Incorporate Independent Study to Challenge Gifted Learners in the Elementary Classroom

Incorporate Independent Study to Challenge Gifted Learners in the Elementary Classroom
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All children deserve to have equal opportunity to reach their full potential in our education system. Finding appropriate ways to challenge the gifted learner in the general classroom can be a daunting task. Curriculum compacting, tiered assignments, and anchor assignments are all effective means to differentiating instruction for high potential learners. In addition to these, educators can implement a differentiation technique which incorporates the child’s interests while providing for a meaningful challenge and use of critical thinking skills. This is the independent study.

For gifted children to progress in their education, instruction must incorporate three main practices identified by Carol Ann Tomlinson (1995). Differentiated learning is a match between content (what the student learns), process (how it is learned), and product (evidence of learning) and their readiness level, interests, and learning preferences.

The use of independent study allows for this match and is therefore an ideal strategy for meeting the unique needs of the gifted student. They will study the same concepts and topics as their peers, but at a more in-depth and sophisticated level. Independent study integrates student choice, in-depth investigations, and real-world tasks; all of which create a more meaningful learning experience for gifted students.

What is it?

There are three main types of independent studies:

1. Investigative – involves setting a question or problem that students investigate to find a solution and answer

2. Conceptual – involves developing an in-depth understanding of a topic through a range of experiences

3. Ways of Knowing – examines topics from several different perspectives (Cathcart, 2005).

What is the Teacher’s Role?

The teacher plays a vital role in the planning and effectiveness of the independent study. Students may often possess the natural curiosity, high interest, and intrinsic motivation to attempt an independent study, but they may lack the self-direction and skills required to achieve the set goals. Teachers prepare students with the research skills necessary for a successful independent study.

The teacher must help students identify and define their topics, set clear and specific goals, establish a timeframe, monitor their progress, provide constructive feedback, and evaluate the final product. Creating a contract or checklist will establish a step-by-step guideline to aid the student in self-pacing and self-directing throughout the project.

What is the Plan?

While there are many strategies for implementing an independent study, the Powers Plan is one researched-based plan that is effective. The plan contains six parts.

  1. Preparation: Students must prepare a topic of interest that relates to the concepts or unit being taught in the classroom. A contract is prepared to provide detailed expectations, time frames, and opportunities for conferencing with the teacher for progress monitoring and feedback.
  2. Planning: Students will design a plan detailing what question they will be researching or what specific item of interest they will investigate. How will they show what they know? Teachers and students agree on a final product based on the student’s individual strengths learning style. Teachers will provide a rubric for how the final product will be investigated.
  3. Probing: Students will begin their research. A minimum of 5 sources should be used from the following areas: Internet, books, tapes, videos, movies, interviews, community, or mentor sources.
  4. Product: Organize research into a final product, such as a PowerPoint, video, brochure, paper, model, etc. Provide time for personal reflection of the work and peer/mentor feedback.
  5. Presentation: Identify the audience and share what has been learned.
  6. Portfolio: assemble all parts of the project: notebook; complete with daily logs, all research, and cited sources, final product; and reflection and evaluation sheets (Powers, 2008).

It is important to remember that the independent study should be used in place of regular classroom work and should not be used in addition to regular work. A gifted student should not be “punished” for being gifted by having to complete additional responsibilities. Having the opportunity to participate in an independent study allows for a continuous learning experience for the high-ability student who has already demonstrated knowledge of general classroom content through the use of pre-assessments prior to the beginning of the unit.


  • Cathcart, R. (2005). They’re not bringing my brain out: Understanding and working with gifted and talented learners (3rd ed.). Rotorua: REACH Publications.
  • Tomlinson, C. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Renzulli, J. S. (1977). The enrichment triad model: A guide for developing defensive programs for the gifted and talented. Weathersfield, Conn: Creative Learning Press.
  • Powers, E. A. (2008_). The Use of Independent Study as a Viable Differentiation Technique for Gifted Learners in the Regular Classroom_. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
  • Johnsen, S. K., & Johnson, K. (1986). Independent study program. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.