Independent Learners – What, Why and How?


Being an independent learner is seen as something to strive to be in education, but I sometimes feel we don’t think enough about what it actually means to be an independent learner.

Following in the Qualified Tutor tradition of targeted and specific feedback, we need to reflect on what we are actually aiming for. Additionally, I believe we are more likely to aim for something if we know why, so I want to explore the benefits of being an independent learner. And finally, I want to apply this understanding specifically to a tutoring setting so that we know what we can do to foster independent learners.

My Level 3 Qualification in Education and Training Live Topic Review was on exactly this topic, and this blog acts as a summary of my 15-minute presentation. I would like to thank the participants for engaging so well with my presentation, and for being so generous with their thoughts. I intend to write another blog detailing what I gained specifically from the Live Topic Review. I believe independent learning is the glue which links much of the Level 3 content together, and that there is value in reflecting specifically on this topic.

What are the characteristics of an independent learner?

An independent learner is responsible, in the sense that they are in charge of their learning and that they take action if they know they are struggling. They do not expect the teacher to tell them absolutely everything, and they ensure they are prepared to learn.

An independent learner may also be driven and passionate. They enjoy study and learning, want to know more and really want to conquer the subject content. This may lead them onto being exploratory and utilising their research skills to develop their subject knowledge, and they may be willing to take risks or admit what they don’t know.

Continuing the theme of students being in charge of their learning, independent learners will use time outside of their formal learning hours to consolidate subject knowledge. This may include making revision resources, or using those research skills to plug any knowledge gaps. Their ability to fill knowledge gaps will fit into their wider planning skills; they will know the timeline on which they need to learn and ensure that they get through what they need to so they can achieve their learning aims.

Independent learners are likely to have good self-assessment skills which allow them to track their progress and know where they need to devote more attention. This ability to identify weaknesses and take control of their learning is so powerful because it gives them autonomy. Things are not happening to students, instead independent learners are generally in control of events. These learners can self-regulate, will have generally good discipline and will take the necessary action to stay on track.

Why is being an independent learner important?

According to a report from Meyer, Haywood, Sachdev and Faraday, being an independent learner improves academic performance, increases motivation and confidence, increases chances for learners to be creative, differentiates learning so it is suited to individual needs, develops an entrepreneurial mindset and develops transferable skills. These transferrable skills included motivation, independence, initiative, time management, organisation and multi-tasking, and strong reading and writing skills.

To drill down further, improved academic performance is a benefit because stronger academic grades open more doors. This includes being able to access more competitive universities or apprenticeships, and may lead to higher-paying jobs like being a lawyer or a consultant. However, university is not right for everyone and nor are these professions that all students are aiming for. We need to acknowledge this in the classroom, and acknowledge that being an independent learner is a life skill and not just a university skill.

With the jobs market becoming increasingly competitive due to more roles being taken over by automation, and with automation leading to fulfilment within work becoming a greater topic of discussion, increased motivation and confidence should not be underestimated. Many people do not take opportunities because they do not have the confidence to, and being able to motivate yourself means you are better able to face adversity as you believe in the end goal and will take action to ensure you meet it. A key role a tutor can play is building confidence, and if we can develop independent learners, it means they can continue to keep that confidence for the future.

Being creative is also very important as it allows you to innovatively problem solve, and this feeds in to the wider entrepreneurial skillset which being an independent learner can develop. These general shifts in the jobs market mean that being an entrepreneur is an option more looked to than before, with some governments particularly encouraging individuals to go into business. Therefore when we work with our students to support them in becoming an independent learner, we are giving them the skills to set up their own plumbing business or tech company in the next few years and decades.

Learners gain more when the learning is suited to them, and tutoring already has massive advantages over a classic classroom setting because we are able to customise the pitch and pace of our teaching to suit learners. Being an independent learner though means they can differentiate as well, they can investigate if they get stuck on a problem, and they can use their communication skills within a classroom context to ensure they are getting what they need from contact time.

