KU Researchers Land Grant to Test App That Delivers Successful Self-Determination Method for Students with Disabilities

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This article was written by Mike Krings on September 25, 2023 and published by The University of Kansas. 


Research has shown that when students with disabilities are given ownership in their education and are involved in setting goals for themselves, they have better outcomes. Researchers at the University of Kansas who have been instrumental in developing and implementing the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction have secured funding to test a new app that delivers the proven method to students.

Joseph R. Pearson Hall

KU has been working with students with disabilities and their teachers to use the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction, or SDLMI, for more than a decade. A new five-year, $3.8 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences will allow them to test the efficacy of the Goal Setting Challenge App. Students will use the GSC app for 14 highly engaging lessons that promote self-directed goal setting during the critical period of transition from secondary school to college, careers, community living and other new phases of life.

Karrie Shogren, Ross and Marianna Beach Distinguished Professor of Special Education, director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities (KUCDD) and senior scientist at the Life Span Institute is principal investigator for the project. She said there are not many research-based apps that can engage and immediately provide feedback to students as they are setting and pursuing goals.

“One of the biggest issues in schools is often teachers having the time to implement interventions and having the training and supports to effectively use them,” Shogren said. “SDLMI was designed to be a teacher-driven intervention, and we wanted to develop the GSC app to provide teachers and schools another tool to make sure students could engage in the SDLMI and self-determination instruction.”

Valerie Mazzotti, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Special Education and affiliated faculty at KUCDD, is a co-principal investigator on the grant, and Tyler Hicks, assistant research professor and director of quantitative methods at KUCDD, is a co-investigator.

The research team will partner with Arkansas Transition Services and two cohorts of 21 high schools in the state. Approximately 85 teachers and 1,000 students will take part. A cluster randomized control trial will assign schools to use the GSC app, traditional teacher-delivered SDLMI instruction or business as usual. Students with disabilities who exit school will be followed for longitudinal examination of post-school outcomes to determine the effectiveness of the app compared with other methods. The team will also evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the GSC app.

The GSC app lessons guide students through interactive activities where they learn about self-determination, setting goals, building action plans and evaluating their progress. Students can engage with the GSC app across multiple semesters as they continue to build new goals and plans. The GSC app also contains a dashboard that allows teachers to monitor students’ progress, provide feedback and link what students are doing in the app to what they are doing in the classroom and beyond. It was designed with accessibility and universal design for learning principles, as well as culturally responsive supports and features for students with disabilities including text-to-speech, options to type or record responses and pulling responses forward to the next lesson. Teachers and students were highly engaged in the development process, which was funded with a previous IES grant.

“This project will let us look at if there are any differences when students use technology as part of the SDLMI delivery,” Shogren said. “Some students or teachers may prefer using technology, others may not, but we need to test new ways of delivering the intervention. Ultimately, the goal is to see if the GSC app works and is effective to advance transition outcomes. And, if it is successful, we want to get it out into the hands of teachers.”

The research team will analyze student outcomes including course/grade completion, GPA and standardized score tests during school and self-determination, goal attainment, graduation and dropout rates, postsecondary education enrollment and completion, and employment for post-school outcomes. They will also look at school, teacher and student characteristics and demographics that may affect outcomes. The analyses should provide more information to educators and families about how to advance self-determination and transition outcomes.

“The GSC app has the potential to provide teachers with an innovative, technology-driven tool to embed self-determination instruction into the academic day,” Mazzotti said. “We feel the app can provide an option for teachers and students to use technology to support student-directed goal setting and attainment. We are excited about this study and the opportunity to test the efficacy of the app and its impact on transition and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities.”