In order to preserve my voice and sanity, every now and then I’ll give an entire lesson over to the students to do independent research.
This isn’t random ‘here is a topic loosely related to the content’ research
This isn’t a usual worksheet on which they need to answer questions from a specific website.
It’s not even a webquest.
It’s the students learning the content through independent research.
How it Works
Depending on the ability of the group, you can simply give them a list of the specific content topics they need to learn about and leave the rest up to them (e.g. longitudinal waves).
If they need more guidance, provide very simple questions for them to answer in turn (e.g. draw a diagram of a longitudinal waves, then describe what compression and rarefaction are).
The idea is they write notes for themselves based on the topic/questions into their exercise book, in a format that will help them to learn the content. This, of course, will be different for each class. Some will prefer bullet points, some diagrams, some paragraphs. Let them decide for themselves what works best for them – they will enjoy the work more, and are more likely to actually learn the content, when they are given a choice.
My year 11 group, for example, prefer to have the specific questions, and to be able to create a poster or something a bit more creative to record their information. My year 10s, on the other hand, prefer a bit less scaffolding and to simply write notes in their exercise books.
You can also direct them to specific websites, but unless we’re on a time limit I prefer to give them the freedom to search for themselves. Students can always do with more practice researching, and there’s no better time than when you are there to help them, especially without the pressure of completing an assignment.
I often find they will share their websites with each other when they find something good, or redirect each other away from ‘useless’ websites. They are also getting quite good at finding appropriate diagrams in Google Images – they will now go for the more complex ones with proper labels, instead of the one that looked the easiest and quickest to draw.
Sometimes, but not always, I will go through the information at the end of the lesson to clear up any confusion. More often though I will circulate throughout the lesson and read what they are writing as they go.
There is always the possibility that students will simply copy words from the internet without really taking it in. I find giving them flexibility to present the work in a way that they prefer helps with this, as does me circling. As you go around you can always ask them quick questions about what they just wrote to check for understanding. Also, if students see you circling and helping others they may be more inclined to ask for help in the first place.
Of course this whole concept raises issues of behaviour management, again more of an issue for younger students and larger groups.I find it works better with older students, as the younger ones can find it a bit hard to find the correct information and are often more easily distracted.
I am lucky enough to have one class with 15 students, and another with 20, and it works absolutely wonderfully with them, most of the time.
It is entirely unfair to expect them to have complete engagement at all times – they are human after all, and will talk about things that come to mind simply because they can. They will of course chat and go off topic at times, but I simply (and gently) redirect them back to the work when they need it.
Often you will find (with the better behaved students at least) they will redirect themselves back to the work eventually, and sometimes they just need a little mental break.
Giving a specific time limit works well, for example they have to answer x number of questions before the end of the lesson. Consequences for those who muck around too much can be to stay back at lunch/after school to complete the work, or to do it for homework (on top of whatever you set for everyone else).
Give it a Go!
I encourage you to try this with your own classes, but do be aware it can take them (and you) time to get used to doing something different like this. As ever with any new way to present content, take it slow and let yourselves adjust. Or, if you feel like this won’t actually work with your class, don’t do it! You know your classes best!