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How to help your students become independent learners

6 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Developing independent learners is often considered the holy grail of education. We all want to help develop self-motivated students who know how to learn and are effective at doing so. Fortunately, research has pointed us in a direction as to how to achieve this.

So, read on to learn about…

  • Independent learning
  • The importance of being an independent learner
  • 7 ways to help your students become independent learners

What are independent learners?

An independent learner is one who can take responsibility for their own learning. These are students who can take initiative and make good decisions without needing help from teachers. Developing independent learners is important to help students advance in their academic performance and stay motivated. 

When students shift to independent learning, they often have more control over their time. They can decide when and where to spend their time and, with the right nurturing, they will decide on their own to spend it efficiently. Becoming an independent learner comes alongside an increased feeling of responsibility and accountability for personal success and failure. This can be especially motivating as students may feel a strong sense of pride when they see positive progress in their academics.

Why is independent learning important?

Research has shown that independent learning can develop metacognitive skills. This is important for effective learning because it can help students plan, monitor and evaluate their performance. Some skills include:

  1. Critical thinking skills – Independent learning relies on students to think critically and develop problem-solving skills. By seeking out information, analysing it, and applying it to real-world situations, students become more adept at evaluating and making informed decisions.
  2. Adaptability – Independent learners are more likely to adapt to new situations and challenges. They are comfortable with ambiguity and can quickly adjust their learning strategies to suit different environments, enabling them to excel in various academic and professional settings.
Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

7 ways to help your students learn independently

Encourage a sense of purpose

Encouraging a sense of purpose can play a pivotal role in fostering independent learners. When students have a clear understanding of why they are learning a particular subject or skill, it ignites a spark within them. This sense of purpose serves as a driving force, motivating them to take charge of their own learning journey.

When students have a sense of purpose, they are more likely to set meaningful goals for themselves. These goals act as guideposts, providing direction and focus. Independent learners actively seek out resources, engage in self-directed research, and take initiative in finding solutions to challenges they encounter along the way.

Encouraging a sense of purpose also nurtures students’ intrinsic motivation. Instead of relying solely on external rewards or pressures, they find joy and satisfaction in the process of learning itself. This intrinsic motivation drives them to explore beyond the confines of the classroom, seeking out additional resources, engaging in deeper inquiry, and cultivating a lifelong passion for learning.

Encourage collaboration

Through collaboration, students have the opportunity to practice effective communication by actively listening to others and engaging in critical thinking. These skills are crucial for independent learning as they enable students to articulate their ideas, seek feedback, and engage in meaningful dialogue with others.

Research suggests that when students are asked to work together, they engage in more exploratory behaviour and are able to accept positive and negative feedback easier. Although this is not completely independent, it is a good starting point that can urge students to take the initiative to develop their own ideas. The only caveat here is that there will need to be a good degree of guidance to start with, to ensure they aren’t getting distracted and/or learning misconceptions from each other – we wrote about the pros and cons of group work to help you with this.

Focus on mastery, not comparison to others

Focusing on mastery and not comparing oneself to others can greatly contribute to the development of independent learning in students. By shifting ones focus from other people and competition to individual progress and personal growth, students are empowered to take ownership of their learning journey.

In a seminal study, John Nicholls found that students often view exams in different ways. Some saw exams as opportunities to gauge their own learning progress, while others viewed them as chances to compare themselves to their classmates.

From these findings, Nicholls identifies two distinct types of motivation. The first is mastery orientation, which describes students who feel most accomplished when they have fully mastered a task. These individuals consistently invest maximum effort and derive pleasure from improving and honing their skills. On the other hand, ego-orientation refers to students who thrive on surpassing their peers, placing emphasis on showcasing their superior abilities and determining their rank among classmates.

Teachers can help encourage their students to develop a mastery orientation by having students measure themselves against their previous efforts, focus on “improving themselves rather than proving themselves” and actively reflecting on what they have learnt from their experiences.

Encourage reflective thinking

When working on a task, it is important for students to continuously reflect and keep track of their learning. This will allow them to pinpoint areas of strength or weakness, and they can use this to monitor their progress without needing feedback from their teacher.

Self-monitoring falls under the realm of reflection with students focusing on establishing goals they want to meet and being able to assess themselves as they reach each milestone. The best questions student can ask themselves include “How can I get better?” and “Where do I do my best work?”. These psychologically rich questions contribute to enhancing self-reflection.

Encourage goal setting

A good way to keep students on the track to becoming independent learners is by introducing them to effective goal setting. This must include flexibility, both short and long-term goals, and enough challenge to maintain motivation. Goal setting allows students to create targets that they would like to work on independently and achieve in a given time frame. This promotes success as students will feel a stronger sense of enthusiasm towards accomplishing their personal goals as they know the gains will benefit them. 

Research has found that when people wrote down their goals, they were 33% more likely to achieve them than those who kept them in their minds. Encourage students to make a to-do list so that their goals feel more concrete.

Remove distractions

Removing distractions plays a crucial role in encouraging students to become independent learners. It allows them to fully immerse themselves in their studies, develop discipline and prioritise their learning goals. Distractions involve classroom noise, their mobile phones, or classmates. These can impede students’ ability to concentrate and retain information. When these distractions are eliminated or minimised, students can allocate their full attention and cognitive resources to the task at hand.

Research shows that the ability to improve concentration and attention is something that can be developed, even from a very young age. Our ability to focus is not a fixed quantity. One study found that simply having your phone out, even if you are not using it, can make you perform up to 20% worse in cognitive tests. See these tips to improve students’ concentration and focus.

Final thoughts

As a teacher, you hope that one day your students will be able to apply what they have learnt without needing your guidance. This is a long and winding process. But over time, by teaching them how to self-reflect and set challenging yet realistic goals, it can be a positive step forward. Once students reach this stage of independency, they will have developed key skills necessary to succeed in their academics, and beyond.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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