A teacher with a class of 30 students doesn’t have the time or resources to tailor unique lesson plans to each learner. Middle and high school teachers who have several classes each day can’t build 100 different lesson plans for their kids. But what if the students could develop self-study and independent learning lessons on their own?

Independent study comes in many forms. Some schools have structured independent study courses where students can dedicate entire semesters to specific topics. Other schools are changing how students learn so they can take ownership of their education.

Whether you teach kindergarten or AP biology, you can tap into the benefits of independent learning. Here are a few reasons to embrace self-study and a few trends that are changing how students learn.

What Is Independent Study?

Independent learning occurs when students choose what, how and when they learn. Many schools’ independent study programs allow students to focus on specific topics or subjects and present their findings after a set period of time.

“When a student explores a topic on their own accord, they are actively engaging with the information,” writes Katie Pierce for learning management system provider Edly. “Self-studiers can think about topics more deeply. And because students are engaged and excited about the things they are learning, they can make stronger connections between what they are learning, and remember it better.”

Independent study can also occur on a smaller scale within standard classrooms. When a teacher has students develop a project based on their favorite animal, for example, they are engaging in independent study.

“I am a firm believer that all learners are ready for independent work in some capacity,” says Heather Hoeft, a preschool special education teacher. “A learner at any age or with any score on an assessment is able to work independently.”

The earlier that students develop skills to learn on their own, the more they can build on these abilities and apply them in the future. This is why so many educators are incorporating project-based learning and independent lesson reviews into their lesson plans.

Independent Study Increases Student Engagement

One of the main benefits of independent study across all subjects, grades and abilities is increased engagement. These projects and courses allow students to fully immerse themselves in something of interest to them. Teachers might not realize how disengaged their students are until they see them actively learning on their own.

“Disengagement can take many forms beyond a student simply not showing up for a class or completing an assignment,” writes the team at personalized learning software provider School Pathways. They use the examples of students no longer participating in class or scores decreasing over time. In these cases, the students aren’t completely checked out, but they are paying less attention and aren’t eager to learn.

Independent study allows students to learn at a deeper level, connecting with materials and concepts in ways teachers rarely see. They actively seek out new information in order to apply it to their projects.

“When it comes to the learning process, there is a difference between regurgitating material for an examination and understanding the concept,” says Saniya Khan, copy editor at EdTechReview Media. “Students with independent learning opportunities often acquire WHAT-HOW-WHY components of the principles of what they are learning.”

Even if a student answers incorrectly, says Khan, they benefit from working through the thinking process and pulling from information they do know in order to come up with a solution.

“I’ve watched my students take ownership of learning,” says Sara Segar at Experiential Learning Depot. “I have observed them on the path to developing the skills required to manage life’s many projects. I’ve witnessed my students develop deep, lifelong connections to the community. The list goes on.”

Group of students in library, working individually; self-study concept

Students Often Don’t Have the Chance to Learn Independently

Parents are spending more time with their kids, striving to keep them safe, which means children and teens have less time to explore, pretend and do things on their own. This also applies to academia. Students don’t have many choices when it comes to what they learn and how they learn it.

“This decline in independent activity, and hence, mental well-being in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it,” says Dr. David F. Bjorklund, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. “[It is] the result of good intentions carried too far – intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.”

Some teachers are trying to give their students this independence back. For example, high school English teacher Shelby Scoffield says she noticed how bored her students were when reading an assigned book. She tried her best but knew her lesson plans weren’t engaging.

“To fix this problem, I stopped dictating my students’ every move throughout the unit,” Scoffield writes. “I decided that they needed to tell me what they needed to do to demonstrate mastery of the standards. To do this, I explained to my students that they were going to create their own rubric and project.”

Scoffield even went so far as to print out the California State English Language Arts standards for 10th grade so her students could review what they were expected to learn and build lessons around it.

“Students are better prepared to make responsible decisions, advocate for themselves, and decide their own course of action when they get to practice using their voice and agency in the classroom throughout their K-12 education,” writes the team at learning platform Move This World.

Independent Study Helps Students Prepare for the Future

By taking on independent study projects and other individual learning opportunities, students can better market themselves to colleges and universities they want to attend. A completed independent study project can make one candidate stand out in a pool of high GPAs and test scores.

According to Prepory, a college admissions and career coaching company, “passion projects for students can play a key role in holistic college admissions. This is because passion projects demonstrate a student’s ability to think critically and creatively while in pursuit of their extracurricular interests. Top colleges want to admit passionate, capable students eager to make a difference and enrich their communities.”

These passion projects, which are ambitious projects that high school students create and complete outside of the classroom, can guide students toward fields of study they are interested in (like political science, marine biology, and engineering). The projects can also confirm that certain majors might not be for them.

“These types of projects are a wonderful opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a field of interest,” says Lee Norwood, owner of Annapolis College Consulting. “In some cases, it serves to confirm a student’s interest in a field and clarifies a degree path.”

In other words, independent study projects and courses can serve as tools of self-discovery for high school students before they invest in a pricey degree.

Once students arrive at their desired college, the skills they learned in independent study can help them thrive in a university setting. They will already have the ability to learn and study on their own without a parent or teacher telling them everything they have to do.

“College campuses are the first time many of us experience living independently in a relatively unstructured environment,” writes Pamela Reynolds at Harvard Summer School. “Navigating this freedom for the first time can feel liberating but can also be tricky.”

Not all students have a successful first year at college. The ones that do know how to balance their newfound independence with studying and homework.

Young woman at desk using lap top with headphones; self-study concept

Independent Learning Isn’t Just for Advanced Students

There is a common misconception that independent study is for advanced students that have the soft skills and knowledge to learn on their own. This is why self-study courses are usually directed at college-bound learners. However, all students can benefit from independent learning.

“One of the biggest advantages of online independent study learning is the flexibility it offers,” says Dr. Sarah Delawder, director of curriculum for Method Schools. “This is particularly beneficial for students who have busy schedules due to elite athletics, jobs, or family travel, or who need to work at a slower or faster pace than their peers.”

The drive for independent study is even changing how some alternative schools are developed. Independence High School in San Francisco has an estimated enrollment of 220 and focuses on letting teens drive their own learning.

“I think it’s hard to be truly innovative when so many systems are wrapped up in an antiquated model of schooling,” says Anastasia Klafter, principal of Independence High School. “I wonder what it would look like if we moved away from this seat time model of funding and accountability and looked more holistically at what kids need at all the schools.”

Students in these schools spend less time in the classroom but find learning more meaningful. The kids might have high anxiety in a traditional learning environment or other needs where they do better learning at their own pace.

Even entire districts are working to empower students to direct their own educational goals. In an article for Idaho Ed News, Carly Flandro reports how one district has opened up Mondays to students. The day is meant for students to catch up on work and get help where they need it. This builds independence and ownership. It is up to the students to guide their learning based on where they are lost or behind.

Too often, it is easy to get caught up in creating engaging lesson plans with fun videos, games, and activities. This is awesome work and not easy to do. However, sometimes the best lessons allow you to take a step back and let students learn on their own or discover what they need help with. Consider how you can develop a classroom of independent learners who are eager to grow their knowledge on their own terms.

Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.