“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.
If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

– Confucius (551-479 BC)

Self-regulated study is the most frequently recommended instructional strategy in programs for gifted students as a means for differentiating and individualizing instruction (Clark, 2013; Colangelo & Davis, 2003; Davis & Rimm, 1998; Feldhusen, VanTassel-Baska, & Seeley, 1989; Gallaghar & Gallaghar, 1994). Independent study is also preferred by gifted students (Dunn & Griggs, 1985; Stewart, 1981). However, while gifted students like instructional strategies that emphasise independent study and discussion, they do not always have the necessary skills that are essential to self-directed learning. Once they acquire the critical independent strategies, gifted students are able to become lifelong learners, capable of responsible involvement and leadership in a changing world (Betts, 1985).

Johnsen and Goree (2009) define independent study as a planned research process that (a) is similar to the one used by a practising professional or authentic to the discipline; (b) is facilitated by the teacher; and (c) focuses on real world problems that go beyond the regular class setting.

Keighley (2003) points out that five interdependent components are essential to student motivation and achievement: control, choice, challenge, complexity and a caring teacher. The five C’s, according to Keighley, determine the extent of the students’ engagement in the learning and subsequent productivity. 

Steps in Independent Study

Johnsen and Goree (2009) suggest nine steps that might be used in independent study. All of the steps may or may not be used in every independent study since the teacher and student may already have defined some steps. For example, the teacher may present a problem, while the students are responsible primarily for gathering information and sharing their results. Teachers who want students to find problems in their own interest areas may discover that all of these steps are helpful in teaching the process of independent study:

Step 1: Introducing the Independent Study

Step 2: Selecting a Topic

Step 3: Organising the Study

Step 4: Asking Questions 

Step 5: Choosing a Study Method 

Step 6: Gathering Information 

Step 7: Developing a Product

Step 8: Sharing Information 

Step 9: Evaluating the Study.  

I have summarized Johnsen and Goree’s (2009) nine steps below:

 Step 1: Introducing the Independent Study

In introducing the independent study, the teacher describes (a) various steps that will be used during the study; (b) the dates when different stages of the study are due; and if known, (c) the audience who will be interested in the results of their study. At this initial step, the teacher must help students learn how to meet deadlines by establishing due dates.

Step 2: Selecting a Topic

At this step, the students select something to study. It may be a problem they want to solve, and issue they want to debate, an opinion they want to prove, something they want to learn how to do, or simply something they want to know more about. Interesting ideas may be pursued immediately or collated over a period of time. This step frequently involves gathering more information about the topic. Students may investigate by contacting museums, agencies, universities and state or national departments. They may send home letters to parents, request information through online forum, call public radio and television stations, and browse through the school or public libraries.

Step 3: Organising the Study

Sometimes, the teacher assists students in organising or “mapping” their topics to help them find specific questions or problems. For example, if the teacher asks the students to brainstorm problems related to space explorations and the result includes only questions about UFOs and aliens, then this step is needed.

Teachers may provide the students with “organisational maps” which may include (a) describing the topic; (b) comparing the chosen topic with other topics, models, or theories; and (c) identifying causes and effects, or problems and solutions.

Organising and examining a topic in this manner should lead to the most important step in the process: asking questions.

Step 4: Asking Questions

After doing some preliminary research and organising their topics, the students are ready to ask questions. Good questions lead to quality independent study, so it is essential that teachers instruct students about the criteria for selecting good study questions. Johnsen and Goree (2009) suggest the following criteria in selecting questions:

  1. Asking complex questions
  2. Asking practical questions
  3. Asking provocative questions. 

Students may also use their organisational categories to generate questions related to these stems: who, what, when, where, why, how, how much, how many, how long, how far, and what might happen if? They may ask cause and effect questions such as, “How do treaties protect whales?” or problem questions such as, “Why is there a disagreement among countries over whaling?” Giving students these thinking tools helps them create more complex questions that, in turn, influence the overall quality of the independent study. 

Step 5: Choosing a Study Method

Most of the time, students are aware of only a limited number of methods for gathering information to study a question in an area of interest: the library, and more recently, the Internet. This approach can be quite limiting for addressing the study questions.

There are many different kinds of study methods. Some of these methods include action, descriptive, field, historical, correlational, developmental, ethnographic, experimental and naturalistic research (Isaac & Michael, 1995). For example, if students want to know how their school today compares with the school as it was 40 years ago, they would be interested in an historical study method. First, they might contact primary sources such as people who were at the school at the time. Second, they might locate secondary resources such as newspaper stories that were written about the school. Third, they would interview their primary sources and take notes from their secondary sources. Fourth, they would review their interviews and notes, focus on facts, and delete biased or exaggerated information. Finally, they would verify information with their primary sources before sharing it with others.

Here are some sample questions for the above mentioned research using the historical study method:

Main Question:

How does your school today compare with the school as it was 40 years ago?


