Independent Learning Theory

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    Boy learning ideas

    Independent study involves processing, methodology and philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation. Independent Learning Theory is related to the following terms:

    • Independent learning
    • Self-directed learning
    • Autonomous learning

    Independent learning is self-directed learning, where an individual can choose what they want to learn, how deeply they wish to learn about something and the methods/processes involved in learning.

    This expectation exists at other levels of education, particularly as students progress to the final year of high school.

    However having the skills and attitudes to take responsibility for one’s own learning is a critical key to student success in their tertiary education.

    Academic staff are responsible for the intentional design of the curriculum and its quality-content, the ways in which it is delivered, and the ways in which student achievement of desired learning outcomes is assessed.

    However, academic staff cannot be responsible for the entire student experience.

    We cannot control how much individual efforts a student to devote to their own study, or how serious, motivated they are to learn and make the most of the learning opportunities available to them. These are aspects of the learning experience that students must control for themselves.

    As university level teachers, we have a professional responsibility creating optimal learning environments for our students, but students themselves must be committed to their own learning success.

    For this reason, independent learning skills should be explicitly taught in the first year.

    How can I become an independent learner?

    blue typewriter

    Read actively: Be an active reader, pay close attention to the words you are reading and their meaning.

    Skim read: Speed read or skim material before reading it in detail and then summarising the text in your notes.

    Go solo: Practice working individually for long periods of time.

    Different sources: When doing research, try gathering from different sources.

    Be persistent: If a task is challenging, don’t give up. Keep at it until you understand what you need to do.

    Seek help where necessary: Asking for support and advice is an important part. If you need help, ask for it!

    Discussions: If you want to expand an argument but are stuck for ideas, get a debate with friends or peers. This helps in thinking about an element you hadn’t considered before.

    Set goals: Think what you want to get out of your work and remind yourself next time you’re flagging.

    Effective time management: Break each project down into the relevant tasks, work out how long you will need to spend on each part, then allocate time in your diary in order of priority.

    Lifelong Learning Situations

    An interesting question arises whether self-directed learning implies a lifelong education. The answer is “no” because it is clear that an individual can elect to complete only one self-directed learning course and not choose to continue with any form of education. However, Candy has a more enlightened view of this issue:

    The relationship between self-directed learning and lifelong education is a reciprocal one. On the one hand, self-directed learning is one of the most common ways in which adults pursue learning throughout their life span as well as being a way in which people supplement learning received in formal settings.

    On the other hand, lifelong learning provides people with skills and competencies required to continue their own self-education beyond the end of of formal schooling. In this sense, self-directed learning is viewed simultaneously as a means and an end of lifelong education.

    According to the definition of lifelong education adopted by the UNESCO Institute of Education, it should possess the following characteristics:

    1. Last the whole life of each individual
    2. Lead to the systematic acquisition, renewal, upgrading and completion of knowledge, skills, and attitudes made necessary by the constantly changing conditions in which people now live
    3. Have promotion of the self-fulfillment of each individual
    4. Acknowledge all available educational influences, including formal, non-formal, and informal
    5. Be dependent for its successful implementation on people’s increasing ability and motivation to engage in self-directed learning activities

    Getting Started With Self-Directed Learning

    An important distinction regarding self-directed learning is whether it’s global or a process. For some authors and researchers, self-directed learning is simply a method of organising instruction. The best example of this approach is found in Tough’s list of 13 steps in beginning a self-directed learning project:

    1. Deciding what knowledge and skill to learn
    2. Deciding the specific activities, methods, resources, or equipment for learning
    3. Deciding where to learn
    4. Setting specific deadlines or intermediate targets
    5. Deciding the beginning of learning episode
    6. Deciding the pace during a learning episode
    7. Estimating the current level and progress of knowledge and skill
    8. Detecting any factor that’s hindering learning
    9. Obtaining the desired resources or equipment
    10. Preparing or adapting a room
    11. Saving or obtain the money necessary for the use of certain human or nonhuman resources
    12. Finding time for the learning
    13. Taking certain steps to increase the motivation for learning

    It is interesting to note that although this list includes many practical issues regarding self-directed learning, Tough did not ignore motivation, necessary resources and time which are important for self-directed learning.



