Independent study

Independent study allows gifted learners to conduct in-depth research in a topic that interests them or in an area that extends beyond the regular curriculum.

It ‘provides opportunities for students to develop their individual talents, expand their research skills, and explore special interests’ (Coil, 2007, p. 55). Independent study is a strategy that is recommended in several curriculum models, such as Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model (ALM) and Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad Model. Both of these models and other research on independent study make it clear that the learner is at the centre of the process. The learner makes the decisions regarding topic, depth and product presentation; the teacher is a facilitator in the process and works collaboratively with the learner through the planning and preparation process. Research skills and techniques are not ‘intrinsic to gifted students and these are an integral part of independent study’.

Johnson and Goree (2009) state that studying areas in which they are interested helps learners to create positive attitudes, develop creative potential and strengthen their sense of self-determination, competence or persistence. They conclude (p. 416) that independent study should be a planned research process that:

  • is similar to one used by a practising professional, or is authentic to the discipline
  • is facilitated by the teacher
  • focuses on lifelike problems that go beyond the classroom setting.

Renzulli and Gable (1976) and Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons (1990), (cited in Johnson and Goree, 2009, p.387), found that gifted learners felt ‘...that independent study has a positive influence on their motivation and career, their study habits and thinking processes, the degree of challenge, and the opportunity for self-expression in school.’

Independent study meets the ideals of student-centred learning because learners are able to begin at their own level and choose topics that motivate them.

Independent study in the Enrichment Triad Model

Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad model (1977) is made up of three sections that the learners move between, depending on their interest in a certain question, topic or problem (Johnson & Goree, 2009). The first section or phase (Type I) introduces learners to a variety of enrichment or exploration activities in different topics or domains. In Type II, learners receive group training in research and creativity skills. Independent study is used in the third phase (Type III), with learners researching and pursuing authentic problems in which they are interested. Renzulli emphasises that the problems should be real and the learners should be using authentic methods to solve them (Johnson & Goree, 2009).

Interestingly, Types I and II have been recognised as being suitable for all learners, whereas Type III (independent study) specifically suits gifted and talented learners, as they have the creativity and energy required to be successful (Davis & Rimm, as cited in Riley, 2009). Riley (2009, p. 654) states that Type III allows gifted learners to ‘shift from the role of consumers of information to producers of knowledge’. VanTassel-Baska and Brown (2009) describe Type III as: investigative activities and artistic productions in which the learner assumes the role of a first hand inquirer: thinking, feeling, and acting like a practicing professional, with involvement pursued at a level as advanced or professional as possible give the student’s level of development and age (p. 82).

Independent study in the Betts’ Autonomous Learning Model

The Autonomous Learning Model (ALM) was developed to help teachers meet the specific cognitive, emotional and social needs of gifted learners. It began in a secondary school context but it is now implemented from kindergarten to highschool with both gifted and ‘regular’ learners (Betts & Kercher, 1999).

The ALM is separated into five sections or dimensions – orientation, individual development, enrichment, seminars and in-depth study. In orientation (the introduction), learners become familiar with the model as well as their own areas of potential. Group skills are also covered in this section. In the section on individual development, autonomous learning is introduced and learners begin to focus on their own attitudes and concepts while developing their skills in all areas (Betts & Kercher, 1999).

Independent study comes into the last three dimensions of the ALM. In the enrichment section, learners begin to investigate areas of interest that are outside the standard curriculum. Betts and Kercher (1999) state that the ‘highest level of learning is manifested when a learner has the freedom to select and to pursue content or topics in their own style’ (p.4). The seminar dimension is a group activity, with four to five learners presenting their research on a topic to peers and other interested parties. For example, if their seminar were on research into water pollution on Auckland North Shore beaches, then it would be relevant to ask a representative from the District Council and Water Care Services to attend.

In the final dimension, in-depth study, the learner decides what they want to study, how they want to study it and what product they wish to present at the completion of their study. The study is performed over the long term, with regular meetings with the facilitator to help keep the student ‘on track’.