How to Create an Independent Research Program for Students

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

When students work independently, they develop a sense of autonomy that is not experienced using other instructional methods. In this lesson, we will learn the role teachers play in helping students design an independent research project.

Autonomous Learning

Independent research is a form of student-centered instruction that focuses on developing autonomy with minimal teacher support. However, before students are ready to work on their own, they will need some help designing the project. In many cases, some guided practice precedes autonomous learning. Let's learn more about the ways teachers can prepare students for independent research.

Why Use Independent Research?

Before we get started on how to develop a project, let's begin by talking about why teachers would utilize independent research. Many teachers make the mistake of giving advanced and gifted learners independent projects in lieu of other types of instruction. Independent learning is not a replacement for other types of instruction. Rather, it's one of several instructional formats that teachers can alternate between to get the most out of their students.

In addition to developing autonomy, independent research is a way that teachers can differentiate instruction for their students. Differentiating instruction means the teacher individualizes the instruction based on a student's interests, abilities, or talents.

Research projects also provide students the opportunity to study specific concepts in depth, using scientific principles for gathering information. Scientific principles refer to the universally accepted practices for collecting information based on guiding questions, relevant theories, direct investigation, logical inferencing, repeated results, and independent verification.

Guided Practice

It is important to remember, that when initiating an independent research project, this will be a new skill for students. Teachers will need to build in time to allow students the chance to practice working independently. According to Albert Bandura's social learning theory, learning takes place when a more knowledgeable other (teacher, peer, or computer) models new learning and provides an opportunity for guided practice before gradually releasing the student to work independently. Guided practice is when the teacher closely monitors students and provides support while students are practicing a new skill.

Planning and Implementation

How do we begin? Every independent research project will vary based on what the student and teacher hope to accomplish. The first thing teachers and students need to agree upon is a focus for the project. Once the objectives are clearly defined, the student and teacher can work collaboratively to develop a learning contract that defines the expectations for both the teacher and student while the student is working independently. The learning contract clearly outlines the project's learning goals, sub-goals, methods, materials, and timelines. It is important for teachers and students to decide how frequently they should meet to discuss and monitor the student's progress and to also include this in the learning contract.

Learning contracts typically provide for some degree of creativity on the part of the student, while maintaining focus on the objectives. One of the challenges for teachers who are using this method is staying organized while having multiple activities happening simultaneously, as each student will need continual monitoring and coaching to stay on target.


As part of the project design process, a method of assessment should be established. Rubrics and analytical checklists are two grading methods that work well with project-based assignments, such as research projects.

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