Sharing practice #3: Independent learning

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Classroom of Students

In the latest instalment of our SIME blog series, we asked our members: what do you understand by the term ‘independent learning’? At what point does someone become an ‘independent learner’?

Here’s what our members had to say…

‘There is a question of what we mean by ‘independent’ as compared with ‘dependent’. In education, learning requires us to enter a state of ‘not-knowing’. After all, if we ‘know’ something already, then we cannot learn something new. Therefore, a level of dependency is required in order to learn (Obholzer and Roberts, 1994; Western, 2005).

‘For me, independent learning is something students gradually learn over time. As educators we are tasked with helping them to make the transition from dependent to independent learners, and of course this happens for everyone at different times and stages of their learning journey.’

Emma Watton

‘I think Emma raises an important issue. What is it that dependent learners do and what is it that educators do in order to enable the transition from dependent to independent learning?

‘For me at least, independent learning is a stage in the process of becoming a lifelong learner. It's the stage at which a learner has developed the skills that enable them to pursue those topics that are of particular interest to them. These skills include developing their curiosity and their ability to navigate learning resources – as well as their ability to evaluate these resources and make sense of the data gathered.

‘Whilst the educator may be involved in inspiring students’ desire to learn, and piquing their interest in a particular subject area, they no longer shape or guide the learner; rather they empower and enable.’

Neil Ralph

‘A short story for you. During the 2020 lockdown, my son was in year 10 and preparing to enter his GCSE year (year 11). His school didn’t have the technology to move seamlessly online with teaching and learning and didn't seem able to get work sent out to students. This meant that my son had to become an independent learner very quickly indeed!

‘Unprompted by us (and his teachers), he went online and found past GCSE papers for all his subjects, worked through them, identified his weak areas, and found online tutorials that taught him what he needed to know. Suffice it to say it worked well for him, in GCSE's and A levels.

‘From my perspective then, independent learning is a process of becoming – from organised school learning to being independently curious. The key I think is curiosity – the ability to ask your own questions and have the knowledge of how to find answers to these questions. Understanding what is good data / good knowledge is also critical, making the ability to question sources really important.’

Chris Saunders

‘Reading the story about Chris' son, I can relate to this well having watched my husband change careers several times, and being truly in awe of what he managed to achieve.

‘My husband's first job was in the mining industry and when the mines closed down, he had to requalify. His first university degree happened out of necessity in order to find a new occupation and he joined his UG studies as a mature student. I guess he was already an independent adult by then and what Chris describes as ‘becoming’ had already happened in my husband’s personal life – living away from family, getting a first job and being made redundant as a young adult. This fast life reality made him a very independent learner. Independence in life transferred to learning, looking for new opportunities and being motivated to maintain his life independence through constant learning. He then spent over twenty years in various local authorities until facing another organisational restructure that motivated him to requalify once more. This time, as he says, at the University of YouTube.

My husband is now a successful business analyst in the private retail sector, a complete U-turn in his career. His ability to design his own learning route towards a new career has been something he takes as given. His story makes me think about Emma's points relating to the transition towards an independent learner’s mindset.

‘The big question I think is how might we incorporate and build on students’ life experiences – that may already require independence – and connect those experiences to learning. Many of our students are becoming independent humans by coming to the University and those skills they are using in their daily lives could be very well transferred to their independent learning journey in higher education. Perhaps being more explicit about connections between independent learning for life and for discipline related study may help students understand what may work or not for them and where they may need further scaffolding. Could lessons learnt from burning toast become a useful point of discussion?

Radka Newton

‘What fantastic responses! A lot of what has been mentioned already really resonates with me and some of the things that I write about in my education research. As someone with a professional working background before I came into academia, I am very much aware how students don’t always value the skills they develop during their time at university, and sometimes don’t even recognise the skills they have as being ‘skills’ that an employer may value! Equally, as Radka points out, a lot of the time, we have more skills than we realise and sometimes what we need is just that nudge to help us apply our pre-existing skills but in a new scenario.

‘Scaffolding is really important I think. But so too is the need to help students reflect upon their personal circumstances, the skills they have – and the skills they don’t have – to help them get into the habit of constant self-reflection and personal growth. As Emma, Neil and Chris have put so eloquently, independent learning is really very much a mindset, and one that I hope we can help our students foster during their time with us.’

Mike Ryder

Join our community

To find out more about SIME, and to join our community of scholars, please email Teresa Aldren. We host numerous events throughout the year, and are soon to publish our first journal, sharing practice from across the Faculty and raise the profile of the great work done by colleagues. You can also join our lovely SIME Teams community and contribute to blogs such as this.

We look forward to meeting you!

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The opinions expressed by our bloggers and those providing comments are personal, and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lancaster University. Responsibility for the accuracy of any of the information contained within blog posts belongs to the blogger.

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