Independent learning projects: Out on their own...

Written by: Dr Andrew K Shenton | Published:
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Familiar or new? A student’s topic selection for independent learning assignments can be crucial, but should they stick to what they know or explore uncharted waters? Dr Andrew K Shenton discusses

Independent learning assignments offer teachers a great opportunity to promote in their students the development of a wide variety of skills, especially those associated with reading, writing, finding and using information, critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and time-management.

Levels of motivation are likely to be high, too, if an entirely free choice of topic for investigation is permitted. Under these circumstances, a key initial consideration for the young person is whether the subject they elect to tackle is familiar to them or brand new.

Familiar topics often appeal to cautious learners or those who lack confidence. However, while some simply take comfort in revisiting an area they know well, others will see the assignment as a chance to indulge a personal passion.

Any experience of the subject that the young person may have can give them a “head-start” with their research in several ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, the individual should be equipped to understand the size of the area involved and thus make a sensible judgement on how far the scope of the study should extend.

They may have some awareness of the information sources available but if they have gained their enthusiasm for the area as a result of personal interest, rather than academic study, these materials may be inappropriate for use in a scholarly project. Despite clear shortcomings in the sources involved, learners may be tempted to fall back on these and scarcely read more widely.

Still, the student’s existing knowledge of the topic can render them well placed to recognise the inherent issues associated with the area and their complexity, and the learner may have few problems in identifying subject-specific vocabulary that would make effective search terms when they look further afield, even if their inclination is to resort to simplistic finding strategies.

They may also be advantageously positioned to detect inaccuracies in the material. There are many methods that people can employ to evaluate information but among the most popular is that of testing what is in front of them against their own experience of the topic. This technique works only, of course, if the reader already has a good understanding of the area.

From the teacher’s perspective, the strength of the knowledgeable learner’s position is not necessarily a benefit. Seeing no need for further action, the individual may rely on the method exclusively and ignore other sound and more widely applicable strategies for appraising information.

Some students faced with an entirely open-ended assignment will research topics that are unfamiliar to them. Many feel a “buzz” when investigating something new, and the students’ work is less likely to be affected by the personal opinions that may intrude when a learner knows a topic well.

If their experience of the subject has led them to take strong views on matters pertaining to it, the student may find it difficult to research the area in a truly objective fashion.

From a pedagogical standpoint, topics with which the young person is unfamiliar may afford a more complete foundation for learning, with the individual exploring sources they have never seen before and having no idea of the direction their work will take. This can, though, lead to motivational problems as students may become bogged down in issues that, to them, are less than stimulating and which, at the outset of the work, they did not realise they would need to cover.

In some academic courses, like the Extended Project Qualification, if the topic tackled by a learner is already known to them as a result of past or present studies, the danger of “dual accreditation” arises. Here students must be wary of infringing regulations stating that their submissions must be wholly original and in no way repeat work they have done before or which they are currently tackling in another area of the curriculum. When a student is addressing a familiar topic, much of their writing may be little more than a statement of what the individual already knows, whereas true research involves making new discoveries.

We can understand a learner’s familiarity with their topic in terms of a position on a spectrum, with two polar opposites and various shades of grey in between. In addition to there being many different levels of subject knowledge, other distinctions can be made. For example, a student may have a good understanding of the overall area but know little about the specific aspect they are scrutinising.

Students may, in fact, believe that such a contrast is attractive, feeling that this scenario allows them to exploit the advantages of addressing a new topic on one hand and a familiar one on the other.

I myself have found no evidence to suggest that there is any clear correlation between the degree of the candidate’s prior knowledge of the subject and their overall success in an independent learning assignment.

Undoubtedly, an appropriate topic and a suitable research question are more fundamental to high-quality research than subject familiarity, and the specific criteria that should be considered by a student in ensuring these prerequisites are beyond the scope of this article.

Although my personal specialism lies in promoting the kind of research associated with Extended Projects, the issues I have raised here emerge across a range of independent learning assignments staged at secondary level when a free choice of topics is allowed.

Both the avenues I have covered offer benefits and the teacher may elect, during the same academic year, to provide for their class two different opportunities where learners can nominate their own subjects.

On the first occasion, there may be a stipulation that the area should be well known to the student, while on the second it must be totally unfamiliar. As the principle that significant subject knowledge can be a pivotal factor in information retrieval success has long been accepted, we may conclude that, in terms of one element within the information-finding dimension of the work, students are likely to be more effective in their independent learning when tackling a familiar topic, so it would be wise to schedule this type of task first.

The teacher may introduce other variables, too. One assignment may be an individual enterprise, the other a group effort; it may be prescribed that one project should relate to a subject that would be useful at school, whereas the other can be centred on a personal interest.

This diversity enables students to develop skills that are required in response to particular situations as well as to see patterns in the application of other skills across different circumstances.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay and a former lecturer at Northumbria University. To read his previous articles for SecEd, including focused on the Extended Project Qualification, go to


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