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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Independent Study

Most of us have had Jane in our class. Shes focused. She learns fast~ finishes her work early.

Shes a good sport~ willing to help other students in class. She runs errands. She completes enrichment worksheets.

But if were honest with ourselves as educators~ the question becomes:

What do we do with her?

One answer is the independent study project. It is a fantastic method to challenge even the most advanced learner or gifted child. And once you master the steps~ it is relatively easy to implement.

This school year~ I have dedicated myself to mastering this process. In my situation~ which involves working within general education classrooms with gifted students~ it is the perfect vehicle for getting students to exercise their intellectual abilities and creative talents. But the project works equally well for classroom teachers~ who want to challenge higher-level performers. Students can work on the project when they finish their regular assignments~ or better yet~ after being pre-tested for upcoming curriculum to demonstrate mastery of the material.

In this blog~ I am going to lay out the steps~ along with suggestions for each step~ to successfully utilize the independent study project. However~ before I do~ let me summarize the project and its purpose. The independent study project involves a student selecting a topic of intense interest~ researching and becoming an expert in that topic~ creating an authentic product based on what he or she has learned~ and finally~ sharing that product with a real audience for the purpose of having an intended impact.

For example~ one of my students was fascinated with rubies. She studied rubies and where they came from~ their price~ their role in jewelry making etc. She also interviewed a local jewelry designer~ who started her own collection~ and learned the steps for creating her own line. The designer also gave her the idea of holding an exhibit to market her collection~ which~ along with the jewelry collection~ became the students product.

Since the jewelry was designed for young people~ the student decided to hold the exhibit in the schools cafeteria~ which meant she had an appropriate audience for her product. Of course~ along the way~ the student received guidance and feedback from her teacher~ but this generally illustrates an effective independent study project.

Presented below is a more detailed explanation of the process.

Planning Stage:

Help the student identify a topic or area of interest. What fascinates them~ what do they want to learn more about? Possibly the books they are reading or the afterschool programs they join can provide some insight into their interests.

Work with the students to develop a solid plan (I use the Renzulli programs Project Wizard Maker as a planning template). This includes having students decide upon their product and audience upfront. These details can be changed later~ but I found it really helps if they have a clear goal in mind. As part of that goal~ have students determine what impact they want to have on their audience. For example~ if they want to publish a book~ do they want to inform or entertain readers~ or both?

Research Stage:

Have the student create research notes page using a program like Microsoft Word. This way~ they can type notes or add pictures and save their work. Next~ try to connect them with an expert~ who can provide a roadmap. If the project involves designing a videogame~ the student could interview a video game designer to get advice. I simply e-mail the expert and request an interview for the student then conduct the interview from a school phone. I put it on speaker phone so I can assist the student if needed~ but I really try to stay out of the interview. You can also tape the interview~ with permission of course~ so the student could listen to it and transcribe notes at a later time.

Students also want to gather information using Internet sources and will need instruction on how to locate reliable websites and to avoid plagiarism.

Product Stage:

When students have exhausted their research and fully understand their topic~ I allow them to begin making their product. Products can include a video slideshow~ a PowerPoint~ books~ poetry~ artwork~ crafts~ 3-D models~ speeches~ board games and more. The trick is to try and match the product with the students preferred mode of expression~ which could be visual~ hands-on~ auditory~ musical~ service~ etc.

Next~ have the student develop a list of materials needed to create the product. I like to share this list with the parents so they can help gather these items. You can also check around the school to see if other teachers may be able to help out.

Presentation Stage:

While the student is finishing their product~ it is a good idea to schedule their presentation or sharing of the product with an audience. It could mean asking another teacher if the student can come in and share their PowerPoint with the class~ contacting the public library to see if they would display a historical model~ or entering an online storybook competition.

After the student has shared his or her work~ that is the perfect time to provide feedback (I use a research-based rubric) and discuss whether the product had the intended feedback. You can use the rubric for the grade book if you want and also provide a copy to the parents.

While there are other steps along the way~ such as communicating with parents at each step~ the above information provides you with a blueprint to follow when implementing this kind of project. With practice~ this process can become an invaluable tool for challenging your students~ helping them to produce creative works that have real meaning and purpose. Dont hesitate to contact me at [email protected] if you have further questions or need some assistance with the process.

To comment on this blog~ visit the Gifted and Enrichment group at http://community.educationworld.comcontent/independent-study-0?gid=NTEyMQ==