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Student Learning Plans Provide Motivation, Focus for College

For students who are struggling academically or don't grasp the relevance of success in school, having a plan early on that links their courses to a career goal can make all the difference. One tangible way to lay out a pathway is with a "student learning plan."

These plans are mandated in 23 states (and the District of Columbia), and legislation is pending in a handful of others in an effort to build student college and career readiness. A new policy brief out today from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a nonprofit, independent education research organization in Cambridge, Mass., explains the best strategies to implement plans and potential benefits.

With learning plans (which are increasingly done with an online tool), students can identify possible careers, explore college options, and map out the skills needed to achieve their goals. It is a way to keep students' courses aligned with their career interests and track their progress.

The report finds that learning plans have been linked to improved academic motivation, engagement, decisionmaking, and personal accountability—all things that are seen as necessary for success in postsecondary education and work.

Massachusetts is considering legislation to create an advisory group that would consider requiring school counselors to work with students from grades 6 to 12 to map out a six-year career plan. On Thursday, Alice Peische, chair of the Massachusetts State Legislature Joint Committee on Education who is sponsoring the proposal, said in a webinar that it's too late to wait until students are high school juniors to meet with a counselor to discuss the college-search process. Student learning plans also help encourage kids to take challenging coursework so they don't graduate in need of significant remedial help in college, she said.

While researchers and educators have been promoting these plans as a reform strategy to personalize the learning environment for nearly 20 years, state policymakers recently began to see them as a strategy to address gaps in students' college and career readiness. Increasingly, states are adopting mandates for plans as part of efforts to strengthen high school graduation requirements, the report says.

In reviewing plans in many states, researchers found the process worked best when there was strong school leadership behind the concept, plenty of professional development and teacher commitment, and adequate time for career-planning conversations. The process should also include assessing students' interests, tracking their activities and hobbies, and setting both short-term and long-term goals.

Jill Norton, executive director of the Rennie Center, said during the webinar that learning plans are dynamic documents that are meant to provide students with a "voice and a choice" in preparing for college and career. They are particularly useful for first-generation college students who need additional support in navigating through what can be a complex process that is not discussed in their homes, she said.

As states move forward with student learning plans, the brief encourages policymakers to learn from what has worked in established programs and develop a comprehensive implementation plan based on research.

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