Student Life

From self-directed high school to university

How I learned to take responsibility for my education and choose my own path by enrolling in a self-directed high school program.

Oct 5, 2017

At the end of junior high, I got to make my first major decision about my education – where to attend high school. I remember feeling a lot of pressure to go to the school that all of my junior high friends were going to, even though that school didn’t appeal to me at all. Thankfully, I went to some other open houses and found a school that seemed like a way better fit for me. It had so many options, it was a beautiful school, and best of all: it was self-directed.

What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed? What does that even mean? Well, a self-directed school program means that you decide which classes to take, when to do your work, and when to take your tests. Instead of moving class-to-class all day, you only attend classes when needed. Some classes happened really regularly (like Math), while others happened only occasionally (like English). Every morning, you’d plan what you were going to do that day and get it approved by your teacher advisor (kind of like a homeroom teacher). After that first check in, you’d literally be on your own and expected to follow through with your plan.

For me, finding a self-paced school was the best thing that could have happened to me. When I was in junior high, I often couldn’t pay attention in class, and was really bad at doing homework. I also disliked the social dynamics of a standard classroom. Once I was in high school, I discovered the value of writing things down and making plans. I started feeling engaged in my education, and actually felt like I was learning for the first time in my life.

Another plus to self-directed learning was that I could avoid the feeling of forced social dynamics – not only did I get to pick my classes, I got to pick my friends!

How I became a skillful learner

My high school had a lot of students, and I have to say – self-directed learning was not smooth for everyone. I knew people who were attempting to finish nine core courses in their last semester of grade 12, and friends who needed to go back for a fourth year of high school. Self-directed learning definitely requires some skills to make it through, at least with minimal stress. Here are my top tips for succeeding as a self-directed student:

  1. Use your day planner! I would write down all of the school things I needed to do each day, as well as any non-school things that I planned on doing as well. If I could see that I had a lot of concerts and parties coming up on the weekend, I knew I needed to do a bit more work at school or at home during the week to fit in everything I wanted to.

  2. Do what you hate first. I really dislike math, so I signed up to do all three grades of math before I even started grade 12. The result was a nearly stress-free grade 12 year, and extra time to finish math courses that I would not have had if I’d left it to the last minute.

  3. Try to stay balanced. When I chose hard classes that I knew I wouldn’t like, I tried to pair them up with ones that I would enjoy, or ones that I found easy.

  4. Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes there were things I just couldn’t grasp – at these times I would seek out extra help from peers, teachers, or the internet to get me through.

  5. Understand what responsibility means. Being in a self-directed program meant being responsible for my education. I had to understand that if I told my teacher that I was working on English but then went the mall instead, no one would be impacted but me.

How self-directed high school prepared me for university

Going from a self-directed high school into post-secondary was a fairly smooth transition for me. I found that the skills I’d learned transferred well into university, though sometimes I had to modify those skills. For example, instead of high school modules I’d get a university course syllabus that outlined the entire semester’s worth of coursework, so I’d break down my syllabus at the start of the semester so my brain could see my coursework in smaller sections.  

I took two valuable lessons with me from high school to university: I can choose my own education path, and I am responsible for myself.

In university, there was a point where I felt like I couldn’t sign up for any interesting elective courses (kind of similar to options). Even though it looked like there was no way around it, I spent time talking to teachers, looking at alternative options online, and advocating for my education choices.

In the end, I was able to enroll in three electives that interested me way more than the ones originally laid out for me! This success tied in with my belief that I am responsible for myself, as well as the self-directed skills I developed in high school. By focusing on my own learning I was able to do well, seek out unique experience, and ultimately make the most of my courses.  


Social Work
University of Calgary

I used to have a lot of self doubt, but once I started trusting my gut and taking chances I discovered my passion and potential.

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