Independent LearningA trend is underway toward increased amounts of homework and more sophisticated thinking about schoolwork for middle and upper school students. Teachers often assign homework and projects or schedule tests for their students under the assumption that the students are able to learn new material on their own in advance of it being covered in class. This trend toward using homework to learn or apply, rather than to just practice and reinforce, is different from the way many parents (and these teachers) experienced homework when they were teenagers! Nowadays, many teachers ask students to pre-read and annotate chapters that will be discussed the next day in class, so the task of ‘reading for meaning’ and of ‘reading to learn’ new information has greatly increased at the middle to upper school levels.  A student’s ability to work in this way is a developmental process, with ages and stages that are predictable based on a variety of factors. These factors include the children’s age, physical and thinking stamina, stage of  development for language and critical thinking, reading and writing ability, capacity for frustration tolerance, and executive functions.

This change in expectations over the past five to eight years is happening in part to changes in attitudes toward learning and policies (whether mandated by federal or state law or as part of an independent school’s mission) that reflect philosophies of instruction.  Education policy and methodologies go through cycles and trends, just as other aspects of society shift with the changing of time. One example of this in the twentieth century was ‘The Great Reading Debate” between those, such as Goodman, who valued progressive ‘Whole Language’ or  “Look-Say’ methods and researchers such as (my former Harvard Ed School Professor) Jeanne Chall, whose research validating the necessity of formal phonics instruction served as the impetus for the United States government to recommend the return of formal reading instructionfor phonics and reading comprehension to the curriculum.

These debates are now at play and impacting the lives of millions of middle and upper school students as they return from a day of learning in the classroom, football practice and debate team meets. The Common Core, developed in response to education reform mandates by the United States Federal government, is a key factor in this trend. This approach outlines an approach to developing curricula that requires children of all ages to absorb, integrate and use information in new ways. Some of this approach has been  developed, presented and effectively used for decades in systematic forums, whether as optional enrichment work or via math clubs such as well-respected, vanguard Continental Math League. Here, students often are mentored after school or in honors classes about ways of approaching tasks or finding solutions in different ways.  However, the pendulum has swung beyond CML as a helpful enhancement and toward constant integration across many courses. We are moving toward a culture of speeded acquisition of facts and application to new formats as basic elements of the schoolday, evening homework and weekend prep.

When modeled in the classroom, this philosophy of instruction and the materials  the teachers use can effectively tap into general concepts. Teachers can break down or scaffold how to use the content with new twists and turns. The hope is that students will be able to apply the concepts in a new way with independence, and the impact on America’s children is significant. Nevertheless the experiment of Common Core is that, a work in progress, and one in which millions of children and parents are attempting to adapt to this new format. Teachers are learning how to create road maps and cues that students can use in their independent work, but these waters are largely unchartered for the teachers and their students. One result is that students are being asked to ‘read to learn’ much more material on their own and to think critically about concepts. Often students are asked to develop their own systems for recognizing connections and for applying ideas or sequences to new questions after a long day of formal classroom instruction.

A critical goal for middle and upper school learning is that our children to learn how to think about information and ideas rather than simply memorize facts. Nevertheless, many of our children require guidance in understanding themselves as learners, or metacognition as they practice applying the information on their own. Same for note-taking for podcasts or primary sources that introduce information they have not been taught in the classroom as preparation for independent work.

While this can be stressful, there are specific tools that some teachers opt to include in the classroom (I often consult to teachers and schools about linking content instruction to metacognitive awareness). These strategies can also be taught to students in 1:1 customized instructional sessions. At Ivy Prep, we are embarking upon a new program that is available as a supplement to the individual work we do or as a workshop for students who could use guidance and practice in developing these independent skills with the mentorship of specialists who are aware of their specific goals. We present it to our students in this way:


The first step in independent learning is to take responsibility for your own studying. This includes developing personal strategies based on your learning style and seeking out resources beyond those provided by teachers and tutors. This will enable you to to push ahead through work and still have time to enjoy special hobbies, friends and activities that offer a balance to the grind that school can become, especially as the amount of daylight turns shorter and the to-do lists seem to be ever-expanding.

Identifying your learning style and tailoring your study habits to reflect it will help you learn independently. There are ways you can better understand the type of learner you are and how to maximize that style for each class you are taking. For example, if you are more of an auditory learner and the History textbook reading about the impact of the Constitution on the institution of slavery has confusing ideas, you might have an easier time if you first ‘warm up’ by listening to this video podcast interview with Professor (and US History textbook author)  Eric Foner on the topic and reviewing the outline that covers the basics.


The second step is to set goals and deadlines so you don’t find yourself cramming at the very last moment. Break down large tasks into manageable chunks and decide when you will complete each one. If there is one task which you are consistently pushing off, figure out why you are having difficulties with it and find a strategy that will help you get it done. For instance, if you have trouble getting the first few sentences on paper, “make a deal” with yourself that once you have three sentences written or a basic outline jotted down, you will take a break and do something fun. When you return to the writing, you will find it easier to continue now that the first barrier has been broken down.

As my prior blogs about managing time notes, one part of managing tasks is knowing what the mini-steps of tasks are,  how to best approach them given your learning style and the teacher’s requirements and how long those smaller steps will take.  Each of these elements is a key ingredient in the recipe you will use to learn on your own and manage the tasks of learning with greater success, more ease, and less stress.


Once you have completed your work (and hopefully enjoyed doing something truly fun later that night or weekend), you can move toward assessing what was helpful and effective about the approach you used. So, the third step is to look back at your completed schoolwork and reflect on why specific techniques were useful and how your approach can be improved in the future.  By meeting with your teacher and reviewing teacher feedback, you can pinpoint where you have grown and identify challenges or complications you’d like to troubleshoot for the next assignments. Ivy Prep offers customized techniques to do that (ones that match the student’s learning style and the methods and philosophy of instruction of a given school, insights I have from thirty years of teaching students 1:1 and collaborating with faculty about their curricula). And, of course your teacher is a critical resource to identify strategies that can move you ahead. If your teacher does not provide you with feedback, ask for it!


You may find that you need some help in following these three steps. If that’s the case, we recommend you join us at Ivy Prep Learning Center’s new Structured Study Room. Ivy Prep Learning Center aims to provide students with the customized tools to develop independent learning strategies using actual school assignments. The center’s learning specialists help students identify their learning styles and develop strategies for working effectively at home and at school. Our newest Structured Study Room course is a weekend program aimed at teens who learn well in a group and who want to get to that next stage of independence and efficiency. In two-hour sessions, the students will learn study and time management skills and have the opportunity to practice them by bringing their school assignments to the course and working on them with the help of specialists, who will advise each student on how he or she can best tackle the work. I will be speaking with students and their parents to identify specific goals and strategies that instructors can help students learn and practice, with an eye toward ‘getting the job done,’ learning techniques that are effective, efficient and transferrable, and reducing stress for students and their families.  Technology and print materials will be introduced and offered as resources to make those connections in a strong and speedier way.  Individual game plans will be developed based on those discussions and more than 100,000 hours of direct experience as a learning specialist, in teaching students individually, getting to know the subtleties of schools, and mentoring instructors since 1985 at Ivy Prep. The course begins December 6 and registration is now open. To learn more and register, please contact us at office@ivy-prep.com.

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