Written by Geoff Petty - an expert on teaching methods and author of Teaching Today and Evidence-Based Teaching.
Independent learning gives students the opportunity to learn a topic that is defined by the teacher but is not taught, making it ideal for the current situation.
According to Imperial College (Ferguson et al, 2020), the UK’s colleges could be shut for some time. So let’s use ‘independent learning’ (IL); a specific teaching method that is not necessarily computer-based.
Even if your students are not learning in isolation, this is a great method. When my A Level physics students’ questionnaire asked them what was the best thing about Mr Petty’s course, they answered “independent learning” and “learning teams”. I was furious – neither really involved me. As you read this, think about why these methods were so popular, and also their many advantages.
In IL, students learn a topic which is defined by the teacher, but is not taught. Support and monitoring are provided by students, who also assess work in progress, but in the end the learning is assessed by the teacher.
IL can be used as a component of any course and no special resources are required, but it is not an easy teaching method to use. It is highly effective, however, if enough care is given to task design, monitoring and assessment, which need to be ‘tuned’ to the capabilities of the students.
At least to start with, choose a straightforward factual topic that can be learned in an hour or less. Then design a ladder of tasks, from short and easy to longer and challenging, that will require the learner to study and learn this topic. If the students have textbooks or other resources, look at how they treat the topic. This might suggest tasks. The tasks need to be appropriate to your students, that is tuned to the group and can be directed or undirected.
A directed task might be a detailed assignment giving a carefully planned sequence of tasks and questions, with carefully chosen specific references. At least one task should make students really think about the topic rather than regurgitate what they’ve read.
A non-directed task might quote what the syllabus requires, with instructions to prepare for a test on this.
This preparatory work is not marked by you – though you might ask to see it, or require peer assessment – but the learning from these tasks will later be assessed by your short test. A useful sub-task is to prepare for this test. This focuses the students on understanding the topic, rather than just completing tasks and notes.
Many students find it difficult to learn alone. So pair them up to form ‘study buddies’ or group them into ‘learning teams’ so they can help each other. You can set tasks for these groupings, such as peer explaining to teach others, peer assessment or discussing aspects of the topic using phone, Skype or Zoom.
The success or otherwise of an independent learning assignment is very sensitive to the precise nature of the tasks you set. They must be tuned to the group.
Students self or peer assess their own progress perhaps by ticking off your task list, they
then test themselves or each other to be sure they are ready for your IL assessment.
You can specify resources (make them as varied as you can) or you can leave students to find their own. Again, this needs to be ‘tuned’ to the group, but don’t over-help students, as your eventual aim is to develop the skill of finding resources independently.
You will have already guessed that the major problem with IL is that students, like us, avoid unnecessary work. There are two solutions, the assessment mentioned later, and monitoring.
If you provide students with a checklist of tasks or sub-topics they can tick these off as they work, and you can ask to see this from time to time. In my experience lazy students can’t even be bothered to forge these, so they are a fairly accurate indication of progress even for them. Monitoring can be close or distant and again needs to be tuned to the group.
Assessment can be low heat or high heat, depending on the needs of the students, and should come quite soon after the learning. Some groups barely respond to low heat assessment.
Low heat assessment includes self-marked tests, quizzes and so on. High heat assessment includes video presentations, tests or exams. Highest heat of all is a system of tests and retests called ‘mastery learning’.
Independent learning skills
If you use IL often you can teach the skills and attitudes required for independent learning. See the last half of chapter 33 in Teaching Today.
IL gives the responsibility of learning to learners; they learn in their own way at their own pace, it provides support, and develops the skills needed for progression. It is greatly enjoyed by students and can be less work for you – see chapter 33 in Petty (2014) for more detail. There is also evidence IL works better than most computer-based learning – see Petty (2009).
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