Transferable skills are so important due to the rise of the gig economy and the death of the job for life, with the average worker changing employer every five years on average in the UK, and in the US, changing jobs 12 times between ages 18 and 52. Developing these skills is therefore crucial to preparing our students for life more generally, with these employability skills being something that can be developed partially within a classroom context. Independence stems from this regulation I described that is crucial to being an independent learner, and time management comes from being responsible for your own learning and in planning how to achieve goals. Workers will need to be flexible, and expertise is likely to become less valued compared to being adaptable and being able to resolve problems. Being an independent learner is therefore something important to develop for all students so that, regardless of what they choose to do post-16, they are prepared for success.

How can we develop independent learners within our practice?

Now we know what we are aiming to develop and why this is so important, we can now consider what role a tutor can play in facilitating this skillset growth. A very interesting discussion we had when I gave my presentation was at what age we can begin to encourage independent learning. A great example given by a participant of how we can start developing independent learners at a young age was encouraging students in primary school to pick age-appropriate books from a book box when they finish reading something, showing how young people can still take charge of their learning to an extent before they join secondary school.

Tutors can use questions as prompts to develop independent learners, enquiring into how they are finding their learning and what areas they need to focus on or need further support with. If we regularly ask these questions, it should encourage students to prepare answers in their own time, and eventually it will be embedded into their own learning practice.

In addition, we can set and later withdraw a scaffold for independent learning, for example by asking students to find news articles on a specific topic before broadening the scope to anything subject-related, and then shifting to a model where students hopefully participate in this activity of their own accord. We need to model what independent learning looks like to our students by admitting if we don’t know something, going away and looking further into it, and coming back to the classroom to share what we have learnt. I have heard some students say they are unclear what independent learning looks like, so we need to show them exactly what we mean.

We should encourage students to set goals and encourage them to hold themselves to account, always having a target of what they want to achieve next. We should welcome questions and additional perspectives we may not have considered so that students understand a topic more closely. We can support this development by providing powerful feedback which involves being very specific and targeted, encouraging them about what they are doing well but marking clearly where they can develop next (more in the Level 3 Qualified Tutor course). Learning from failure is such a powerful way to develop, and we need to ensure we create a positive learning environment so that students feel comfortable to make mistakes. Trust is essential to that.

Where possible we need to give students autonomy in their learning, asking them what topic they want to study within the syllabus or providing a menu of options for tasks they could do. We need to ensure our students feel and know that they are an equal partner in the learning process, so we need to put in our side of the bargain while the students need to put in their portion. Setting research projects and making sure to spend time understanding expectations or mark schemes means students have freedom and clear goals.

We want our students to be capable problem-solvers, so we should encourage them to try to resolve their own problems first before seeking help. Teaching back is a great way of students knowing how much they have learnt, and it allows them to give their perspective on what they have taken away and what they want to focus on next. We can support them in their learning journey by signposting next steps, and always setting extension activities if students feel they need to focus more on a specific area. Knowing how to learn will really set students up for success, so again we should be supporting students to really develop their transferable skills. Let’s apply our learning to the real world where possible, making links to examples which students will identify with and applying knowledge in different contexts to really stretch our learners.

What next?

If you want to apply your learning from this blog, you could spend some time reflecting on its contents and talking to a friend or somebody you work with to drill down more into what I have said. You could comment on this blog to share your reflections and thoughts, or ask a question to understand more about my perspective on independent learners. There may be talks as well online from other practitioners which may give additional insight of this topic.

You could also apply your learning but to a different topic, so you could dive into something that really interests you and make yourself aware of the skills and methods you are using so that you can really put yourself in the shoes of your students.

TES have produced a booklet on how to develop independent learners, the Higher Education Teaching Academy have a booklet on independent learning, there is a research paper on the role of independent learning, and this LinkedIn post explores how teachers can create independent learners.

No doubt there are many other resources out there, but these are just some options you could take if you wanted to move beyond what I have written.

Being an independent learner is so valuable because it sets students up for success, whatever pathway they choose to take, whether that be going to university or becoming an apprentice or starting their own business. Independent learners are in charge of their own learning, aware of what they need to do next to improve and go beyond minimum requirements to ensure they hit their goals. We can support this through our tutoring practice by modelling independent learning to our students, by asking questions and encouraging reflection, by giving students autonomy and choice, and by creating a positive learning environment in which our students can thrive.

Being an independent learner is not just an academic skill but a life skill that we can develop through our practice.

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