At this point in the school year, gifted students may just now be learning new content in core curriculum, which may stimulate new interests for potential intensive study. The option of independently pursuing such areas of study may become available to them in school. Gifted students enjoy having independence to delve into focused reading that expands their interests and leads to self-directed opportunities. Independent study is an excellent strategy to use with gifted students because it provides a sense of ownership with their learning experiences and motivates them to pursue passions that are meaningful to them. Gifted students also love that they are not confined to specified topics and products but are given academic freedom and are trusted to take responsibility on their own learning path.
As much as independent study is a fantastic strategy to use, there are myths for the facilitating adults to be aware of when implementing this strategy in a heterogenous classroom environment.
If you are interested in implementing independent study for gifted students, keep in mind the myths listed below so that you can create a supportive, challenging experience where students can grow and self-regulate their learning behaviors.
One of the most important factors to consider with the implementation of independent study in the classroom is the integration of accountability between the teacher and student and with the student and the amount of new learning that takes place. Although gifted students will seem motivated to begin an independent study, they will need a road map and explicit directions or procedures to follow to ensure that it is a learning experience that meets their needs and not an unproductive use of time. One of these accountability measures include once- or twice-a-week student conferences with the teacher to evaluate the progress of work. Offering a contract for independent study that provides checkpoints is another way to build in accountability as it allows the teacher and student to discuss next steps, areas of frustration, and acknowledge steps that are complete. Working on setting goals for each phase of the independent study process is another way to measure productivity because it provides students a defined path to follow. Finally, another powerful way to build accountability with student learning is to provide self-reflection/assessment opportunities to evaluate learning and product outcomes and areas for growth.
It is true that gifted students are capable of engaging in complex and creative thinking more easily than the average learner and thrive in environments where they can flex these skills; however, it should not be up to the gifted learner to sail the seas of learning without direction or higher-level learning goals. When the strategy of independent study is used with gifted learners, teachers should collaborate with them to discuss product options that will solve problems for current challenges or have real-world applications. Guiding students through these thinking processes is the “new” content for gifted learners that teachers should prepare and purposefully plan into mini-lessons. If gifted students are left to manage their learning experiences, student products may result in glorified PowerPoints that report on the topic, rather than showcase creative abilities to problem solve. Integrate short mini-lessons with opportunities for convergent and divergent instruction and the guidance will result in astonishing culminating products that will amaze you!
A major component of independent study is the use and practice of research skills. Research is an area that gifted students of all ages struggle with because they love to learn about the topics of interest but may not know how to analyze or evaluate collected information for trends or themes, identify gaps in existing data or information, or conduct primary research data collection methods, such as surveys, interviews, or observations. These advanced research skills are areas of new learning that gifted students need explicit guidance in when implementing independent study options. With guidance and purposed research support, gifted students can maximize their learning experiences when engaging in their content of choice first-hand.
Independent study can be a life-changing experience if appropriate support is given to gifted students. These supports include integration of accountability methods, individualized mini-lessons to grow research needs and creative/critical thinking, and social/emotional instructional support to cope with challenges.
Begin with quick mini-lessons or learning opportunities to build skill with purposeful web browsing, the authenticity of sources, and how to determine importance of content. Once gifted students are comfortable with these steps, more autonomy with appropriate teacher checkpoints will provide the instructional freedom gifted students value the most.