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    writing on paper

    When students are taught to be in control of their own learning, they carry that with them through high school and beyond. Independence is one of the best skills a student can master. This article will discuss ways to develop independent learning skills.

    As a society, we encourage independence, so it is important to prepare students for the demands of the world. While traditional teaching methods may be best for showing that children are making progress, teachers can teach children to be independent learners without seeing the progress slip away.

    But in order to achieve this, students and teachers must change their way of thinking.


    glasses on book
    1. Provide students with time to self-monitor. Students can be encouraged to self-monitor by teaching them skills that will help them reach their academic goals, and by teaching them to use self and peer assessment.
    2. Use questions to help steer students toward independent learning. The transfer of academic responsibility from teacher to student does not have to happen overnight. It can be achieved by asking open-ended questions, developing classroom discourse, asking for a higher order, by answering students’ questions in ways that encourage them to think, solve problems on their own, and develop a deeper understanding of the material being studied.
    3. Be a model for your students. Encourage your students to act like you. Be something they can emulate and learn from.
    4. Develop communication that focuses on learning. Talk to your students about the different ways of learning. Help them find their own way of learning. After all, everyone learns differently.
    5. Provide feedback on classwork and homework. This feedback can be oral or written down on paper. Rather than grading based on how many answers on correct, consider grading on the effort the student put into the assignment.
    6. Encourage collaboration. Students should be given time to work in small groups. Encourage them to learn from their peers, as this can benefit their independent learning as well. Working with others also helps them be able to use problem-solving steps in order to get the answers, rather than relying on the teacher for answers.
    7. Give your students options and allow them to set their own goals. Allow students a chance to reflect on what they have learned and what they would like to learn. This will give your students a sense of empowerment and responsibility that will help them work toward becoming an independent learner.
    8. Involve pupils in lesson planning. Asking students for feedback on the lesson allows them to feel as though they have a say in what they are being taught. This will encourage them to become more involved in their learning. Recording a class period can be beneficial as this can allow you to physically see where you need improvement.
    9. Encourage students to be reflective. One way to encourage your students to keep track of what they have learned is to have them keep a ‘learning diary’ that they write in each day. At the end of the year, the students will be able to look back and see how far they came.


    Learning from failure:
    Far too many students are afraid to try new things because they fear they will fail. In order to help children become strong independent learners, we must teach them to see failure as an opportunity to learn. Students will never learn if they are too afraid to try.

    Show your students that failure is not inherently bad. Show them real-life examples to help encourage them to try their best. If possible, use your own experiences to explain to the kids about failure.

    Praising Persistence:
    Hard work and persistence can help a child to excel, therefore it is crucial to praise a student who is striving to be better. Not only does this help the child become a better independent learner, it gives the student a sense of pride as well.

    Furthermore, children who have been praised for their hard work tend to be less likely to quit when things get more challenging.

    Minimise teacher talk:
    There will always be time for traditional teaching in the classroom. However, these times when the teacher has to stand in front of the class to teach should be kept to a minimum. Instead, make more time for group activities or individual activities, as this will encourage the students to be more independent.

    What it means to be independent:
    Talk to your students about what they believe independence means. You may have your own definition, but your students will all most likely have their own definitions for independence. During the discussion, be sure to point out behaviours in the classroom that demonstrate independence.

    Reflecting on independence:
    Self-reflection is an important tool for anyone. At the end of a lesson, have students write down about how independent they felt they were during the lesson. Have your students do this often, then have them store their reflections in a folder so they can see how far they have come. If you would like a more structured approach, give your students a set of categories and have them rate themselves.

    If you are looking for ways to develop independent learning skills, following the tips and advice on this page should help. It can be difficult to adapt to new learning behaviours but both students and teachers will benefit from developing as independent learners.




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    diary planner

    Making the most out of your time is a personal challenge that can improve the results that you get from your time at university. You will need to plan your life so you get everything done and still have time to enjoy yourself. You may find that the use of lists, plans or diagram will help you manage the way you work more effectively.

    You should reflect upon your planning methods often. You need to find a system that will work out for your personal needs and lifestyle.

    • You need to be clear what you need to accomplish and when it needs to be completed by
    • A term planner can help you track yourself over time
    • A week planner will help you plan your week
    • A to-do list will help you know what you need to get done on that day
    • You need to develop realistic goals so you can plan out your time accordingly


    lightbulb idea

    People that are high achievers are able to carefully plan out their time. They use time management techniques to use their time wisely even with tight deadlines.

