“Hey, Mom, I have a report to do,” my son James informed me as he pulled out a crumpled assignment sheet from his teacher. “When is it due?” I asked, hoping that tomorrow wasn’t the answer. He responded, “Not until next month. I’ve got plenty of time.”
I exhaled a sigh, but it was only momentary relief. James and I had worked together on a number of short-term school projects—dioramas, written reports, time lines—but this independent study was going to require more in-depth examination of a subject.
The purpose of an independent study is to allow students an opportunity to learn the research process by exploring a topic of interest over an extended period of time. I wondered how I might assist my son without taking over the project while we followed the assigned independent study steps:
- identify a topic he wanted to learn more about;
- discover what he knew and didn’t know about it;
- determine a method of study (e.g., descriptive, experimental, research);
- gather information using the Internet, books, interviews, surveys, experiments, and so on;
- organize the information;
- develop a method for sharing the information (a product); and
- evaluate the project using established criteria.
To facilitate the independent study, I decided to use a coaching process described in Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, by Arthur L. Costa and Robert J. Garmston (Christopher-Gordan, 1994). This process comprises four phases: planning, teaching, reflecting, and applying. Throughout, the coach is nonjudgmental and values the learner’s expertise. I explained the coaching process to James and involved him in maintaining my coaching role.
During the planning phase, the coach clarifies goals, anticipates concerns, identifies strategies, and selects information that needs to be collected. James and I reviewed the independent study assignment, and while he didn’t have any concerns about doing the research, he didn’t seem to have any topics in mind. He rejected my ideas until I finally mentioned, “You seem to like science at school. Since your dad is a chemistry professor, why don’t you study what chemists do?” That was a winner, and we were ready to begin.
James was less experienced in asking questions before gathering information—a crucial step in the research process—and immediately jumped to describing a completed product, a display with photographs of chemists’ laboratories. As I questioned him about what the photographs might show or how they would demonstrate what chemists do, James realized that he needed more than just visuals. He needed to gather information by reading, develop good questions about what he had learned, and explore ways to arrive at the answers, such as interviewing professors.
James and I determined the time that it might take to complete each step and discussed what our roles would be throughout the process. For example, James needed my help in traveling to the university but could develop research questions and interview chemists on his own.
During the teaching phase, the coach observes and assists in collecting the information identified during the planning phase. I commented on the plan, for example, noting that James had developed a realistic time line: one week each for finding books and reading, developing questions and setting up interviews, conducting the interviews and photographing the laboratories, and organizing the information on a trifold display board. And he had developed some excellent questions, such as “What is chemistry? What do chemists make? What are the most important chemicals? How might I become a chemist? What are the most exciting moments in your career?”
In the reflecting phase, the coach helps summarize the information and compares it to what has been identified in the planning phase. I asked James to summarize what he had accomplished at each step of the independent study process. We explored how his questions helped him pursue his topic in depth and what strategies helped him locate the needed resources and complete the project successfully.
Finally, during the applying phase, the coach helps the student identify what skills and knowledge have been learned that will be relevant to future situations. I helped James recognize the abilities he had acquired that might be useful again at another time, and we identified areas that needed improvement.
In the end, I was relieved and thankful for the opportunity to be my son’s coach during the independent study. James is now studying chemistry in college, and I would like to think that this choice is related to the experience we had working together on that project.
—Susan K. Johnsen, PhD
Susan K. Johnsen is professor of educational psychology at Baylor University, where she directs the program in gifted studies. She is author of Independent Study Program, with Kay Johnson (Prufrock, 1986), and of assessment instruments that are frequently used to identify gifted students.