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Orbital Studies Teaching Strategies

Jordan Catapano

Teachers begin with two baseline facets. First, there are given standards and requirements that they must help their students achieve. Second, every student is different. How do teachers use teaching strategies to help their diverse set of learners all achieve towards the same set of standards? The answer is often differentiation.

As author and differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson expresses it: “Teachers in differentiated classrooms accept and act on the premise that they must be ready to engage students in instruction through different approaches to learning, by appealing to a range of interests, and by using varied rates of instruction, along with varied degrees of complexity and differing support systems.”

While there are many methods of differentiation teaching strategies that work in all kinds of classrooms, one that I want to share with you today is referred to as “Orbital studies.”

What Orbital Studies Teaching Strategies Are

As Tomlinson says, teachers want to resolve the disparity between the standards of the course all students are expected to achieve, and the unique needs and interests of the students. Orbital studies are one method of keeping students on track with curriculum, but also opening a broad opportunity for them to explore their own branches of a given topic.

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Authors of “Differentiating Instruction” Scott Willis and Larry Mann say orbital studies are “Independent investigations, generally lasting three to six weeks, revolving around some facet of the curriculum. Students select their own topics, and they work with guidance and coaching from the teacher.”

For example, imagine you are covering a unit or text on the Holocaust. While there are certain core components you want all students to engage with – such as reading the story or understanding a piece of the history – there are dozens of more specific areas of inquiry that are available for students to explore independently. These might include examining specific concentration camps, the scope of WWII, biographies of people involved, the geography of the Holocaust, and so on. Students would be guided through exploring one of these more specific areas on their own that supplements their understanding of the core components you’re covering as a class.

Students can work on their own or their work can be collaborative. Teachers might typically have students generate some kind of product – such as a portfolio, class presentation, or reflective journal – that allows them to showcase what they have learned.

Why It Works

In essence, the independent work “Orbits” the central concepts you’re covering. This technique offers multiple advantages in the differentiated classroom.

First, the independent topics students explore are all related to the core curriculum you’re covering, so there is a natural supplementation that occurs. The more students come to understand their self-selected area of interest, the more they will come to understand the class-wide components. If your class is studying insects, for example, then a student’s more specific independent look into the life cycle of bees will aid their understanding of the topic in total.

Also, the orbital study allows students to take more control of their learning and bring it in a direction that aligns more closely with their interests. Orbital study tries to combine the class-wide necessities with the individualized focus, and it’s this opportunity for self-driven learning that will be more likely to motivate students and personalize their experience.

Not only that, but studying a topic on one’s own requires a different approach than covering something through teacher-facilitated activities. This places new responsibility on the students and helps them develop additional skills such as research, creation, presentation, and collaboration.

Finally, like many differentiated activities, orbital study helps students naturally tier their topic and work for their own interests and level. They study what they’re ready for and lead themselves to the types of content most suitable to their learning.

As Tomlinson expresses, “Teachers who differentiate provide specific alternatives for individuals to learn as deeply as possible and as quickly as possible, without assuming one student's road map for learning is identical to anyone else's.” Orbital study in your classroom might fit this description very well.

Guidelines and Tips (and Pitfalls)

As you begin to formulate how you might facilitate this in your classroom, think of your two key action words: Monitor and guide.

Orbital study is meant to be completed independently, but that doesn’t mean that you mention it one time and then expect big results a few weeks later. This is a process designed to put students in the driver’s seat, but the teacher is still in the passenger seat with a road map. Even though students will be doing the brunt of the leading, still expect to provide guidance and to check in on their progress along the way.

Here are a few practical considerations for how you may choose to guide:

  1. Question and interest formulation: Help your students come to an understanding about acceptable guidelines and expectations for their independent pursuit. Students’ sincere questions and personal preferences are central, but your input matters. You are more likely to see the end clearly and can lend guidance toward how well their budding aspiration corresponds to the broader objective.
  2. Leveling of topic: One of the advantages of orbital studies is that students not only select their own subcategory of interest, but have the opportunity to arrange how deep and complex they choose to make it. For higher learners, you might lead them to engage with their topic in more extended and challenging ways.
  3. Independence: The goal of orbital studies is to leverage personal interest into independent enthusiasm. This, however, creates something of a problem, in that students may end up doing the majority of the project on their own. Despite their engagement, they may still struggle without the hands-on guidance of an instructor.
  4. Extra monitoring from teacher: Even though this is meant to be largely independent, this will still require more work on the teacher’s part. First, teachers have the regular curriculum they will be spending the majority of their time working on. Now, in addition to the regular coursework, teachers are responsible for helping monitor the progress of students through the orbital enterprise.
  5. Students who need help: Finally, if students need assistance with their study, this requires additional time for both the student and teacher beyond the regular coursework. Another problem might be that students who need assistance fail to ask for it … or might not even know they need it.

Finally, some variations on the traditional approach outlined above:

This doesn’t have to be for everyone. Perhaps you may only need to use orbital studies for students who have already mastered the content the rest of the class has yet to learn.

How will students present the information once they have acquired it? How will they demonstrate to you that they have, in fact, learned something with the time they’ve spent on their study? A presentation is one form of doing so, but another component of the project might be letting students decide for themselves how they want to demonstrate their learning.

What comes next? Once the orbital projects are complete, there might be another opportunity for students to develop new questions and interests that result in … another orbital study.

Reflections on the core content are useful bridges between the orbitals and the main curriculum. If part of the intention of the orbital study is to supplement the content being studied class-wide, then it is worth it to spend time looking at how their independent work aided their understanding of the broader content.

Have students set up with their own accountability groups along the way. Every few days, students can gather together and share “Here’s what I recently worked on …” and “Here are my next steps …” They might even offer ideas and feedback to one another.

How long should the project go for? The traditional length is three to six weeks, but why not go for the whole school year? In theory, if structured the right way, students’ independent orbital work can take place indefinitely and add a useful supplemental layer to their class learning.

Are you ready to try your own orbital studies in your class? What other considerations would you give to make this a success with your students?


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being national board certificated and head of his school’s instructional development committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.