Advantages of using SP learning

Customizing learning paths

Each student has a unique set of learning skills and prior knowledge that he or she brings to a course. Rather than arbitrarily setting the bar at a certain level and forcing students to "catch up" to that point at a given time, SP learning allows the curriculum to adapt to the students, so that they can progress through the material at their own rate.

Eliminating knowledge gaps

Because SP learning has enforced gateway assessments at the end of each unit, students are forced to fill in any gaps in their understanding, building a more solid base of knowledge. Too often in traditional courses, teachers are in a hurry to get to the next topic, and students are left with a shaky understanding of the prerequisite units that they need to understand new material. With the time dimension allowed to float, students can take as long as they need to master each unit.

Increasing student ownership of learning

SP curriculum units by definition require more student ownership of learning, since the students are usually required to read and absorb the material of the unit rather than have it transmitted to them via lecture. When the external pressure of time is removed, it forces students to have a greater internal motivation and a solid personal organizational system so that they can complete the material adequately.

Adaptable to asynchronous learning environments

In today's changing educational landscape, the traditional in-class lecture is only one possible model for content delivery. Advances in technology, especially through the Internet, have allowed for online courses to grow and flourish. One of the advantages of using the SP model in these circumstances is that the Internet, by nature, supports asynchronous communication (like e-mail and discussion boards) better than real-time communication (like voice chat).

Activity: identifying focus areas

Activity overview

Now that you've learned a little bit about how SP learning works, and the advantages it can offer to a classroom environment, you need to consider your own teaching situation and determine which aspects of the model are most important to you.

Identifying focus areas

Re-open the document that you created for the introductory activity. Look at the list of concerns that you created at the end of that activity. Choose the one (or possibly two) most pressing concerns for you, and highlight them in bold. (If your editor does not support bold, highlight them with in some other way, such as putting asterisks or parentheses around them.)

Prioritizing benefits

Take the following itemized list of benefits and copy them into your planning document. Then rearrange them so that they are in decreasing order of importance, with the most important item at the top. This will help you when you start to plan your units, so that you can decide which aspects of the SP model you want to include or omit.

Next steps