Geoff Petty - Teaching students independent learning

Independent learning is something that will make your life easier, says Geoff Petty. And your students will come to love it – eventually. Geoff is the author of ‘Teaching Today’, ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ and ‘How To Teach Even Better’. 

Do you have too much to teach in too little time? Are your students weak at learning alone? Do you work harder than your students? If so, then it’s time to try independent learning; students love it – eventually. 

The idea is that you identify a short simple topic, with no difficult concepts, that you do not teach at all. Instead, you set an independent learning (IL) assignment that gets students to teach it to themselves outside of class time. 

Initially, they use resources specified by you, but in later IL assignments they find resources for themselves. Students work alone at the start of each assignment, but later tasks require them to work in pairs or groups to answer questions and check understanding and recall. They still work outside of class time in doing this. 

Geoff P March Int X

Then, each student takes a very short and simple test on the topic, usually in class. Some teachers ask students who fail this test to do retakes until they pass (see step eight in the box on the right). I know what you’re thinking: “My students are lousy at learning independently so I can’t use the method.” 

But if students can’t do something they need more practice, not less. With weaker students the trick is to set assignments on short simple topics to begin with. Include a test preparation activity in the IL assignment, for example: 

  • Task: Now check and correct your recall before the test. 
  • Study: Read over your material and check you understand it by trying to explain it to yourself, or to others. 
  • Cover: Close your books and shut any websites down. 
  • Recall: Recall what you have learned, writing it down as a short note. There should be an hour or so between study and recall to ensure the material is in your long-term and not just your short-term memory.  
  • Check and correct: Open your books and websites again. Check what you have recalled for accuracy and completeness. Make corrections and additions to your recall notes. 
  • Repeat: It’s rare to get recall right first time, so go through this process again until your recall is really good. Ideally, the last recall should be done in pairs, small groups, or ‘learning teams’. 

It’s important to improve weaknesses in independent learning skills and this is the aim of the competence questionnaire. Each student has their own copy and self-assesses by placing a tick under the appropriate column for each competence. The student can then set themselves a target to improve a weakness uncovered by the questionnaire. The next independent learning assignment can include a personalised target to address this weakness. A few assignments later students can retake the questionnaire with a different coloured tick, so progress can be seen. 

If you think your students will struggle with this, they can start the independent learning process by completing the questionnaire. Then you can address common weaknesses with the whole class. 


Why bother? 

Remember that the topic is not taught by you at all. This leaves you more class time to tackle more conceptually difficult topics. You are most unlikely to save time with the first independent learning assignment, but as students get used to independent learning you will save more and more time. 

Another advantage is that students will pick up independent learning skills. These are vital for progression, exam revision, good grades and the ability to make best use of computer-based resources. This method teaches students that learning is something they must do to themselves, that learning depends on effort, time, corrected practice, and asking for help – among other things – not on innate ability. 

If your students are reluctant to take responsibility for their own learning, it’s a brilliant method to use. Students are often troubled by the method at first, but eventually love it. The mark students obtain on topics they taught themselves are usually at least as good and often better, than their marks for topics taught conventionally. 

I used independent learning for many years when I taught physics. My students were scared of the method at first, but soon got used to it. It ended up being their favourite, they regarded it as ‘grown-up learning’, preparing them for work, for progression and especially higher education. And it saves you time. 

See chapter 31 of Teaching Today for a fuller description of IL and chapter 17 of Evidence Based Teaching for more ‘teaching without talking’ methods. 


Eight steps to independent learning (effect size 0.75*) 

  1. Any easy section of the syllabus is identified and this is not taught. Instead, students are given an assignment that describes in detail what they must learn. More experienced independent learners may need less direction. 
  2. Students work on this assignment outside of class time. Work is alone at first, but later tasks require the student to work in pairs or small groups. The assignment activities are thought provoking, and are not entirely ‘book and biro’. Visual representations and other methods above make good tasks. At least one task requires students to go beyond the simple reproduction of the ideas in the materials and to apply their learning. This is to encourage deep learning, otherwise students may simply collect information and write it down without really thinking about it, or understanding it. 
  3. Students’ work is monitored by a designated ‘leader’ in their group or by the teacher if the assignment is a long one. Short assignments are best at first. 
  4. The students’ notes are not marked, (except perhaps in the first use of this method in order to check their ability to make effective notes). Instead, their learning is assessed by a short test. One assignment task is to prepare for this. Optionally students can be required to retake tests, or do other remedial work if their test result is unsatisfactory. 
  5. After completing this independent learning assignment, or indeed before, students use an independent learning competences questionnaire to identify their weaknesses as an independent learner, and to set themselves targets for their next independent learning assignment. 
  6. If learning teams are used, activities can be set to discuss questions you set and to prepare for the test. 
  7. Students take a test, which they knew was coming from the start, which tests basic understanding of the key concepts. Some teachers use a ‘mastery learning approach with this test, that is, if a student does not get a good mark on this test, they are required to do remedial work with peers, and then to take it again until they pass. 

This is not an easy teaching method to use but it is greatly enjoyed by students if it is managed well. See also ‘cooperative learning’ in Evidence Based Teaching for similar methods. 


*Based on Professor John Hattie’s calculation of the effect size or impact of teaching on learner achievement.