The 2020 Year, While Painful, Inspired Independent Study | 3 Min Read

It had been two years since my student received a guitar as a holiday gift from his parents. Unwrapped and then left propped in the corner of his closet was the last time he touched the silent instrument before March 2020. The anticipated zest for learning chords, repeating strums, accompanying a solo, or starting a garage band fizzled amid the never-ending maxed schedule of teenage extracurricular and academic obligations that left little time for sleep, much less music lessons and a practice regimen. Until the pandemic. Until the cancellations. Until the solitude.

Because of COVID-19, students, educators, and parents have mourned losses of traditions, social events, and beloved celebrations that mile-mark the high school experience. Social media feeds the despondency with endless reminders of all that isn’t happening during the pandemic. Canceled athletics, field trips, music lessons, recitals, proms, college visits, and the advent of hybrid class schedules have altered the memories we imagined for 2020 and perhaps 2021 graduates. Teachers have implemented instructional technology more than ever before to keep student learning a priority while school administrators and parents have offered novel ways to fill the social void through virtual or physically-distanced, masked extracurricular activities. The year 2020 was not what we thought it would be for our students or our schools, yet there is still much to consider about the malleability of schooling. There have also been gains.

For some students, learning remotely has given time and opportunity, if not excitement, to nurture their curiosity or pursue new skills. Learning to cook, developing a research project, starting a web-based small business, mastering sign language, and studying music with a new instrument are examples of engaging activities that when established as independent study courses are measurable by academic standards and lasting in terms of personal development. Independent learning persists in spite of shuttered campuses and limited contact with teachers, coaches, and peers. Students benefit from planning, initiating, sustaining focus, and achieving goals within a choice scenario that yields an organic stage for rehearsing critical thinking and executive skills. Beyond 2020 as schools resume normal schedules on campus, they can continue encouraging independent studies and establish a system for students to earn elective academic credit thus validating and officially documenting independent projects. A suitable framework for independent studies should provide both structure and flexibility to accommodate a wide array of proposals and to include all interested students. Components of such a framework include:

  • Proposal template for the independent study topic/task
    • Student submits a design for their study that includes a rationale, lesson plans, and intended outcomes with evidence of learning.
  • Suggested mentorship or consultation with a field expert or organization
    • The student identifies a mentor or expert with whom they may communicate during the independent study as a resource.
  • Scope of study 
    • Student plans length of study, intermediate checkpoints, rubrics, list of resources, and research needed to complete their project. 
  • The final deliverable to demonstrate learning
    • The student determines how the project will be completed and what format will be employed for the final process or presentation.
  • Self-assessment and reflection
    • The student prepares a self-evaluation and presents work for academic credit.

A school’s recognition of self-directed learning via independent studies also supports the metacognitive growth and social-emotional needs of students. When students are in the driver’s seat of selecting a topic, choosing a mode of instruction, and regulating the pace of learning, the result is an intrinsically motivating and gratifying educational experience with life-long benefits. Awarding elective academic credit for independent studies can be a net gain for education during this time of cancellations and challenges. And, moving forward, independent studies can become a chapter in a student’s educational story that reveals differentiated learning, skill development, and innovative student research. Whether the work is highlighted on a transcript or application, there is an opportunity to illuminate specialization within a student’s course of study. Independency and resiliency stemming from self-directed learning are also advantages in college and in the workplace. 

In the case of my student, he chose to cultivate a new skill on his own time and at his own pace. He modeled strategies that he learned from previous teachers in the classroom. The guitar he received years ago is no longer idle in the closet and he proudly shares that the triumph of playing a simple score, self-taught over several weeks, reflects time well-spent and a lesson well-learned. This unexpected gift of time in 2020 inspired him. Independent Studies will remain on our course options for 2021.

Debbie Ayers

Debbie Ayers has been at Flint Hill School (VA) since 2005. She currently serves as Assistant Director of the Upper School and Upper School Academic Dean.

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