Independent Learning: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

We all desire our learners to develop into independent students who can think for themselves but how exactly can schools work towards this ambitious goal?

What is Independent Learning?

Independent learning is a way or process of learning in which learners have control and ownership of their learning. They regulate, direct, and evaluate their learning and learn due to their actions. The independent learner can make informed choices, set goals, and make decisions about how to fulfil his learning needs. Also, the independent learner takes responsibility for building and performing their learning, monitoring their progress toward accomplishing their learning goals and self-assess the outcomes of the learning process. At Structural Learning, we have a particular interest in equipping disadvantaged students with the skills and techniques to move their learning forward. When children turn into adults, they will have to manage their studies independently. The demands of exams sometimes mean that schools focus their preparation on exam technique instead of the affective skills essential to becoming a lifelong learner.

Owning the right resources is one thing but having educational experiences that nurture these abilities is another paradigm altogether. In this article, we will argue that schools don't have to choose between a progressive or traditional approach to learning. Metacognitive practice including the skills of reflection and exam technique can be embedded into a rich educational experience. Society often sees education in terms of exam success but activities such as 'learning to learn' should be very much built into the day to day school life of a child. We are not talking about separate skills courses but rather incremental steps that are embedded into subjects that lead the student to take more ownership of their education.

How can we encourage students to become independent learners?

Below are the tips for encouraging students to become independent learners:

  1. Students' Self-monitoring: Self-monitoring relies on two processes of setting objectives and getting feedback from oneself and others. Teachers may encourage their pupils to self-monitor by assisting them in self and peer assessment to check whether the techniques they were using were beneficial for accomplishing learning goals.
  2. Scaffolding to independent learning through Questioning: The main purpose is a shift in responsibility from the educator to the student in a gradual, step-by-step process. The educator must create effective questioning and classroom strategies, ask open-ended, higher-order questions, answer flexibly to pupils’ responses to stimulate deeper understanding, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  3. Offering behaviour models: Teachers can encourage students to model their behaviour. For example, teachers can show how categorising the data can make it easier for the students to remember information.
  4. Communication must be focused on learning: When teachers' communication is focused on learning, it allows students to understand their learning style, become more familiar with the steps of learning and allows them to share their thinking.
  5. Oral or/and written feedback on homework and classwork: It is a good technique to enhance students’ confidence to work independently. Instead of using scores and attainment grades teachers must give grades for the extent of effort.
  6. Giving choices and enabling students to make their learning objectives: This will allow students to take ownership of their learning and they would reflect on their preferences and interests. Also, students will feel empowered and in control of their study habits.
  7. Involve students in lesson planning: When teachers take advice from students, it makes them feel responsible for their learning. Students will involve in their academic studies, they will show more motivation and help teachers in creating a better lesson plan.
  8. Encouraging collaboration: It is suggested to give regular opportunities to the students to work in small group tasks and encourage them to learn from one another and come up with their ideas, rather than looking at the lecture notes for answers.
  9. Encourage students to be reflective: Teachers may give advice for students to keep a ‘learning diary’ for monitoring their progress and keeping track of their action of learning. This will make a student an active learner, increase students' confidence as they look back and allow them to check what they have learnt during the school year.

Use tools such as the Universal Thinking Framework to plan learning
Use tools such as the Universal Thinking Framework to plan learning

What are the Benefits of Independent Learning for Students?

Encouraging pupils to be independent learners, not only has great benefits for students themselves, but it's also a low-cost way to boost progress. Main benefits for compulsory school age students include:

  • Increased confidence and motivation;
  • Enhanced academic performance;
  • Countered alienation from peers and fostered social inclusion;
  • More chances for completing differentiated tasks assigned by the teacher;
  • Increased opportunities to be intellectually creative.

What are the steps to help the independent learning process?

Although independent learning is a distinctive and self-regulated learning process, education providers and caretakers can take certain steps to help support the study habits and learning activities. Following are some ways to promote independent learning in a classroom setting:

  • Children must be encouraged to seek information from a wide range of mediums and sources - not just text, but audio and visual resources as well.
  • Setting clear targets will encourage learners to collect valuable information more effectively.
  • Encouraging children to engage in academic reading, not only in learning time but all through the day.
  • Focus on effective time management. Effective time management strategies help in making sure that learning time is not wasted due to distractions.
  • Pre and post-learning conversations will provide a chance to run over with the children all of their struggles, knowledge gaps as well as the procedures they found useful.
  • Providing learning tools across the breadth of subjects.

Graphic organisers can help develop independent learning skills
Graphic organisers can help develop independent learning skills

How video reflections can be helpful in independent learning?

It can be challenging for the teachers to support the development of independent learners during physical activity in a classroom. Professor John Hattie states that educators only hear and see 20% of what is the progress of learning in any given lesson, making it hard for educators to understand exactly what must be changed and how to better support their pupils. Through video a lesson and then reflecting on it, teachers may effectively identify the involvement level of compulsory school age students in academic studies, it may allow teachers to analyse - lectures and recognize areas that need improvement. Education providers may use Video reflections to improve their teaching skills, which then help them to develop independent learners and eventually enhance students' learning outcomes.

How much help should be provided to an Independent Learning Child?

While encouraging a learner to learn with more autonomy in learning, it can be a little tricky to maintain a balance, when teachers should offer help and when they must leave the student to try and solve the problem by themselves. For example, there is no problem in helping a doctoral student if he has been stuck on a problem for some time. Teachers' reasoning and explanation in a particular task, will guide the doctoral student's action of learning and how to find the right answer next time.

During the pandemic, one concern for teachers is to make sure that students complete their tasks in 'self-study' time, without teachers' supervision. Developing a sense of independence not only position students to achieve success in a traditional classroom setting but also does while learning online. Students, who are independent learners have been more successful in the shift to distance learning. In short, independent learning is a crucial skill to develop because it promotes intellectual curiosity and creativity. The students should be active rather than passive students. Independent learners do not wait to be told what they must do, they take ownership of their learning. This naturally develops flexibility for learners with different cognitive levels and learning styles. Also, it enables students to focus on the all-inclusive process of learning, and not just concentrate on learning a single skill at a time. By supporting students to learn independently, teachers are preparing them for future success as life-long learners.