Getting Personal with Flexible Pacing

When I was teaching, I made it personal. I saw every student as a unique individual who needed a personalized approach. It wouldn’t have been fair to my students if I didn’t. After all, how we learn and what we are interested in is personal, and part of what makes us individuals.

The concept of flexible pacing was introduced to me in grad school. It confirmed what I instinctively knew: that finding a way to help students learn at their own pace, pursue their passions and interests, and develop a sense of ownership of their work would be transformational. And during my very first year of teaching, I saw an opportunity to try it.

My 11th grade English class had a 20-year-old student repeating the grade for the third time. He sat in the back of the class and read a newspaper (yes, a newspaper) and ignored me most days. He exuded an air of boredom that infected the classroom. In that same class I had a 16 year old English Language Learner (ELL) student, who was young for his grade and eager to learn English. His desire to excel was inspiring.

I was doing both of these students a disservice by asking them to read the same book, in the same amount of time, and complete the same work projects. But when I thought about actually implementing flexible pacing, a little fear set in. It seemed impossible. How could I create opportunities for flexible pacing with 30-35 students per class and more than 150 students a day? If every student had different deadlines and assignments, how could I keep track of what they were working on?

After some reflection, and some help from colleagues, I decided to move forward with flexible pacing. Even though it would be a challenge, I knew I had to give it a try. I started small with an independent reading unit, and I let students choose novels and set target dates for reading. It was a bit of a rocky start. The students seemed uncomfortable with the freedom to choose both their novel and the pace they would read it. And I didn’t have an end goal for the reading, so the students sensed that it could be a purposeless exercise.

I realized sharing the goals of the unit up front was the key to keeping it on track. I needed to start with the end. I used Backwards Planning and Lesson Classification to determine the learning goals, the options for a final learning product, and the milestones students would need to hit along the way. It took some practice, but the more comfortable I got with this approach, the more it started to pay off for my students. They Reading Circles Resourcedeveloped the confidence to determine how to pace themselves, and take ownership of their learning.

Over the years, that reading unit evolved into Reading Circles. And I realized that flexible pacing wasn’t an “all or nothing” scenario. I could offer flexibility to the whole class, a small group, or individual students — and there was room for all of it in the classroom. Even though students were working at their own pace, I was still working with them and offering support and guidance, so I could easily keep track of what they were doing.


If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give flexible pacing a try:

  • Gauge the readiness of your students. It may be that some students are ready while others are not.
  • Decide whether the activity will be for small student work groups or individual work.
  • Use resources like  Student Choice Boards or Student Choice Menus to provide options for the pacing of the activity or the activity itself. Tie these to student interests if you can.

However you decide to start, be sure to establish expectations and guidelines up front. Encourage students to take ownership and self monitor along the way using Playlists and Progress Trackers.

Adding flexibility to your lessons is worth some additional planning. It provides a way for students to take ownership of their learning while supporting their personal growth and engagement. And I like to think it celebrates the individual learner in all of us.


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