10 Ways to Take Control of Your Own Studies (Even While You’re Still at School)

School can become chafing for certain students.

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Some students dislike school because they’re not very good at doing what they’re told, especially when what they’re told is “work hard” or “stop distracting your friends”. But others dislike school because they think they would do better with less instruction and more independence. The move to university, where you have a choice of modules and much more control over where, when and how you study, is freeing for many students; plenty of previously mediocre school students blossom when they reach university as a result.
If you’re in the latter group, it can be frustrating if your difficulties with being told what to do all the time seem to your teachers like you’re misbehaving, rather than simply seeking independence. But it is possible to have more freedom even while you’re still at school to figure out the direction of your own studies and work more independently, thereby leaving you better prepared for university. To make this work well for you and your teachers, here are our top tips.

1. Read specifications and mark schemes

If you’re inclined to want more control over your own studies, one of the main questions you might finding yourself asking is, “why are we even studying this?” The straightforward answer may well be “because it’s in the specification”. That might feel like a frustrating answer if it’s something that doesn’t seem relevant to the rest of the course, or to your future studies. In some cases, it might even be that you’re being taught a simplified version of the reality, and if you’ve read more advanced materials, you’ll be able to see its inaccuracies.

Taking time to navigate course specifications is the simplest way to take control.
Taking time to navigate course specifications is the simplest way to take control.

But there are two things to bear in mind here. First of all, you may well not have the full picture. What you’re learning right now is part of a larger curriculum that should (hopefully) have been designed in an integrated way, so that what you learn now forms a solid base for future studies, both within and across different subjects. If learning something doesn’t make sense to you now, it might well make sense when you’re making connections a year or two further down the line. And second, even if it is completely irrational, if it’s in specifications or mark schemes you’ll be examined on it – so it may be best to swallow your frustration and learn the topic in order to achieve the best possible marks. If you understand the specification and mark scheme, you’ll have a head start in figuring out why different topics are being taught – and as you’ll see in the rest of this article, that’s all-important in taking control of your studies.

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2. Work out the purpose of what you’re taught in class

Beyond knowing that you’re being taught something because it shows up in the specification or mark scheme, it’s worth figuring out the deeper purpose of why it’s on the syllabus in the first place.

Why are you studying Shakespeare? Why that particular play?
Why are you studying Shakespeare? Why that particular play?

Imagine you’re in English Literature and studying Shakespeare. Someone, somewhere has decided which play or plays you ought to be focusing on, and they might have chosen – for instance – Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Why those? Why not Titus Andronicus and Henry IV Part 1? It might be because you’re studying theatre with a focus on its historical context, and Macbeth provides a great opportunity to talk about James I, kingship in 17th century England, and contemporary views of witchcraft – which may be more interesting and relatable than the tangled web of context around Henry IV Part 1. Or possibly it’s just because Macbeth is considerably shorter and frankly, more entertaining. Much Ado About Nothing is generally considered a better play than Titus Andronicus, and unlike Titus, has not yet caused anyone to faint in horror. But it might also be that it’s part of a broader syllabus decision to look at comedic portrayals of courtly manners, that will tie in with the works of other writers in other eras further down the line.

3. Take opportunities to do ‘none of the above’

So now you know the reasoning behind why you’re being taught what you’re being taught. If you’ve followed the first two tips in this article, you’ll be in a position to start taking control of your own studies properly. One of the easiest channels for doing this is by taking any opportunities presented to you to do ‘none of the above’.

Are you ready to go your own way?
Are you ready to go your own way?

Particularly for things like coursework, there might be a list of set or recommended topics or titles, with the possible option of coming up with a title yourself. If you want to start working more independently, taking these opportunities to choose your own topics and titles is vital. If you’ve properly understood the reasoning behind the set titles, you should be able to work out one of your own that draws on ideas you’re interested in while staying true to the aims of the course. This is hard work, and potentially a high-risk strategy as there’ll be less pre-prepared support available to you, but if you can pull it off, your work will stand out from the crowd.

4. Spend time studying things you haven’t been set

Taking control of your own studies inevitably means doing extra work. That begins with things like taking the hard option of writing your own questions where possible, but that’s only part of it. If you really want to take control of what you’re learning, you also need to learn the things that are being left out of your current curriculum.

It always helps to read around a subject.
It always helps to read around a subject.

That may sound sinister, but it isn’t – it’s just that there isn’t enough time in the school year to cover every aspect of every possible topic, and so decisions will have been made about what to include and what not to include. Reading around the subject and looking at the topics that have been excluded allows you to find out what you’re interested in and what you might like to explore in more details independently. This means looking beyond your set reading and spending time in the library or on the internet exploring the topic more broadly. There are some great research resources out there – you might want to start with putting the topic you’re interested in into Google Scholar and seeing where it takes you.

