Inquiry Learning

10 Effective Ways to Foster Students' Independent Thinking Skills

Kickstart your learners' independent thinking skills with these effective ways. 

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. Luckily there are innumerable ways for teachers to help students develop independent thinking skills. Below is an infographic provided for us by Venngage featuring 10 of them.

Independent thinking skills are at the forefront of learning how to be not only a great thinker but a great leader. Such skills teach our learners how to make sense of the world based on personal experience and observation, and to make critical well-informed decisions in the same way. As such, they gain confidence and the ability to learn from mistakes as they build successful and productive lives.


1. Create an Open Environment

Students are used to sitting in class and listening to teachers, but those who want to encourage independent thinking should make clear on the first day of class that their class will be different. Let learners know there will be fewer passive lectures and more opportunities for them to talk and write about what they learn. For example, putting up a sign in class reminding students every day that they should be active learners reinforces that you are paving the way for independent thinking.

2. Reward Initiative

Giving students the same assignments and tests is not the best way to determine every student’s grade. That's why teachers should make it clear from the beginning 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.

3. Scrutinize Independent Work

Teachers must be willing to be as specific as possible when reviewing the work—a grade and a few comments are not enough. In this case, use the 3X3 Rule—tell students at least 3 things that they did right and give them 3 tips for improvement.

4. Assign Research Projects

If you have 25 students in a 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"

Allowing students who do a research project to share the information they learned with the class has two advantages. First, the student-teachers have the opportunity to improve their oral communication skills. Second, the other students in the 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.

7. Encourage Dissenting Views

Students should be allowed to make up their own minds about important topics as much as possible. In this sense, 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. For example, a debate between pro-American and pro-British forces might 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.

8. Encourage Brainstorming

Historically, students who take notes tend to write down the highlights of teachers’ lectures. Instead of this, teachers should 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.

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 while Adams and Jefferson did not. There have been books written about the second question. Ask your students to read them!

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