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Independent, Self-Directed Learning 

As your child progresses through upper elementary school, junior high and high school, they will be assigned more independent, self-directed, projects with expectations to do some of the work beyond school hours. Most of these assignments involve research and, as with any project with multiple components, organization skills.

Parents can help support their children by working in partnership with teachers to guide young people through the process of successfully completing independent learning assignments. Not only do these projects bring together skills your child has learned over the years, but often represent real-life situations such as information-seeking, organizing complex tasks, and meeting deadlines.

Most independent learning projects require the student to:

  • define a topic
  • plan out the necessary components of the project
  • find information from a variety of sources on the topic
  • sort the best information from what'’s been gathered
  • connect pieces of information into a cohesive whole
  • share the information or ideas through one or more communication formats (i.e.:  writing, verbal presentation, PowerPoint, etc.)


Good research starts with a finely-tuned topic: what exactly do you want to know? The teacher will provide a framework of suitable topics, which may require the student to further narrow down the field. If the topic is ‘bears’, do you want to learn about the different kinds of bears or study only one variety, such as the polar bear, to learn about habitat, food and major traits? A manageable topic helps keep the research focused. Ensure that your child has discussed his or her topic with the teacher before seeking information.


Young people require skills to break down large projects into manageable tasks, something which can be challenging even for adults. Though project planning can be complex, it’'s not necessarily difficult when taken in steps which may include:

  • selecting a topic within the framework the teacher has provided
  • deciding what tasks need to be done to successfully complete the assignment
  • determining what skills and resources are needed
  • identifying barriers to success and finding solutions to these challenges
  • estimating the time needed for each task
  • ensuring everything is accomplished within the due dates given

Project management benefits from bouncing ideas against many heads and your child can benefit from sharing ideas with you. Help clarify a young person'’s thinking and keep them on track.

For more information on project planning:


After your child has scoped out the overall project plan around a clearly-defined topic, the next step is to gather information. The challenge here is to decide the best places to look. Depending on the topic, books and encyclopedias could still be excellent sources, but if the topic is the latest developments in the space program, the Internet is probably the way to go.

Questions to ask your child:

  • What kind of information does your topic require - current, as in updated in the last few months, or is it still accurate if the information is a few years old?
  • What information can be obtained at home, at school or at the public library?
  • Will other kinds of information be required, such as interviews?
  • Does the teacher require a bibliography of sources such as encyclopedias, books and web sites?

For an excellent site that provides student-friendly research tools, try:


Though the Internet provides a tremendous amount of information with only a few keywords, too much is not always a good thing. Not only is online research overwhelming but many sites are either outdated or hold deliberately false information. How does a student sort out the good from the bad while avoiding the countless distractions and perils the Internet provides?

The short answer is focus. Special sites have been developed especially for students with information composed so that it is more digestible for young people. Kathy Shrock has developed a tool that helps parents and educators evaluate information at:

The task of evaluating information applies even if the best sources are used. You can help your child become a wise information consumer by asking them to check the authenticity of online or print resources by using a basic checklist:

  • Is the author/organization well-known and trustworthy and an authority on the topic? How do you know?
  • How do you know if the information is outdated or current?
  • Is someone trying to sell something and, if so, could this make the information suspicious?


One of the problems teachers see over and over again is plagiarism. Many students will either copy out or download tracts of someone else’'s published work directly into their own assignments. Not only is this against copyright laws but the ‘copy and paste’ method of research does little to help students’ thinking. The process of taking notes is a key learning stage. Good note-taking not only avoids plagiarism but is often where information is processed into ideas.

Questions to ask your child:

  • How will you keep track of the titles, etc. of the resources you use?
  • How will you record (make notes from) the information taken from each resource?

For note-taking to be effective, it needs to be written in the student’'s own words. One of the best ways to do this is by using special forms designed to prevent students from recording whole paragraphs of someone else’'s writing. These forms are organized into columns that encourage jotting down key words instead of chunks of information. Samples of special note-taking sheets are available for download from the Family Education site:,2358,23-28245,00.html with additional tools available at


Organizing information is a key step to organizing ideas and well-organized notes makes this step much easier. Here are some guiding questions for your child:

  • What are the most important points?
  • Have you repeated things or included something that doesn'’t belong?
  • Can key ideas be organized under topic headings?
  • Can you describe information gathered in your own words? 
    This link provides additional information on organizing ideas plus fun quizzes:,1399,23-27927,00.html


Teachers generally provide acceptable sharing formats when projects are first assigned. Written assignments, though the most common, are far from the only way in which students can share their work with others. PowerPoint presentations, dioramas, verbal presentations and radio broadcasts are only a few of the communication styles commonly encouraged in classrooms.