5. Know what way of studying works best for you – and prove it

On the one hand, it’s obvious that the person who can judge best how you ought to study is you. You are uniquely experienced in your own life and way of thinking; you know yourself better than anyone else does, and that should include what methods of studying work best for you.

We all learn differently, and the sooner you identify your own style the better.
We all learn differently, and the sooner you identify your own style the better.

On the other hand, it’s obvious that the person who can judge best how you ought to study is your teacher. They have years – possibly decades – of experience of teaching people much like you to give them their expert understanding of what approach will work best for you. Your own opinion is likely to be subjective and flawed in comparison.
If you’re going to start arguing in favour of the former, you’ll need to be able to prove it. If your teacher gives you the privilege of more independence and control over your own studies, reward their faith in you by showing that it improves your performance and behaviour.

6. Talk to your teachers

This is lower down the list because if you want to be more independent at school, it would defeat the point if you go straight to your teachers for help with doing so. But once you have made the effort to start working more independently yourself, it is worth talking to your teachers to see if they have any suggestions. There may, for instance, be opportunities to write your own questions or choose your own topics that you might not otherwise have been made aware of.

Even though you're working independently, having a teacher on side can make all the difference.
Even though you’re working independently, having a teacher on side can make all the difference.

If you have shown that by taking control of your own studies, you’ve become a better student, your teachers are more likely to give you more freedom to work independently in future. If you’re lucky, they might even be willing to help out, for instance by providing you with extended reading lists, or giving you a heads up about lectures or courses that you could attend to expand your knowledge.

7. Try unconventional answers

Part of studying more independently is also thinking more independently. That is to say that once you’ve got permission from your teacher to write your own essay questions, and you’ve chosen a different topic from most of the rest of your class, you still haven’t really taken control in any meaningful way if you still give the answer to the question that most of the rest of your class would have given had they been set the same question.

Ensure your work stands out by thinking outside the box where it matters.
Ensure your work stands out by thinking outside the box where it matters.

There are conventional answers to most questions that you’ll be set or that you’ll choose, so think about how you might be able to answer differently. Are there points of view that normally get neglected, that you could focus on? Better yet, is there something that particularly interests you and that you’d like to explore in your answer? Trying to think outside the box in this way opens up new avenues of study for you to explore that you might not have discovered if you’d just followed your curriculum.

8. Get better at managing your own workload

When you're going it alone, managing your workload can rapidly become a Sisyphean task.
When you’re going it alone, managing your workload can rapidly become a Sisyphean task.

You might at some point have been under the impression that taking control of your own studies would result in a lower workload, as you’d be able to skip unnecessary topics and focus on the important things. But as this article has hopefully made clear, it’s likely to involve more work, not less. After all, there’s a lot of effort that you’d normally let your teacher and whoever wrote the curriculum handle for you that you now have to do for yourself.
This means you’ll also need to get better at managing your own workload. Hopefully, having taken the time to figure out what style of studying suits you best will have helped, as you’ll be able to study more efficiently. But there’s still a lot of library time that you’ll need to able to schedule in.

9. Try out online courses for topics you’re interested in

There’s only so far you can get in the average school library. But online there are endless options for courses to expand your horizons. Once you’ve got the increased freedom to decide the direction of your studies, it’s worth exploring a range of options to work out just what direction you might wish to take. Taking short online courses, such as those available through ORA Prep, lets you study topics and subjects that you might not have encountered in school. If there are choices coming up about which subjects you’ll be taking in future (for instance, in the transition from year 11 to the sixth form in the UK) then having tried out new subjects through an online course means your decision will be fully informed; you won’t just be picking a subject because an older sibling enjoyed it, for example.

10. Look into opportunities to study new things after school or during the holidays

It might be that despite all of the above, your school curriculum doesn’t offer that many opportunities to work independently, or that even though your teachers would love to give you the freedom you want, the school system that you’re in is just too restrictive to allow that kind of flexibility.

Why not combine your summer holiday with an exciting study abroad experience?
Why not combine your summer holiday with an exciting study abroad experience?

Don’t despair! There are still opportunities to stretch your academic wings and control the direction of your studies – it’s just that you might have to look for them outside of school instead. For instance, you might look into the courses you could take outside of school hours. Or you could try a summer school such as Oxford Royale Summer Schools, where you can choose your own subjects and the teachers will encourage you to develop your academic independence, giving you a taster of the kind of learning experience you might have when you go to university.

Have you found ways of gaining more independence at school? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: girl on hike; pencil sharpener; working at laptop; globeno entry sign; reading; taking notes; teacher; cat in box; pushing rock; aeroplane


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