For anyone involved in higher education, especially postgraduate courses, the term “independent learner” is probably something you hear all the time.
But, what does it mean? There seems to be some misunderstanding about what being an independent learner is with some people thinking that means you have to do everything alone and others struggling to adapt to taking more control over their own learning journey.
So, what is independent learning?
The Higher Education Academy 1 describe independent learning as “a process, a method and a philosophy of education in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts”.
There are a lot of myths surrounding independent learning, often arising from a lack of understanding of what it aims to achieve and/or scepticism about why it is being encouraged. For example, one common misconception is that tutors emphasise independent learning because they are being lazy. Whilst I accept that some individuals might shirk work (this happens in every sector and education is no exception) for most of us this could not be further from the truth. Firstly, it is actually more challenging and time consuming to support someone else to learn something for themselves than to just tell them the answer (anyone who has played that party game where you have to guess the celebrity from a description can vouch for the truth of this!). Furthermore, we want you to succeed (aside from personal fulfilment when a student does well remember it looks bad for us if you don’t). We also want to support you to succeed when your course is finished and one of the best ways to do this is to help you develop transferable skills and your ability to problem solve independently.
Another common complaint I hear is “I don’t get any feedback” – now, let’s be honest, what you mean is that you want feedback about everything. Not only is this unfeasible but it is also completely unrealistic if you think about employer expectations. Imagine if you asked your manager to check every single thing you did and work and asked for feedback on it? It would not be long before you were pulled into a meeting to discuss your working practices. Part of independent learning is learning how to self-monitor – after all, this is what would be expected from you by an employer.
A further myth arises from under-confidence. Sometimes students are unsure what to do and think they need to be directed to everything in order to be successful.
However, acquiring a new skill or expanding knowledge of a new topic should not focus purely on what tutors direct you to.
Whilst the tutor will provide the scaffolding for learning, it would be limiting if they dictated all the sources you accessed. Thus, although the tutor can provide a starting point (place the first brick if you like) it is up to the student to place subsequent bricks. So, while a tutor might signpost you to a recommended reading list you are expected to identify extra relevant reading.
Benefits of independent learning
It can be a challenging to shift your perceptions of and attitudes towards independent learning. However, there are many benefits. These include, but are not limited to:
- Skills development, such as enhancing the ability for inquiry and critical thinking.
- Improving metacognitive skills – i.e. the ability to describe how you learn and identify key activities essential for learning. So, for example, if you learn by doing then set yourself activities that help you to practice the skill you are trying to learn. This idea is already utilised by lots of educators to boost learning, for example, many MSc courses focus assignments in this ilk such as learning how to conduct a risk assessment by writing a risk assessment report rather than writing an essay on the theory of risk assessment.
- Affective skills (i.e. relating to growth in feelings and emotions) are important too and these can also be developed through independent learning. For example, in relation to motivation, it is important to be able to wait for assignment results without letting this impact on the learning you are doing in the meantime.
- Independent learning is associated with improved academic performance, and increased motivation and confidence. It also helps you gain a greater awareness of your own limitations and, crucially, how to manage these.
- Finally, independent learning helps develop time management skills as it provides lots of opportunities to practice organising your own timetable, activities, and deadlines.
Tips for becoming an independent learner
Hopefully I have convinced you that you really want to become an independent learner and you are thinking about how you can start to approach learning in this way. As a key ingredient for independent learning is a shift of responsibility for learning from the tutor to the student, it is important to approach it with an open mind. Students need to understand their own responsibilities, be motivated to learn, and collaborate with tutors about how to structure learning effectively. There are also other things you can do, including:
- Taking ownership of your own learning.
- Listening and responding to feedback (in whatever form this comes – a common misconception about feedback is that this is only written and is only from the tutor. In reality, feedback can come in many forms (e.g. verbal) and from a range of sources (e.g. from peers)).
- Embrace online resources to support learning.
- Become an active reader – this does not just mean doing some reading but more to really think about what you are reading and how it relates to your course or assessment. When you are reading an article/book think about how it is relevant and make a note of the key points you have learned and how these relate to the topic you are learning about.
- Set goals to keep yourself motivated but avoid becoming assessment focused. I have come across lots of students who ask why they have to “learn all this stuff” or “go to all these lectures that are not on my chosen essay question”. Answer: to gain a holistic understanding of the topic area, not just for learning sake, but to support you in your search for a relevant career/job – remember it is unlikely you will need to be able to demonstrate you understand the specific theory that you critiqued in your assessment, instead you are far more likely to need to be able to discuss the wider field of study.
- Practice working on your own without help. If you have questions write them down then come back to them later and check if you still need to ask these. You might find you have identified the answer for yourself in the meantime.
- Of course, you should seek help when necessary, but the art is in finding the balance. You are not going to be spoon fed so if you find that you are really stuck on something (e.g. you really don’t understand this theory or how that process works) then ask.
- If you do want to ask questions, do so but think about them first – is this something you could easily look up? Why am I asking? I was recently asked “do we have to use the template you provided for the assignment?” Me (somewhat perplexed): “Yes, that’s why I provided it…” Questions like this waste both your and your tutors time.
- If you need help be clear about what you want. I have lost count of the number of emails which just say something along the lines of “what is the word count?”. This annoys me for several reasons. Firstly, this will be clearly listed in your assessment guide (you know that document I spent hours putting together outlining all the information about your module, yes, that one). Secondly, it is likely that your tutor is working with lots of students on lots of modules. It is therefore important to be clear about what you need so that they can answer more quickly (and without going slightly crazy!).
Independent learning is not something to shy away from; on the contrary it should be embraced. Not only is an expectation of independent learning inevitable as you progress through your learning journey, but (if you embrace it!) you will find you get more out of education.
The art of being an independent learner
By: Dr Amy Burrell
Amy holds a BSc in Applied Psychology, an MSc in Forensic Behavioural Science, and a PhD in Psychology. Amy is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Birmingham City University and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org. She was previously the Training Manager for Perpetuity Training who specialise in security training (see www.perpetuitytraining.com) and is also involved in the Crime Linkage International NetworK (C-LINK) (see www.crimelinkage.org).