From the English Teacher / EPQ Coordinator
A brief overview of independence in learning
Fostering independence in pupils is a goal for many of today’s educators and is also a key focus within the Wellington College China group. At Wellington College Tianjin, much emphasis has been placed on pupils utilising skills of metacognition, defined by Zimmerman as “the awareness of and knowledge about one’s own thinking” (2002, p.65). Thus, by turning implicit into the explicit, we are encouraging pupils to not take in information during lessons passively, but to become aware of their “personal limitations” (ibid) and, by extension, challenge their own and others’ preconceptions. There is a correlation between metacognition and independent learning since, by thinking metacognitively about their own thinking, pupils become “self-regulated learners” (ibid), whilst avoiding the fallacy criticised by Kirschner et al that independence equates to teachers giving “minimal guidance” (2010, p.75) or as it is frequently colloquially expressed, ‘just get on with it’. Instead, pupils have an awareness of their cognitive capabilities in order to reflect upon and structure their own learning experience.
Independence in the sixth form
For our sixth form pupils, the skill of independent learning is crucial as these pupils are on the precipice between secondary and tertiary education: leaving the nurturing familiarity of classroom-based teaching for the world of lectures, seminars and ruthless deadlines. Even the most motivated and determined A-level pupil, who accesses the curriculum at an advanced level, still needs enhanced metacognitive abilities in order to prepare for the demands of the world’s leading universities — destinations for so many of our pupils. Therefore, our question is: how can we further enhance the level of independence in learning in our high attaining sixth form pupils?
The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is an AS-level qualification which was introduced to our school last academic year to tackle the question postulated above. Pupils enrolled on the course undertake an independent research project in an area of their choice outside of their A-level studies, the outcome of which is a 5000-word dissertation, production log and presentation to a non-specialist audience. The pupils receive 30 hours of ‘training’ in skills such as referencing, source analysis and time-management tools, whilst the remainder of the qualification time (90 hours plus) is spent researching, logging and writing independently.
Table 1: The AQA EPQ Assessment objectives and weightings
In this qualification, it is not the case that pupils are left entirely on their own to complete the project, as Hendrick and Macpherson note “students cannot think critically about things they do not know” (2017, p.204). Instead, pupils apply the general skills to their chosen area, for example by critically dissecting an argument of a seminal author, engaging in a debate with a subject specialist or knowing how to evaluate the effectiveness of different methodologies. These skills, even if somewhat more rudimentary at the EPQ level, are suited to undergraduate studies since the EPQ requires pupils to not only acquire enhanced subject knowledge but to challenge their own and others’ ways of thinking. Thus, EPQ pupils are challenged both cognitively and metacognitively. The University of Cambridge has commented that:
We welcome the introduction of the Extended Project and would encourage you to undertake one as it will help you develop independent study and research skills and ease the transition from school/college to higher education.
(published on the AQA website, 2020)
Furthermore, a major attraction of the EPQ is that it requires pupils to be autonomous in their topic selection. As a result, the chosen topic will often evolve from merely being of superficial interest to the pupil, to being of genuine significance to both the pupil themselves and even wider academic circles. Hendrick and Macpherson write that “students need to be given real and significant things from the world to think with and about if teachers want to influence how they think about thinking” (ibid). However, I suggest that simply giving our high attaining pupils something which the teacher deems to be ‘significant’ is not enough. Instead, it is important to permit pupils the opportunity to actively seek and explore this significance through their work, generating an understanding of why it is important on a wider scale.
The final stage of the EPQ process requires pupils to transform their 5000-word essay into an engaging presentation. On Friday 9th October, the nine year 13 pupils presented their final projects in a marketplace display which contained an array of topics. The extensive list is contained in Table 2.
Why are the Western Balkans not part of the European Union and what is the primary cause for their heretofore non-accession?
To what extent was the Golden Age of economic growth in the USA (1950-73) caused by government intervention?
Quantum Computers: Risks to the future of modern day encryption and different methods of post quantum cryptography.
Perceptual Variations in Taste and Health: The Impact of Umami Sensitivity on Body Weight.
How did the conventions of Ancient Roman society influence its citizens’ perception of killing?
