Strategies for Increasing Student Independence

by | Jul 20, 2021 | Back to School, Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

If you’ve taught in a classroom for more than a few years, you know it can be frustrating to repeatedly explain and model the same directions over and over. At some point, students need to be more independent and take charge of their learning.

Enter independent learning.

What Is Independent Learning?

Simply stated, independent learning is when your students set goals, track their progress, and evaluate their work. 

Let’s be clear, independent learning does not take you, the teacher, out of the equation. 

It’s not as if you will no longer grade work or manage the classroom.

Independent learning encourages your students to work and think for themselves – which is certainly one of the end goals of education, isn’t it? 

Why Should I Teach My Students To Think Independently?

Student independence can benefit your students in many ways. Here are just a few:

  • Increased confidence
  • Improved academic performance
  • Increased motivation 
  • Increased creativity

I love the way teaching my students independent thinking helped them in so many different ways. 

When students learn to think critically for themselves, their confidence increases. Building confidence will continue to help students in the future, especially as they graduate from upper elementary school and transfer to middle school. 

Also, I found that I was able to get more of my work done when my students were working independently! As students knew what was expected and could work independently for part of the class, I had more time to meet with students or do quick tasks in the room.

So with all of those benefits in mind, don’t you want to try it for yourself?

Here are some simple strategies that you can implement to increase your student’s independence.

10 Strategies For Increasing Student Independence

1. Create An Environment That Fosters Independent Thinking

We can tell our students all day long that we want them to think for themselves. However, if we don’t create a classroom environment that makes students feel like they have a safe place to say what they think, then we aren’t really developing independent thinking. 

One easy way I found to help create this environment is to explain and model what independent thinking is and how you want that to look in your classroom at the beginning of the school year. A clear expectation is the first step to students meeting the goal. 

2. Use Questioning And Withhold The Answers

Do you remember being in middle or high school and having teachers who asked a question and then answered it right away? 

Don’t be that teacher. 

Find ways to approach your subject that uses higher-order, open-ended questioning. Once you’ve asked the question, allow for some silence. If you’ve already established that your classroom is a safe place to speak and students truly believe that, they will thoughtfully answer the question when they are ready. (Remember,some students just need more time to think about their response.)

Also, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer when students ask a question, then demonstrate researching the answer. It is important for teachers to model life-long learning to students.

3. Teach Students To Self-Asses

Student independence is not accomplished by a simple declaration that “in this classroom, you’ll be independent”. You have to show your students what that means. 

Part of that independence is self-assessment. 

As students complete a project, task, or unit, ask them to summarize what they’ve learned and what challenges they came across. Students can also  critically assess their work on a rubric. 

Another idea is to have students write a letter to a student who will do this same project next year. This reflection is helpful for students to really think about what they’ve done. 

Students can also discuss their work with a partner. Have students discuss what they learned in the lesson, project, task, unit, etc. with someone else in the classroom. Chances are one student will remember something the other doesn’t. This exercise helps students gain a fuller understanding of the subject. 

4. Teach Your Students The Skill Of Attention To Detail 

Do you make your students run their work through a spell check and a plagiarism check? 

You should. 

Not only does this prove to students that we as teachers are paying attention to these things (and some students do need that reminder!), it also shows that they can take control of their own learning. 

By having your students do their own spell and plagiarism check before turning in the work, they will start a habit of taking ownership of their work without even realizing it. 

Think about how much easier it will be for you if students run their own plagiarism checks before turning in their work. They’ll certainly spend more time on what they are writing before turning it in. 

5. Give Oral/Written Feedback On Work

Hear me when I say this, I’m not saying you should be handing out a letter grade for every piece of work your students touch. Nor should you have to personally grade every practice assignment. 

You should, however, give your students feedback on the work that they produce, especially when they are working independently. How else will they gain confidence in their ability to work alone? 

This feedback should be detailed and helpful so students understand what they need to work on. Feedback can be provided in many ways:

  • A class review and discussion of the work.
  • A quick one-on-one discussion.
  • A written note on the work (such as a draft.)
  • Feedback from a student partner.

6. Let your Students Teach Your Class

Place your students in groups of 3-5 and assign them a topic to research and teach the class. These groups work together to research, which fosters that independent thinking you are working on.

Students present their research to the class in the form of a lesson, giving them practice in speaking and giving your vocal cords a rest. 

Before using this strategy, it is important to model what students should do before expecting students to do this independently.

I loved learning through my students, and the other students enjoyed the change of pace too!

7. Encourage Respectful Discussion

As teachers, it is easy to get caught up in teaching kids what they need to know and not how to think critically. 

Teaching a subject deeply or allowing students to research a topic deeply can lead to rich discussions. Using the American Revolution as an example, teachers usually discuss Patriots and Loyalists, as well as colonists who might have been neutral. A deep exploration would widen the discussion to Native Americans, enslaved people, Free Blacks – how might revolution have impacted those groups? Which side might they have supported and why?

Debate is another excellent way to foster critical thinking and independence in thought. Students can debate respectfully on different sides of an issue, considering each others’ point of view. 

Another discussion style is the Socratic Method, where questions are used to further students’ thinking on a subject.

The only caveat is you’ll have to foster a safe and respectful environment for these discussions to occur. Everyone needs to learn to respectfully respond to other people’s opinions.

8. Ask Students What They Want To Learn

At the beginning of your school year, ask students to write out one thing they want to learn by the end of the year. It could be academic, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Next, have them write out action steps to accomplish their goal. Attach “due dates” to these steps and encourage students to work on their stated steps. 

Give support where possible but let your students take the lead as they work for themselves. 

By creating their own goal they are intrinsically motivated to accomplish it! 

Depending on what the goal was, you can have students who completed their goal discuss it with the class at the end of the year. 

Goal-setting and action steps are something that students should be learning while in school so they are more prepared for the future.

9. Teach Literacy As A Foundation

You and I know that reading and writing are foundational skills, needed for most jobs today. 

By helping students understand that literacy is not just a subject to trudge through, but an essential skill to survive, you can encourage them to take more ownership of their literacy knowledge. 

Teachers should demonstrate how literacy is used in everyday life in addition to teaching how to read and write. Reluctant students are often more motivated when they see the connection between a skill and their life. 

10. Model, Model, Model

You can set expectations, but the best way to ensure that your students understand what independent learning is is by modeling it. 

At the start of your year, as you state your expectations, model them as well. This way your students will have a better understanding of what is expected of them. Allow time to model expectations multiple times in order for students to truly become independent.

Implementing these strategies can shift the dynamics of your classroom and help your students feel more confident in their own ability to think, learn, and grow individually. 

Do you use other strategies to help your students think independently? I’d love to hear them! 

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Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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