Thursday, November 11, 2010

Independent Study for the Gifted Learner

The fact that independent study is good for gifted learners is certainly not a new idea, but it may be for parents of newly identified gifted children. Gifted learners are individuals with differing abilities. What excites one student may bore another. Different learning styles require parents to take different approaches.

Most parents of gifted children take their responsibilities very seriously. At this time of the year, they are already looking into extracurricular activities such as academic competitions, classes at nearby universities, and summer camps. Meetings with gifted coordinators and teachers revolve around advocating for enrichment in the classroom or in gifted programs. However, sometimes gifted kids just want to ‘chill’ and ‘hang’ with their friends. They might like school and learning new things, but not all the pressure of doing ‘extra’ work.

Enter the ‘independent study’. In progressive school districts, it is often recommended as an instructional strategy for creating an individualized plan within the school setting. Perhaps more than any other strategy, learning how to develop and successfully execute an independent study prepares students for higher education and for life in general. It incorporates project design, critical and higher-level thinking, presentation skills, time-task commitment, and task assessment. This method of learning can be a great motivator for gifted students who cringe at group projects in regular classrooms where they ultimately do most of the work. Independent study allows your child to delve into topics which are of interest to them, use creative and innovative research techniques, and produce quality products such as research papers, portfolios, artwork, and/or projects for presentation.

Many top researchers in the field of gifted education have developed various independent study models including the Autonomous Learner Model by Dr. George Betts, the SDC (student developed courses) Model by Dr. Del Siegle, Schoolwide Enrichment Model by Drs. Renzulli and Reis, Creative Problem Solving by Dr. Donald Treffinger. Dr. Karen Rogers discussed this approach in a recent presentation entitled, “An Update on Research in Gifted Education: 10 Things.” In it, she stated that the effect of learning independently is in “increased motivation to learn, interest in subject area, improved academic resilience (cognitive risk-taking), and self-efficacy.”

Although independent studies usually do not occur during until high school, there is no reason why younger students cannot participate in scaled-down projects as well. Finding the right mentor is critical to a successful study. Most of the work is done by the student with the mentor serving as their guide. Providing a detailed proposal with reference to state or national standards can go a long way in convincing school administrators to accept an independent study for credit. Final assessment can be done by a panel comprised of faculty members from applicable subject areas.

It may seem overwhelming at times as the parent of a gifted child when you try to provide your child with opportunities that you hope will help them fulfill their potential. However, you will find that it is also very rewarding to see your gifted child grow and mature as they become an independent learner and a problem solver. Never stop challenging them and never stop believing in them!


  1. When we homeschooled the independent study aspect offered a great deal of value. But as you point out, this kind of learning needn't be exclusive to the homeschool environment. The benefit either way is student "buy-in" and "ownership" re. learning on a number of levels -- a sense of responsibility, interest, creativity, and achievement that is difficult to find in a larger group situation.

  2. I taught young (late elementary-junior high age) learners in a school created to serve gifted learners. One of the things I loved about the structure of the curriculum was that even there, in an environment that was able to focus on gifted content and delivery and specific socio-emotional needs of the defined population, there was independent learning built into the curriculum. Built in as *potential,* because in that setting, with acceleration + depth + focus on critical thinking + malleability of groupings, independent learning wasn't needed as much. But it was still needed at times, and recognized as such. I ended up with one foot in classroom delivery, one foot running the independent study program. It was a great and powerful experience, and as a result I am a champion of these opportunities, which in that environment we ended up delivering to a range of students, from rather young (@K age) to the oldest (13-14 year olds).

    As I used to say to families there, while the most familiar models for these experiences are the Independent Study sections some of the parents might have taken in college/university, the benefits translate to any learner who is ready for the immersion and is provided a suitable mentor/teacher/expert.