    Having good time management will help you transition between activities. If you are busy that does not mean you are using time effectively. Often you spend time worrying and waste important time.

    If you are always running around you will get less done. Too many tasks are not helpful. You need to use your time smarter so you will not have to work harder.

    Time management is organising and dividing your time between tasks. Good time management will allow you to work wisely and get more done in less time. If you do not manage your time well you will feel stressed out.


    Proper planning is needed for the organisation of student life. You need to look at your future obligations and make sure you schedule enough to complete the task. This will allow you to have a purpose.

    Five steps needed for planning

    1. Plan Ahead

    To do this you need to:

    • Look at what you need to get done
    • The date that you will need to get this completed by
    • How long the tasks will take to complete

    If you are in college you may want to read the course outline and information that is related to the course. This will give you an idea of how much time it will take. You need to look at how the different activities are going to relate to each other. This will help you develop a plan to organise your time.

    2. Making the Plan

    Once you know what needs to get done you should add it to your calendar. You can plan this out by semesters.

    • Using a wall chart will make it easy to plan your time.
    • You will be able to see the entire semester and plan accordingly.
    • You can see how close the deadlines are to each other.
    • You can remind yourself of your work when you are planning out your semester.

    If you already have a calendar it can be used as a visual reminder of what needs to get one. This makes it easy to review. You can use this calendar to plan out your activities. You can add colours and images so you can sort them into categories. The deadlines can be in red and the starting date can be in green. You can use warning signs and other marks if you are not sure when you need to begin something.

    You should always review your plan and add additional information as you find it out.

    3. Break up your time

    To have a handle of your time you will need to break it up into segments. You should follow some of these tips for planning your time on a weekly basis.

    How to plan a week:

    • Your study time during the week can be divided into two parts
    • The time you will attend lectures, labs, and other courses
    • The time you will study on your own and complete assignments

    You can make a table for the week and divide that into hours. You can then fill in the time you will be attending the lessons. This will show you how much time you have remaining and how much time you have to plan around.

    Look at the other things that you need to do. Do not put all your studying into a long session. You should be creative on how you use your time. For example:

    • Take the evening to plan out your essay
    • Use some time between classes to go to the library
    • Use the 10-minute bus ride to review your notes from the class

    You need to find a time frame that fits best for you. Do not try to plan out a major project at the end of your day if you are tired. You should do this when you are awake and alert and will do your best. If you are getting tired do something less strenuous such as putting your lecture notes in order.

    When you plan out your week you need to fit in long-term and short-term commitments. If you are effective you will get used to this in no time.

    Plan out your day:

    During the week you need to look at each day and make sure your schedule is up to date. You can write a to-do list for each day.

    • Your day can be planned so you stay on task.
    • You need to be active with any plan. Once you have completed something check it off.
    • Do not put too much on your daily schedule. Only add what you are realistically able to do during the day.

    4. Setting Priorities

    During the week there may be several things that you need to get done. You should develop a list of priorities to make sure they get done on time. A priority graph can be used. This will help you determine if something needs to be completed immediately or not.

    If it is important you need to put it in the top right of the graph. If it can wait It does in the bottom left corner. You can even look at if it is something you really need to do, to begin with.

    5. Review your progress

    You need to review this to make sure your calendar is up to date and you have everything where it should be. You need to make sure these tasks are getting accomplished. Do not use forward planning and think about anything that may slow down your process.

    Managing time at university can be difficult to wrap your head around to begin with. But with planning and effective time management, you can find the time to complete your studies while not getting stressed with the workload.




    Activities To Promote Independent Learning

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    The question arises what is Independent learning all about? Why are some students more independent than others and how can we as educators breed a culture of independence within our schools and classes? What are some activities to promote independent learning?

    According to Banksy, “A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to”. So, is it not our job as educators to tell them to be independent? Is being independent as easy as just being told to be?

    There are different versions and amended definition of what people think independent learning is. The following definition sums up independent learning:

    Independent learning is pupils having an understanding of their learning; being motivated to take responsibility for their learning; and working with teachers to structure their learning environment.

    As teachers it is our responsibility to teach students the skills that will help them throughout their whole lives.

