How to teach and promote independent learning skills
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website Here.
There are some students who have such a wide and deep knowledge of some subjects that it is difficult to teach them. This “nice problem” arises from the fact that these students study in their own time, regardless of the work that we give them as teachers.
It adds up. Students who routinely study outside of the classroom build a pool of knowledge and make connections between these pieces of knowledge. The effect is that they are better equipped to solve problems and analyze or evaluate them precisely and smoothly. By learning independently, students effectively multiply the time they spend learning compared to those who rely solely on classroom instruction.
According to several studies (which you can find in Meyer’s 2010 article), independent learning benefits students in acquiring knowledge, in being able to accurately assess their own competency, it builds trust and increases engagement. However, as Meyer suggests, these effects are experienced differently by different groups of students depending on their individual context.
So the question is how we should impart independent learning skills so that all students get the maximum benefit. Here are some strategies that are worth considering.
Create the right conditions
Creating the conditions for the development of independent learners is crucial. Without paying particular attention to it, leave it up to chance whether the students acquire the skills they need. To do this, you need to understand the obstacles that well-meaning students must overcome to be truly independent.
First, there must be an environment in which independent learning can actually take place. This means that (a) access to information, (b) lack of distraction and (c) space should be available to understand and learn the information.
For many students, this simply means (a) Internet access, (b) leave your cell phone in another room and (c) you have a desk where you can sit to write down what you’ve learned.
But there is more to it than that. Information can only be accessed if students know how to search for it. Lack of distractions are not just electronic devices, but can also be social distractions in their lives. And many students don’t even have a desk at home.
We may want students to be truly independent, but some will automatically find it easier because of social factors that are beyond their and our control. Here it is important to build a relationship between school and home. Parents may not always appreciate the impact that the home has on their child’s education, or may not know what priorities to set to help their child.
It is not the job of a teacher to tell a parent how to raise their children, but it can sometimes be helpful to suggest things that “have worked for students in the past” to help parents make positive changes, that they could do.
This is controversial, but I have found that parents are grateful to receive such guidance (if it is worded carefully). A good, existing relationship with these parents pays off because they trust your advice rather than seeing it as an attack on their parents.
Provide sufficient motivation
Students who are motivated enough to study independently do so because they see value in it. This can be due to a number of factors. Perhaps the teacher has explained well how the students can benefit from it. Maybe the students saw the benefits firsthand. Or there are other factors, such as parenting, that could drive students in the right direction. Most of the time, however, it is a combination.
Ultimately, students need to recognize that independent learning is an integral part of their education and not just an “optional” addition.
Unfortunately, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not experience these positive influences as often as some of their peers. The disadvantage is then exacerbated as the gap between owners and non-owners widens.
The motivation of the least favored students should therefore be the focus for us as teachers. Just as we would find answers to challenging tasks in the classroom on the scaffolding, we should also review our guidelines for independent studies.
- Step 1: Share what it means, what it looks like when done correctly, and then visibly show a successful result. It is crucial to get students interested in the value of independent learning, as they are more likely to look at the next step.
- Step 2: Give students a brief look at independent learning, followed by positive but meaningful feedback on their efforts. Remember that students are more motivated to study independently if they have been successful in the past, no matter how little success. If you incorporate a little independence into your weekly routine with the students, they will get a great advantage if the stakes are increased further in their school career. At this point, what is done is less important than the fact that something is being done. Building good routines is important.
Increase student attention span
A major reason why students are sometimes bad at independent learning is the lack of time parameters. How long should an independent study take? How long should the learning units last? One way to mitigate this is to teach students to work for short intervals, followed by a short break.
The Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is a good way to do this. Students are less likely to continue plowing for too long. Conversely, they are not put off by the prospect of long and tiring learning sessions.
Independent learning techniques
Encouraging some effective independent learning techniques with your students should also be helpful.
Low stakes quiz: Low stakes quizzes are one of the most effective learning methods you can use. Simply reading your revision notes does not have nearly the same impact on learning because students can be mistaken that they have understood and memorized content if they have not. Students can design quizzes themselves, pair them up, or access paid or even free quizzes online.
Index cards: Flash cards are an adaptation of this low-stakes quiz. Many students turn to online platforms such as Quizlet to create or download topics or even course-specific sets. The best thing about these low-stakes tests is that you can track your progress closely. Further information on the research results for this method can be found in the Chartered College of Teaching (2019).
Reverse learning: Another independent learning technique that students should experience is mirrored learning. You can easily implement this. In the course of a work plan, tell students what they will learn about in the following lesson. Then ask them if they can find information on the subject to take them to the next lesson. Without exception, some things will find out and others won’t. Reward those who do and talk to those who have not spoken about why they fought.
Sometimes these students just need a little guide on where to look or what to do. Others may just be a little lazy and have to see that it is really valuable to do so. One way to get students to recognize the value of doing it is to get them to highlight the information they get through independent learning in the work that they later produce.
This is also a great way to see at a glance who it is and who it is not. But whatever happens, ask everyone in each lesson to find out something else for the next topic. It gives them all the opportunity to start over and either start over or improve their way of working.
Practice exam documents: Practice materials are essential to prepare for exams such as GCSEs and A-Levels where large amounts of knowledge are tested. One reason that some students underperform in exams is because they are not sufficiently familiar with the exam conditions.
It can be invaluable to get students to try whole work or even individual sections of work. It shows gaps in knowledge (almost immediately) and helps students understand how much time they should spend on different types of questions. Examination boards have all sample and paper exams available on their websites.
The cost of independent study
Independent learning requires students to spend time that they could otherwise spend doing homework. Or go to the park. Or sleep. So sometimes we should consider that if we focus too much on promoting independent learning, it can be at the expense of other things. For some students, it could be too much of a burden. We should be aware of that.
That being said, I still have to find students who have suffered from too much independent study. So, with perhaps one or two exceptions, we should continue to promote it.
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