An Independent Study Model for Secondary Students

Spring 1998 Masthead

Del Siegle
Boise State University
Boise, ID

When gifted students are asked what they like best about being in a special program for the gifted and talented, the first response usually deals with the greater freedom allowed for selecting topics of study. Conversely, when they are asked about their greatest objection to the regular curriculum, students’ comments frequently refer to the limited opportunities to pursue topics of their own choosing. Providing gifted students with options for studying areas that interest them in secondary education involves some unique problems that are often not present when providing elementary services. Not only must the material be differentiated at a more advanced level, it must be available in a variety of talent areas. As gifted students enter high school, they demonstrate more understanding and depth in specific content areas which result in a need for individualized educational opportunities related to these interest areas. Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when class schedules are less flexible and personnel resources may be limited. Beneficially, it is also occurring when their teachers are more subject oriented and are better equipped to delve in-depth into specific disciplines. Thus, while the diversity of talents exhibited by high achieving students at the secondary level warrants a multitude of educational options, the educational system that serves the secondary level, while often lacking flexibility in scheduling options, does have many of the resources necessary to provide a richer education experience.

One option for serving gifted and talented students at the secondary level is an independent study model based on student developed courses (SDC)1. The SDC model was developed to provide students with opportunities for further study in their talent areas. The model is based on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Renzulli & Reis, 1985) and the Autonomous Learner Model (Betts, 1985). It fits well within the traditional high school schedule and can be easily implemented in small as well as large high school settings.

The SDC model provides secondary students with the option to study topics that match their interests and talents through a two-step process. First, students learn about their talents, weaknesses, and learning styles in a one semester SDC class. In that class they also learn how to design an independent study course. Students cannot be expected to possess naturally the skills necessary to design and conduct an independent study. The SDC class teaches students how to design and execute an independent study based upon their unique strengths and interests.

Following completion of the SDC class, students are encouraged to register for a one semester independent study that they design. A student with a special interest in photography might elect to document historic homes in the community and publish a web site featuring her work. A student interested in creative writing might wish to write and produce a play, or a student interested in science might build a laser or study the effects of radiation on tissue development. Although not all students will wish to develop an independent study option after completion of the SDC class, many elect to design and complete one.

After completing the SDC class and prior to beginning an independent study, students develop proposal outlines for their studies. The outlines include learning objectives, a list of proposed activities and a timeline, a list of resources needed to complete the project, a description of the final product and audience, and a description of how the project will be evaluated.

Once the independent study proposal is complete, the student contacts one of the secondary teachers to mentor him/her through the project. The teacher’s role is to monitor the student’s progress during the semester for which the student enrolls in the independent study. Initially, the teacher will assist the student in finding a place to work. Once the project begins, the teacher and student might meet briefly once a week, or less frequently, to discuss the student’s progress and to resolve any roadblocks the student might be encountering. At the completion of the project, the teacher and student jointly review the student’s progress and final product. This evaluation is based on the goals the student developed prior to beginning the study.

Students receive one semester credit for their projects. They register for this credit as they would register for any regularly scheduled class and work on their project during a scheduled time just as they would other courses. Traditionally, independent project credits serve as elective credits within the content area that the student has chosen to investigate. The photography project mentioned earlier could count as an art elective, while the laser project would serve as a science elective.

While one staff member is responsible for teaching the SDC class that prepares students for their independent projects and which is required before students may design their independent studies, the entire secondary faculty is available to guide students through their projects. This serves three purposes. It capitalizes on faculty interests and skills within the subject areas where they have expertise, it does not unnecessarily burden a single faculty member, and it creates broad ownership for educating gifted and talented students.

The independent study option is one viable means of meeting the needs of many students. It affords students an opportunity to expand their understanding of specific disciplines through self-directed inquiry under the guidance of adults with similar interest, while providing minimum interruption in the secondary schedule.

Betts, G. (1985). The Autonomous Learner Model. Greeley, CO: Autonomous Learning Publications Specialists.
Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The Schoolwide Enrichment Model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

1Early work on the model under the name PREP was conducted by Terry Hoffer and Jay Radke.


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