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Blog / 5 Ways to Turn Your Students into Independent Learners
Banner image for blog post with text on the left that reads, “5 ways to turn your students into independent learners,” and an image on the right showing a student in a gray hoodie looking at a laptop while holding a pen above a notepad.

5 Ways to Turn Your Students into Independent Learners

Three students have their hands up. One is at your elbow asking for the bathroom pass. Oh – and a whole group is off-task!

The classroom can feel like a juggling act – it feels like everyone needs your help at once. 

In this blog post, I’m going to share five ways you can transform your students into independent learners. 

Yep, students who can solve their own problems, are engaged with their work, and actively learn on their own!

Let’s dive in!

1. Teach your students to use “3-before-me” when they need help

Text and infographics on a pale yellow background. The text reads, “Stuck? Use 3-before-me” with brain, book and buddy images and arrows between them.

I wish I knew who first devised this catchy phrase – but alas I don’t! 

3-before-me means that your students should be seeking help from 3 sources BEFORE asking you for help.

Our attention cannot be given to all students at all times. We need our students to try to find the answers to their questions themselves. This is a great life skill too!

The three sources students should use before asking you for help are:

  • Brain: students need to take some time to think about their question and see if they can solve it themselves. I often find that students can answer their own questions. They just haven’t taken a moment to actually figure it out for themselves!
  • Book (or binder or notebook or interactive notebook – whatever your students use in class to store their notes): students should check to see if they already have the answer within their notes.
  • Buddy: if they are still stuck, students should politely ask a classmate if they can help them. I would set some parameters around who they can ask. You don’t want them walking across the classroom to “ask” their bestie and spending the next 10 minutes chatting about their weekend.

Explicitly go through the idea of 3-before-me with students. Explain that it will help them become more independent, which is an important skill in education and life. Then refer to it constantly.

“Miss Forte, I need help.”

“Have you used three-before-me?”


“Ok, try that and then let me know if you still need my help”.

You can even put a poster on your wall that explains 3-before-me. It’s a great visual reminder for students.

This will take some time to embed – students who are used to immediately being told the answer will struggle initially. But TRUST me – it is worth the effort to develop this independence in your students. 

2. Give your students activities that can be completed independently

I like using activities that I can simply explain and then sit back and let students get to work.

This means less teacher talk & more student work. Talk about a win-win!

Ok, so I don’t actually sit back, put my feet up, and think, “job done”. Instead, I circulate the classroom and support students as and when they need it. I will also pull small groups of students who need extra teacher time. 

This gives me a chance to support the students that need it most.

And it means students are actually applying themselves – figuring out what they understand, what they don’t, and actively learning!

Now of course, not all activities are set up for independent learning. It’s important to choose activities that give students clear instructions

I create my Google Slides and Doodle Notes specifically for independent learning.

I put tips & hints in call-out bubbles on the side of a slide. I use examples of new skills, like constructing Punnett Squares, so students understand how they work. I put links to videos so students can get information before applying it in the follow-up activities.

Screenshot of a Google Slides activity for Evidence of Evolution showing instructions for the activities that allow independent learning.

In short, I make activities that students can complete without a high level of teacher input.

Choose activities that promote independent learning by using this checklist:

  • Does it have clear student instructions?
  • Does it include information needed to complete the activities (e.g. an informational text, a video, an example)?
  • Does it pitch the activity / questions at a level suitable for YOUR students?

As with the 3-before-me method, it will still take some time for your students to get comfortable with completing activities independently.

If you normally complete activities together as a class, you will need to ease them in a little.

You can start by doing a portion of the activity together, then explain that you’re going to give them a small chunk of time to work on their own. Come back together after 10 minutes and review. Then, set them off on their own again for the next 10 minutes. 

Eventually, your students will be able to work independently for most of the period.

3. Answer questions with questions

A teacher in a yellow cardigan and white shirt sits beside a student in a green shirt. The teacher smiles as the student explains something.

Ok, so that sounds confusing. Answer questions with questions? Emma, what are you talking about? 

Well what do you think I’m talking about?

See what I did there?!

If a student asks me, “Miss, what comes above genus?” (in the classification of organisms), I’d say, “Can you remember your classification mnemonic?” and then, “Great, so can you remember what the F stands for?” and maybe another hint if they’re still stuck, “This might help. Lions, leopards and cheetahs all belong to what?” – the cat family!

I LOVE this approach.

And I really believe that we are not serving our students by just giving them the answer. That’s what Google is for!

We need to coax the answers out of them, guide them to think more deeply about the question they’re asking – because often the answer is already in their brain somewhere.

So the next time a student asks you a question, try answering it with another question and help them work their way to the answer.

4. Reward effort rather than grades

Our students will never become independent learners if they are too scared to get things wrong.

We need to empower them to make mistakes, because trying things on their own and seeing what works is more valuable than just having them mindlessly copy down answers from the board.

We can embed this growth mindset in our students by rewarding effort and independence rather than grades.

Celebrate mistakes!

Highlight a student’s amazing effort on their last assignment!

A teacher in a blue shirt and tie high-fives a smiling student in a gray polo shirt.

How we use praise with our students is so important. We’re all human and love to hear compliments (even when we blush and pretend we don’t). We just need to make sure we’re praising the right things – effort and independence.

Here are some examples:

“I’m really impressed with how focused and independent you were in class today”

“Your effort has been phenomenal today, well done”

“I loved that you didn’t give up after the first try, that’s a great attitude”

“I’ve noticed how hard you’ve been working these last few weeks, keep it up”

“Well done on figuring out the answer yourself, that’s amazing”

“It was so nice to see you putting a lot of effort into your assignment, great job”

Take a moment to think about the types of praise you give your students and how you can reward effort and independence in your classroom.

5. Use group activities and projects

You might be surprised to see this in my list of ways to turn students into independent learners. But independence doesn’t mean working 100% alone, 100% of the time. It just means that students are not dependent on others.

Group activities can allow students to work together, with little teacher input.

The best group activities are when each student is active in their group (no coasting!) and the group is able to complete the activity without constantly needing your help.

A group of six students sit around a table working independently on laptops, iPads and paper.

Here are some things to look for when choosing and setting up a group activity:

  • Assign roles within the groups – a timekeeper, a notetaker, a materials manager, a facilitator – this makes sure every student contributes.
  • Clarity of instructions – the aim of the activity, how long groups have together, what they need to produce, how it will be graded, expectations of noise levels, etc. 
  • Grading – you could give a portion of the grade for effort & circulate the room to see who is contributing – and who isn’t! Make sure you tell students you will be grading effort – this is a great motivator!

While students are in their groups, don’t be tempted to go over and start helping a group who may be slightly struggling. They have each other for support!

It is amazing how much they can problem-solve without your input. I like to use this time to do some grading.

I love how independent my students can be with a little bit of training and the right activities.

Practicing independence helps accelerate student learning and gives them skills for the real world.

If you’d like some ready-to-use activities that promote independent learning, be sure to check out my store.

I hope you have a wonderful day,

Emma The Teachie