    Wooden Tile Education Image


    • Confidence scale

    This activity helps students think about their learning objectives and progress they are making on a class-by-class basis.

    Write the intended learning goal of the lesson on the board.

    Ask students how confident are you? and use this to create a Confidence scale.

    Ask students to give themselves a score from the scale.

    Monitor and assess the confidence levels. Depending how they feel about the learning goal, you can adjust the amount of time you spend on each part of the lesson.

    At the end of the class, ask students to assess their confidence levels again. They should write the new number next to the old one.

    Again, monitor confidence levels. Usually it increases, but sometimes it may go down. In that case, reassure students that you are there to help.

    Next ask them to work in pairs and discuss how they can gain further confidence.

    Finally, ask each student to write three action points based on the conversations with their partner, outlining what they will do to improve.

    • Selecting the feedback focus

    The next activity personalises the learning process by having students focus on individual goals.

    Before starting, ask them to identify a personal learning goal. To help them decide on this, encourage them to look back at your feedback on previous written work. For example: I’d like to write an essay that is well organised and uses a range of complex grammar structures.

    Tell them to write this goal at the top of their work when they submit it and explain that you will provide feedback when you mark it.

    If you notice that many students chose similar personal learning goals, this suggests that it is something which you need to cover as a whole class and you might want to incorporate it into future lessons.

    • Record and reflect

    Although it is important to think about the objectives before starting a lesson or activity, it’s also vital that your students reflect on their performances afterwards. Self-evaluation embraces independent learning.

    Have students record themselves on their mobile phones completing a speaking task. Then get them to listen back and compare their performance with a model answer.

    Finally, have them note down what they did well and what they could have done better.

    Recording apps are usually free to download or are pre-loaded onto a smartphone.

    • Written feedback

    The final activity relates how you organize your written feedback so that it is both motivating and productive.

    Often when learners see some marks with red pen, they think they have done a terrible job and lose confidence which has a negative impact on independent learning.

    To counter this, provide one comment under each of these headings to help learners identify where they are in their learning now. It will show them what they need to do and recognize them that they have made progress, boosting their confidence.

    1. A key strength
    2. An area of progress
    3. An area to work on
    4. How you can work on it

    The more confident they are, the more they’ll take ownership over their learning.


    There are as many paths down which we could travel as there are lessons we could teach. With that said, let us consider three which I have found to be particularly effective.

    First, we have the alteration of our own mindsets. Given the nature of the teaching profession, we tend to find ourselves instinctively helping the pupils we teach as soon as they have a problem. Without thinking, we do whatever we can to aid their understanding and ensure they are able to access the learning. This is all well and good but overexposure can turn it into a vice.

    Excessive help and support denudes students of the opportunity to think for themselves. It stops them having to work through difficulties or solve problems. The tacit message is that there will always be someone else to do it for them.

    An alternative approach sees the teacher thinking critically about whether or not to intervene in any given situation. Sometimes it will be appropriate-necessary-even-sometimes it won’t. In these latter cases, it will often be better to say something along the lines of: ‘Try solving yourself first,’ or, ‘Come up with three possible solutions and try them out before asking me,’ or a question like : ‘Well, what do you think is the best way to proceed and why?’

    Repeating this approach is likely to cultivate a habit of independence in your students.

    A second technique I have found useful involves setting up activities in which pupils are given a framework within which they have to make various choices. By giving pupils options and choices like developing a formation and then expressing themselves within that formation, you are encouraging them to make decisions and to be independent.

    The third and final approach to consider involves formative feedback. This is feedback which gives students a sense of what they need to do to improve. For example: ‘In your next report you should aim to begin the analysis earlier so as to avoid too many passages of description.’

    Effective formative feedback allows them to take control of their own learning. If they know what they need to do to improve, they are in a position to make those improvements, therefore acting independently. The converse would see a summative grade being given which offers no scope for action and which, psychologically, encourages students to become dependent (as they look to similar grades in the future for reinforcement of the sense of self generated by the initial grade).

    Overall, we can see that creating independent learners is a long-term project. It is about cultivation; the development of habits of mind over the course of months or longer. By focusing on this goal you will likely find yourself able to step back, safe in the knowledge that the faith you have in your students is justified and that they are working truly independently.