  • What was the community of your school like in 1968, and what is it like now?
  • What were the school’s physical facilities like when you were a student here?
  • What do you remember of the curriculum – the subjects you studied?
  • How large was the student body?
  • What was the ethnic makeup of the student body?
  • What role did the school play in the community?
  • How would you rate the quality of the school and teachers when you attended?

Teachers will want to become acquainted with the research methods that address different kinds of questions so that their students will use authentic approaches that are frequently practised by experts in their field.

Step 6: Gathering Information

There are many ways of gathering information for the study questions. Some of these include note taking, writing letters, surveying, interviewing, observing, reading, listening to focus groups, brainstorming with others, locating information on the Internet, going on field trips, and conducting controlled experiments in a laboratory.

Johnsen and Goree (2009, p. 430) point out that in each case, the teacher needs to clearly specify and teach the steps involved with the approach. For example, when interviewing, the student needs to know (a) how to select a person for interview; (b) how to make the initial contact and set up an appointment; (c) how to locate background information and prepare questions for the interview; (d) how to make a good impression during the interview; (e) how to ask questions and record information; (f) how to summarise interview notes; and (g) how to provide information to the interviewed person. By using emails, interviews with experts are much more accessible for students now.

The information that is gathered should relate to the question, be authentic within the field of study, be clearly defined and taught to the students, and be appropriate for the age of the researcher.

Step 7: Developing a Product  

While most students believe that “independent study” is synonymous with “written report,” information may be organised in a variety of ways. Products include books, diagrams, dioramas, videos, computer games, graphs, posters, paintings, puppet shows, reports, tape recordings, timelines, debates, dramatisations, models, poems, speeches, and many others.

Similar to the step of gathering information, the product should be authentic within a field of study. For example, what product(s) might a naturalist develop to share his or her work? Indeed, a naturalist would keep a scientific journal, attach pictures or photos as examples, summarise results in a graph, and present information orally or in written form (Johnsen & Goree, 2009, p. 431).

Step 8: Sharing Information

The teacher might discuss with the students some of the reasons for sharing information: students can learn from one another; students can improve their products; others can help evaluate the product; and students can gather support for the product.

There are two major ways of sharing information with the audience: through oral presentation or in a display. The best approach should be determined by the audience for which it is intended.

Johnsen and Goree (2009) emphasise that each step needs to be outlined and taught. For example, in designing an oral report, the student will need to: (a) plan the report; (b) practise the report; (c) arrange materials in order; (d) stand in a visible spot; (e) introduce himself/herself; (f) look at the audience; (g) speak loudly enough to be heard; (h) hold the product or visuals where they can be seen; (i) state major points; (j) keep the speech short; (k) ask for questions; (l) have the audience complete the evaluation; and (m) thank the audience.

Step 9: Evaluating the Study

The evaluation of independent studies needs to be both formative and summative. With formative evaluation, students examine their performance in terms of the whole process. In addition, the student and teacher will want to use summative evaluation in judging the independent study products. Checklists or rubrics can be designed with specific criteria listed for the products.

Evaluations in independent studies should focus on what the student has learnt and what he or she might do to improve the next research project. If evaluations are constructive, the student will be encouraged to continue his or her study, looking for new questions or new areas of study.

 Treffinger (1975) makes the following recommendations for fostering independent learning:

  • Do not smother self-direction by doing for children what they can do for themselves.
  • Develop an attitude of openness for such learning.
  • Provide explicit training in problem solving,skills of enquiry andindependent research. Help students learn to diagnose needs, locate resources, develop a plan, carry out appropriate activities, evaluate and present the results.
  • Emphasise the inter-relatedness and continuity of knowledge to help students to synthesise and relate various topics and problems.
  • Treat difficult problems at home and at school as opportunities for independent problem solving and not as problems requiring the unilateral wisdom of an adult.

 Powers (2008) identifies the following three aspects in motivating students to conduct self regulated study:

  • Student choice and voice (e.g., the opportunity to choose a topic that “I believe in”; passion expressed about a cause, frustration as to why more is not known or done about this problem, or why others are not as concerned as they are);
  • Use of independent study (e.g., to research and analyse a relevant contemporary issue in more depth: “to learn more about ___,” “to learn new things about ___,” “to get to be expert in ___”);
  • Connection of the task with real-world experiences (e.g., use of cognitive technologies, problem solving, historical research and oral presentations).

Implications for the Future

Independent study allows opportunities to motivate and observe students throughout the learning process. The resulting product offers a means to assess underachievers by giving those students an opportunity for success. It is also a means to identify and prepare those highly gifted students who demonstrate insight and potential in real-world problem-solving, research and presentation tasks. Independent study offers challenge to gifted students, the opportunity to learn the investigative skills to research what motivates them, and the freedom to guide their own learning.


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