An investigation into how an application of existing concepts to the realm of complex numbers creates insightful mathematical ideas by exploring the theory of Julia and Mandelbrot sets.
Let the dragon fly: economic incentives behind the 2014 Hukou reform and the reform’s effectiveness in responding to them.
Why do we experience fear and anger? An exploration into the nature of human emotions, their causes and ramifications.
An application of the theories of justice of Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and Aristotle on Affirmative Action in education admissions.
Table 2: List of the current year 13’s EPQ titles
The marketplace was the first of its kind in any Wellington international school and Joy Qiao, Founder and Chairman who visited the event, commented that she “was blown away by the diversity of the topics, quality of the presentation, confidence of our pupils and the fluency of their English.”
Pupil perception of the EPQ
Our final focus is to explore the perceptions of the EPQ pupils themselves. Three year 13 pupils were selected to answer some questions about their EPQ experience. The participants were representative of the cohort in terms of gender, nationality and project choice.
What did you enjoy the most about this programme?
I enjoyed the freedom to be able to research into any topic of interest. Everything had to be decided by the student doing the EPQ. Furthermore, I was able to research a topic that I am very interested in at a much higher level and outside of the school boundaries.
I enjoyed the degree of freedom and independence that we had during the programme as we could select our topics based on our interests without the constraint of a set curriculum. The independence we had during the research process was also enjoyable because it allowed me to discuss a field that I was personally very interested in with experts. I was also able to consider different perspectives to arrive at an understanding and finally, applying that understanding to communicate it simply and effectively at the final presentation.
My favourite aspect about completing the EPQ has been how it has allowed me to learn beyond the typical curriculum and focus on a topic that I am not only academically interested in but also personally passionate about. The independence that the EPQ requires was also very rewarding for me – as undertaking the project very much relies on self-determination and personal agency. The process of independently planning, researching, writing and presenting is very fulfilling in terms of both individual and academic development. It is definitely a skill that I feel will be essential for future study.
Why did you choose this topic for your project?
I chose the topic of how Quantum computing effects encryption because there are two components to this question. Both the computer science and information technology side of computing, but also the physics behind quantum computing. I am very interested in both topics, and computer science is a major I want to study at university. Hence, I thought that this would be useful for some extra knowledge.
I chose to investigate the topic of taste perception and health for my project because of how relevant the two topics are to the future development of the sciences. I was interested in the topic of taste perception due to the recent discovery of the multifaceted role played by taste receptors in bodily processes […] I saw the opportunity to utilise the skills I have picked up at the university to conduct my own research, and in the process potentially discover any shortcomings that I may have.
I decided to centre my project around international relations primarily due to the fact I hope to study it at an undergraduate level next year. More specifically, I chose to look into an intergovernmental organisation due to my interest in the way in which these bodies create and implement policy on a global scale. My personal interest in the political affairs of the Western Balkan region stems from the fact that I have Albanian heritage and therefore have a natural curiosity in both its regional and continental development.
What lessons will you take away from the EPQ programme?
From the EPQ I have learnt that if you put enough time into something, no matter how difficult it is you can eventually get to it. Also, I think the biggest skill I have developed over this journey is independence. So, the overall lesson I will take away is that I am capable of self-teaching myself topics that are in my interest if I put enough time into it.
The importance of time management when completing a long-term project, and how splitting the entire project into smaller mileposts that are achievable in the short term, can help alleviate the stress of such a project. Also, the importance in looking at resources critically, from how trustworthy and authoritative a source is, to see if the methodology employed by the source makes it appropriate to use within the context of my project.
I think that the most valuable lesson that I will take away from the EPQ programme is the importance of planning when undertaking a large project. Towards the beginning of the process, I found myself somewhat overwhelmed at the thought of carrying out research and notetaking on such a large scale – and soon learned that some form of planning is crucial to organising this process. In terms of the writing process, I learnt that a ‘little and often’ technique is far more manageable and effective than trying to write large portions of the essay at once, as I find this often makes writing more fluent and cohesive. This is certainly a technique that I can apply to future study.
We do hope this article has provided some insight into the EPQ qualification offered at the College – promoting a culture of independence in learning which ultimately benefits our pupils as they move toward their university of choice.