Developing Independent Learning in Your Classroom

Independent learning is a process and a way of thinking in education within which learners develop knowledge, skills and understanding through their own efforts. The process supports the development of self-evaluation and self-motivation.

Knowledge bank

Independent learning is also referred to as self-directed learning and encourages learners to accept personal responsibility for their learning.

It is the preferred method of learning in universities and it greatly benefits learners if they can have had experience of this approach to learning before they attend a university.

It benefits learners through:

  • a more adult and realistic approach to learning which reflects lifelong learning models
  • the development of flexibility and good decision-making
  • skills which can be transferred to other sectors and carried through life
  • scope for different learning styles to be accommodated where choice is given over how to access sources of information
  • greater levels of self-motivation through freedoms and choices.

It is characterized by learners:

  • taking responsibility for setting their own learning goals
  • understanding how they prefer to learn and utilizing and extending their repertoire
  • planning and organizing themselves and their work
  • communicating ideas in a wide range of formats
  • learning though experiential processes
  • identifying and solving problems
  • thinking creatively
  • learning the skills of self-evaluation and relating their progress to their starting goals.

In the school context independent learning has key relevance too. However, the challenge for some teachers can be to let go of their control and become a facilitator of learning rather than an 'in-putter' of facts. Judging when to help directly and how much help to give is key.

An independent learning approach requires early support for learners in developing the key skills that it demands. This early development can then be allowed to flourish within the framework of support offered to the learners within the context of their independent working. Getting the intervention balance right takes time, and this can be helped by gaining learner feedback around the feelings they have during the learning experience, and what they would like more or less of from their teacher.

Special emphasis on developing reflectivity for self-evaluation is essential in independent learning situations. Learners need to be encouraged to reflect not just on what they have learned, but also how they have learned it, so that they can improve their own learning effectiveness. This should be built into their planning.

A level of interactivity with other learners, teachers and other adults is required in successful independent learning. To this end individual, pair and collaborative group work is necessary.

Resource implications need to be considered and in particular:

  • Liaising with library/resource centre staff in relation to sources of information, space and support.
  • Training in internet use may be necessary.
  • Re-organization of the classroom environment to make it more appropriate for a flexible learning set-up. In some cases re-rooming may be possible permanently or temporarily.
  • Resources may be available beyond the institution, e.g. local industry, community. If so consideration as to how these will be accessed is required.
  • The implications for storage and retrieval of support materials and differentiated learning materials will need to be explored.
  • How you will distribute your time and meet your learners' needs.

It's worth bearing in mind that independent learning need not require a wholesale shift, and that it can be developed and used within the context of a range of other processes and philosophies of learning.

The learning that takes place in schools can never be truly independent since the role of schools is to provide teachers as expert facilitators or mediators of learning.

Ask yourself

  1. What are your current feelings about independent learning approaches?
  2. In what ways are you able to adopt these approaches?
  3. What might be stopping you from taking this forward?
  4. What could you do to develop your own independent learning approaches?

To do list

  • Find out what your learners feel about independent learning.
  • Consider alongside your learners what kinds of principles and rules would be needed for independent learning to operate effectively.
  • Investigate the resource implications of moving further towards this approach and consider ways to overcome the challenges.