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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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