Orbital Studies

Students engage in self-chosen independent projects to demonstrate a level of mastery
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About This Strategy

Orbital studies is a strategy in which students design and carry out a short-term independent project. Students have a great deal of freedom in terms of proposing a project, however, it must be an extension of a topic or skill students in class have shown prior success in terms of grades, exams or other mastery. This strategy usually involves 3 to 6 weeks of time, which allows students to delve deeper into a topic which they are already studying in class.  Orbital studies are self-selected by the students but they need approval by the teacher and must adhere to criteria, such as timelines, selected by the teacher. Additionally, students can and should receive coaching, feedback, and guidance from the teacher during their study. Orbital studies promote student choice and afford the opportunity to work cross-curricularly. Orbital studies differs from Project Based Learning because in orbital studies, the timeline is short and specific and students complete the orbital studies in order to extend their learning about a topic that they've already been exposed to, and thus, it is often smaller in scope than a project based learning task.

Implementation Steps

  1. Consider whether this sort of differentiated instruction is the most appropriate as well as the most continually motivating option for the class of students being considered.

    • Teachers should ask themselves whether this particular group of students is not only demonstrating mastery in a particular subject area but also if they demonstrate the prior growth, maturity, and the self-discipline to work together or on their own for a sustained period of time.

  2. Explain to the students the criteria for selecting a project and the  project's timeline, and support students in choosing a motivating or inspiring topic for their orbital which is related to the current unit of study. Teachers should guide students to narrow the girth of the project to an attainable goal. 

    • Encourage students to select a project and presentation that matches their interests and strengths.

  3. Share the procedure for proposing an orbital study for approval, and individually meet with students to review their proposals.

    • Teachers might consider using a proposal template, like the one in the resources section, to support students in mapping out their ideas.

    • Based on proposals, teachers might choose to group students into pairs or small groups to work on similar projects.

  4. Inform families about the project, including timeline, expectations, and ways families can support their students. For an example parent letter, consult the resources section. 

  5. Set up the classroom in a manner that will promote the research and project fulfillment. Teachers should consider:

    • Computer stations for independent research

    • A conferencing station for working with individuals and groups

    • A work station with materials and supplies for completing projects and presentations

  6. Monitor work time and provide feedback in written and verbal form to students and groups. Use this feedback to guide check-in meetings with students as you answer questions, clarify expectations, and redirect. Be sure to communicate this information with parents and families as well.

    • If, during check-ins, students are behind target, consider what remediation might be appropriate to either catch the student up on project goals or identify shorter, more direct goals to get the student closer to project completion. 

  7. Provide time and space for students to present the results of their orbital study with their classmates, other classes, and potentially even outside visitors. During this time, students can share their findings and respond to questions from observers.

EL Modification

Due to the challenges that some EL students may face with exposure to English vocabulary, these students will benefit from key phrases and concepts in the  process to be explicitly taught. In addition, in some other cultures, instruction is very much teacher-directed, so students from these cultures will need additional support in navigating an independent, choice-based study. To support EL students in your classroom, consider the below modifications.


  1. Communicate with EL students' other teachers and families about the study and how they might be able to support students with their projects.
  2. Simplify the language of the topic and have phrases and vocabulary posted on walls of the classroom. For an example, consult the word wall document in the resources section.

  3. Select a topic and, in a small group setting, provide questions on that topic to support students in narrowing their focus and selecting a focus for their orbital study.

  4. Hold a guided writing at the board as students review the questions and brainstorm questions and suggestions for their proposed topics

  5. Conference with students and then determine regularly, with the cooperation of the students, what steps need to be further scaffolded or created anew so they can meet larger milestones or targets enroute to completing their  orbital study or project.


Special Education Modification

Students with disabilities can benefit from the structure of an orbital studies project. For students with disabilities that impact their processing or focus, checklists to break down the steps and frequent conferences with the teacher to assess their progress are recommended.


  1. Discuss with the family and Special Ed personnel what the objective and expected ranges of achievement might be.
  2. Ask students to begin creating and asking questions about the topic using a brainstorming map like the one included below.  

  3. Create a daily checklist (as opposed to weekly or monthly) to support students with task completion to scaffold progress towards the larger goal of their orbital study. Smaller, more manageable chunks and checklists will support students who struggle with focus and autonomy.

  4. Consider providing graphic organizers such as the decision making tree, T chart, or Topic Tree resources below in order to support students to organize their thinking.

  5. Provide extensions as needed, in line with IEPs and ILPs.

  6. Create, provide, and revise graphic organizers as needed to support students with disabilities as they brainstorm, research, and plan for their presentation.

Orbital Studies for Distance Learning

In many ways, orbital studies can be carried out in distance learning, similar to in the regular classroom. Orbital studies support choice and autonomy in the distance learning space; components of the orbital study can be implemented both synchronously and asynchronously.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Prepare criteria, checklists and visual organizers and put in Google Classroom or other Learning Management System for students to access.

  2. Schedule a one-on-one conversation to discuss their interests and/or facilitate roundtable discussions in small groups to encourage other students to help with topic identification.

  3. Create a survey or surveys for students to get feedback on how they and things are going --as well as to identify needs of different students and student groups. Tech Tools for this include: polls on Zoom, Google Forms, Jamboard, pulse check  etc.

  4. Have students use the Chalk Talk format for sharing their proposals initially, i.e. at then end of the first week of brainstorming and choosing a general plan. For more information about a digital Chalk Talk, consult the link in the resources section.

  5. Use synchronous learning time to discuss patterns and themes that come from the chalk talk after completing the silent discussion.To modify this step for asynchronous learning, ask students to contribute to a final poster or column of the chalk talk with the themes that they noticed after reading through each others' comments.

  6. Hold face-to-face check ins.  These include 1:1 check ins using Zoom, small group consultancies for feedback from each as well communications through emails, and other apps.

  7. Facilitate group work and  use Zoom breakout rooms.

  8. Make sure students know how to create slides, charts, graphs and other forms of visual presentation.

  9. Share zoom links for student presentation followed by visitor questions.