Teaching Strategies

How to Make the Most of Independent Work Time

Students often struggle with procrastination during solo work time, but teachers can manage it in a way that supports deep learning.

July 5, 2024

In many of today’s classrooms, you’ll find students on individual computers, working while their teacher circulates. Independent work time has become a mainstay, with one-to-one technology making it even more ingrained. 

There are benefits to this approach, but it also comes with challenges, like keeping students on task while providing efficient, effective support. In an attempt to tackle this dilemma, I implemented a three-part system for the days when my students needed more extensive independent work time: framing the work time with an opening “triage activity”; intentionally setting and, if necessary, resetting the environment; and incorporating midway and end-of-work-time debriefs.

Below, I explain each part of the system and share insights from my first year implementing it. 

Step 1: Triage Conferencing Time

When students will be working independently for more than 15 minutes, I project a list of options for them to indicate where they are and how they’re feeling. For example, during a sophomore research unit, options included “confident and rolling,” “doing OK for now on my own,” “I have a specific and quick question,” and “I hit a wall and need support.”

I have a number next to each option, and every student jots down their chosen number on a sticky note or in their spiral notebook, where I can easily see it as I circulate. 

The benefits of this approach are twofold: Students have to actively reflect on their understanding of the task and current progress in a tangible way (a skill that translates beyond the classroom); and teachers can differentiate their support, first attending to students who indicated they had a “specific and quick question,” then having more extensive conferencing time with students who said they “hit a wall and need support.”

By looking at the numbers that students choose, I do this without interrupting them unnecessarily—I move through the room and know immediately where a student is at and what they need, which is even more important in my largest classes.

Step 2: Set the Environment 

Another helpful strategy for setting students up for success during independent work time is to embed a countdown clock on a projected slide deck. In my experience, it’s important to set a specific time frame for students and provide a visual. 

This also allows me to hold myself accountable to doing a scan of the classroom once we’re five minutes in. Observing students, I ask myself these questions: What percentage of students are actively on task? If they’re allowed to use technology, are they using it as a tool? For those students who initially said they were “confident,” has that momentum continued?

If the classroom isn’t where you need it to be, stop and reset for a better environment. It’s much easier to do this after five minutes than waiting until later in the session, when the environment has been established. You can also repeat directions in a positive way.

For example, I might say, “Hey everyone! I’m going to pull you back, as I noticed that I moved too quickly through the directions and want to emphasize the expectation that….”

Step 3: Create Space for Debriefing

Earlier in my career, I didn’t create enough time to be intentional about how students exit from independent work time. This can be a simple yet valuable step. Have students give themselves a score between one and five based on how productive they believe they were, and have them write down an explanation about why. This is also a great chance to have them share and reflect collaboratively, making sure the classroom community is strong, even on days more heavily skewed toward independent work.

You may even want to break work time into two separate sections with a debrief midway, followed by a reset of expectations. Though this may feel like an interruption, it models for students what it looks like to hold yourself accountable during an independent task. 

Before fully exiting from work time, I also like to have students complete an exit ticket in which they write what their next steps are for the task or share a lingering question they have. If you’re going to return to the task in a future lesson, collect responses and showcase them before the next work time to connect the work and ensure that it isn’t fragmented by the limitations of the bell schedule.

Improving Independent Work Time Matters

It feels important to note that I very much believe the classroom should be a collaborative space. Making it such has been, and continues to be, a priority for me throughout my teaching career. But sometimes students need time to work, and building their capacity to use that time efficiently and intentionally can serve them long after school.

Whether they find themselves in a professional position in which they frequently have to multitask under a deadline, or they choose to work remotely, which itself requires self-management, the ability to take ownership over one’s process—and then reflect on that process afterward—is not just an in-the-classroom skill. It’s a lifelong skill that is made more meaningful when students have chances to develop it, with support, at school. 

I’ve often found that students who begin our work time noting that they are “doing OK for now” later realize, midway or even at the end of our independent working session, that they in fact need support. In debriefs, they have revisited and adjusted their initial answers to take accountability for where they actually are, which has led to important conversations about how to advocate for support earlier and more effectively in future spaces.

That’s why I believe in providing a reflective lens through which to enter and exit independent work time in a reliable, purposeful classroom environment: I believe we can make the classroom better for students in the short and long term.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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