10 Effective Ways to Foster Students’ Independent Thinking Skills

by | Jan 7, 2017

There are innumerable ways for teachers to help students develop independent thinking skills. When students become active learners, they learn that there might be more than one correct answer to a question and whether an answer is “correct” might be more subjective than objective.

Below are two questions. Would you rather have students answer the first or second one “correctly?”

Question 1: Which of the following men signed the U.S. Constitution?
A. George Washington  B. John Adams  C. Thomas Jefferson  D. James Madison.

Question 2: What’s the significance of the U.S. Constitution?

Unfortunately, teachers spend too much time preparing students to answer questions like the first question correctly and not enough time preparing them to think about how to answer questions like the second question in their own words. “One of the primary goals of an educator should be to help students develop the desire and ability to think on their own,” says the NDT (Nondestructive Testing) Resource Center in its “Fostering Independent Thinking” report.

Fostering Independent Thinking Skills in the Classroom

In its “Problem-Solving Skills” report, the resource center notes that employers regard a college graduate’s problem-solving skills as an important criteria when they make a hiring decision. “Students need to develop the ability to apply problem-solving skills when faced with issues or problems that are new to them,” the report says.

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1. Create An Open Environment

Students are used to sitting in class and listening to teachers. Teachers who want to encourage independent thinking should make clear on the first day of class that their class will be different—that there will be fewer passive lectures and more opportunities for students to talk and write about what they are learning. A sign in class that will remind students every day that they should be active learners can reinforce the points that the teacher expressed on the first day of class.

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2. Reward Initiative

Giving students the same assignments and tests is not the best way to determine every student’s grade. Teachers should make it clear from the first day of class that they want their students to be active learners rather than passive learners. For example, students who volunteer to write a report for extra credit should be encouraged to do so. The report can be on one of the topics of a test and can be a replacement for that test.

3. Scrutinize Independent Work

It is absolutely not enough to give students extra credit for extra work and not give those same students feedback on their work. Teachers need to be willing to be as specific as possible when reviewing the work. A grade and a few comments is not enough. It’s important to tell students at least three things that they did right and then give them at least three tips for improvement.

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4. Assign Research Projects

You have 25 students in class. Why should they all read the same chapter in a Social Studies book or answer the same Math questions again and again? Having every student do one or more research project in lieu of the regular homework during the school year will help most, if not all, of the students develop a different skill. You might, for example, ask one student to research how many other nations have constitutions similar to the American Constitution.

5. Let The Students “Teach”

Students who do a research project should be allowed to share the information they learned with the class. This teaching method has two advantages: the student-teachers have the opportunity to improve their oral communication skills, and the other students in class might learn more when they are being taught by a classmate. “When students listen to each other, they often benefit from hearing concepts being explained from different points and in ways that might be closer to the students’ way of thinking,” says the NDT report “Developing Communication Skills.”

6. Let The Students Pretend

Having students pretend to live in Colonial America before or during the Revolutionary War can help them understand concepts of freedom and democracy much better than listening to lectures about the subject. A play might help the students think more independently about these concepts. Asking students to make or write a speech as if they were revolutionaries might also help.

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7. Encourage Dissenting Views

Students should be allowed to make up their own minds about important topics. Thus, classroom discussions should be encouraged to allow students to debate important topics. Teachers might facilitate the debates by asking some students to pretend to be the “losers” in history. A debate between pro-American and pro-British forces might, for example, get students to think more deeply about concepts that pertain to the present day such as whether people in present-day dictatorships should be encouraged to revolt.

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8. Encourage Brainstorming

Historically, students who take notes write down the highlights of teachers’ lectures. Teachers should instead encourage students to write down questions and ideas that they have. Some students will appreciate the opportunity to share their ideas orally, but journals can also give shy students a chance to write down their thoughts and submit the highlights of what they wrote to their teacher.

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9. Ask Open-Ended Questions

You might not always get adult answers, but students often appreciate being asked difficult questions. Here are some examples:

  • What is freedom?
  • What is democracy?
  • What should be your rights as a citizen?

Putting students in small groups to discuss these questions is a good idea. Asking each group to present the highlights of its discussion to the rest of the class is also a good idea. Returning to the same question months later might give students an opportunity to show that their independent thinking skills on many questions have improved.

10. Focus On The Positive

Risk-taking should be rewarded, so praise students for taking risks and then focus on getting them to think about the validity of their ideas. The next step is getting them to improve their communication skills. Correct spelling and grammar is part of better communication skills, but far from the only part.

As you know, Washington and Madison signed the Constitution—Adams and Jefferson did not. There have been books written about the second question. Ask your students to read them!


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