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5 Ways to Help Students Get the Most Out of Individual Learning Plans

The individual learning plans students create go by many names. No matter what you call it, here are 5 ways to make sure students benefit most from them.

Katie Fang

Jun 20, 2020

Career and Academic Plans or Individual Learning Plans (generally referred to as ICAPs or ILPs) are being instituted in states nationwide. While they take slightly different forms and have different names (High School and Beyond, Individual Career and Academic Plan, Personal Graduation Plan, Career Plan, Individual Learning Plan, Focused Plan of Study … I could go on), if crafted thoughtfully and implemented properly they can serve as valuable roadmaps to help students contextualize their high school experience and provide counselors a framework to individualize their guidance. Ideally, through creating an ICAP or ILP a student will gain a fundamental understanding of:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I going?
  • How will I get there?
ICAPs are designed to help students create alignment between their passions, career ambitions, high school studies, and postsecondary pathway goals. For these plans to be impactful on students (and deliver tangible success metrics for schools and districts), thoughtful planning is essential. Otherwise, districts run the risk that ICAPs become treated as yet another compliance activity that has to get done (and will ultimately be forgotten about and dismissed!).

Here are 5 strategies to maximize value during the creation and implementation of Career and Academic Plans with your students.

1. Utilize Engaging and REAL Self-Assessments

Career interest inventories are a core component of almost every ICAP and go to the core question of “Who am I?”. The goal: help students discover themselves, their interests, and their personalities so they can explore career goals, determine a career cluster of focus, and align their coursework accordingly. There are lots of self-assessment tools (career interest inventories or career cluster assessments) out there, but many are dry, dull, and produce results that are challenging to interpret and not particularly relatable for teenagers - a group not exactly renowned for their attention spans. Grid views of your MBTI breakdown - whether you’re INTJ-A or INTJ-T - may be interesting for some, but chances are it’s not going to mean much to a student. Additionally, students need to be invested in the process … yet another multiple choice “exam” isn’t going to move the needle in terms of engagement.

Utilize inventory assessments that:

  • Have an entertaining component to them and even mimic a social media type experience (we’re dealing with teenagers, after all).
  • Produce relatable results that can be easily interpreted. Simple, concise, and straightforward.
  • Guide students further along on the path of self-discovery and makes targeted recommendations for career clusters to explore.
Once the results are in, encourage students to look over the results on their own through the lens of “Does this sound like me?” Reassure them that you have the results as well and you’re ultimately going to talk through them together and collaborate on a plan of action.

2. Meaningful Career Conversations

The beauty of a successfully implemented ICAP is that it not only serves as a graduation roadmap for a student, it also provides a framework for counselors to individualize their guidance. After a student has completed their career interest inventory and had a chance to review the results themselves, it’s our job to help them put the results into context and suggest career clusters to explore. Our challenge is to proactively help students filter their way through career-related components of the ICAP so that all parties feel comfortable and confident when goals are finalized and formalized. How do we do this?

  • With each student, quickly summarize their career interest inventory results to see if everyone is the same page. Ex: “Jenny, these results seem to confirm what I already knew about you. You’re someone who is (x, y, and z), and you’d most likely thrive in a career that involves (a, b, and c). Does this sound right to you?”

At this point, if your student completely disagrees or feels that the results are not a good representation of themselves, ask why. Suggest they take the assessment again (or try another assessment), but if it ultimately comes down to assessment results vs. a student’s own gut instinct about themselves, trust the student. You’ll always be fighting an uphill battle for buy-in if you’re going against a student’s own intuitions and dreams.

  • Suggest career clusters to explore! Be as specific as you can, and include a layer of accountability: “Jenny, here are three career clusters I’d like you to read about and explore. When we get back together in two weeks, I’d like you to have filled out this document about specific opportunities that stand out to you within these clusters so we can work together to hone in on a pathway that’s really going to excite you!”

  • Once a student is excited about a particular career cluster, guide them to explore careers and conduct research on several key statistical categories:

    • Current and future job openings - nationally, by state, and locally
    • Average salary expectations by state
    • Salary expectations compared to the career cluster
    • Minimum education requirements
In all your conversations, be relatable, vulnerable, reassuring, and don’t forget to challenge your students when appropriate. The personal and career discovery journeys are just that - journeys. Students will get stuck, they will doubt themselves, and they will completely change their minds and reverse course. Remind them this is all normal and this is ok. Say things like, “The goal is for you to create a focused pathway, it’s not uncommon to change your mind and I’m here to support you.” Share experiences from when you were a student’s age and your own journey of discovery. On the flip side of the coin, there will be some students who are so determined about their area of focus that it’s appropriate to challenge them. Ask “why” … do it repeatedly, and be sure your students can justify why they want to be on a particular pathway.

3. Engage Community Partners in Mentorship Opportunities

Career exploration and goal setting is core to most ICAPs, and it’s critical that students are exposed to different pathways and different voices. Be bold and invite local business leaders to engage with your students - you’ll often be surprised at how receptive and eager they can be to help. Even better - encourage your students to reach out, and make sure you’ve got a specific request in mind. Often a career fair or an information night is a good place to start. From there you can keep the conversation going and foster a deeper, lasting partnership.

  • Come up with a list of community business partners that you either have an existing relationship with or would like to form a relationship with.

  • Craft an outreach email with students

  • Assign specific partners to certain students to reach out and nurture relationships

  • Create “relationship files” for various community partnerships, and encourage students to be the driving force to maintain connections
The more we can connect students to authentic career exploration, the more we will broaden their horizons so they can set informed, specific goals that they can connect with, remember, and strive toward.

4. Utilize Interactive Course Planning to Explore Simulations

Comprehensive, four year course plans are a core component of most ICAPs and ILPs, and it’s critical to have students invested in the course planning process with full visibility of their options. Manual planning with PDF documents and spreadsheets can be dull, confusing, labor intensive, and scattered. Using a digital tool (that’s directly aligned with your course catalog) can empower students to quickly create a variety of simulations for how they can achieve their graduation goals. This visibility and flexibility will, in turn, engage students in the process like never before. The benefits of electronic course planning are significant:

  • One of the top reasons that students don't graduate is that their course plans don’t properly align with their interests. They have not properly explored their options, and they will change courses / pathways for reasons that could have been avoided.
  • Allows students to backwards plan. Determine goals - plan accordingly.
  • Simple checking process to ensure plan satisfies graduation requirements and college requirements (if 4 year path).
  • Enhance counselor bandwidth. With students driving a process that makes it easy to evaluate completion and accuracy, counselors have more time to individualize their guidance and make targeted recommendations.

5. Keep Plans Visible!

Like any goal setting activity, ICAPs and ILPs need to be visible and accessible to students. The plan should be the foundation for most counselor-student meetings, and it should be the benchmark when evaluating student progress, growth, and development. Here are some concrete steps you can take to keep these plans visible and align relevant stakeholders to ensure accountability:

  • Make sure guardians understand what the plan means, its purpose, and the specifics of their individual student’s plan.
  • Refer to ICAPs and ILPs in conferences and meetings.
  • Ask students how the work they’re doing in their specific classes is bringing them closer to the goals laid out in their plan.
  • Encourage students to print them out or save a PDF version to the desktop of their device.
  • Ensure that you have a digital repository of student plans that are accessible to relevant faculty / staff on other teams.

Remember: any plan is only as good as how committed one is to seeing its execution come to fruition. Whatever you do, make sure a Career and Academic Plan isn’t something that is just completed for the sake of completion and then ignored. Like any roadmap, you’re only going to reach your destination if you are aware of the route you’re taking!

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