Learning

What is independent learning?

‘Independent learning’ or ‘self-directed study’ are often talked about in relation to how you are expected to learn at University, but what does it really mean?

Taking some time to get to grips with what is expected of you, and how you should develop your learning style, will help to make the transition to University-style learning much easier and help you get into the swing of things quicker.

One definition of independent study given in ‘Self-direction for lifelong learning’ (1991) describes independent learning/ study as:

  1. ‘Independent study is a process, a method and a philosophy of education:
    in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for inquiry and critical evaluation;
  2. it includes freedom of choice in determining those objectives, within the limits of a given project or program and with the aid of a faculty adviser;
  3. it requires freedom of process to carry out the objectives
  4. it places increased educational responsibility on the student for the achieving of objectives and for the value of the goals’.

Or more simply put “The ability to take charge of one’s learning.” Holec (1981:3)

Independent learning is central to being a student. University requires you to become a more active learner, allowing you take control of your own learning, take responsibility for your own workload, make decisions about what you will focus on and how much time you spend on study (both inside and outside the classroom).

When you were at school what you learnt will have been set by the teacher, who will have had to follow a particular curriculum. However at University although you will follow a certain subject area the parameters of what you can study are much broader. And for many programmes there is more flexibility in what you can study.

There are also differences across disciplines in how structured your learning will be. For example in the Humanities and Social Sciences you will have less contact hours and therefore will have greater autonomy over your time. However less contact hours doesn’t mean less work. It means you have more time for independent reading and research, and it’s up to you how you manage this time.

By becoming an independent learner you should feel more in control of your education and academics. You can achieve this by setting your own goals and deadlines, organising your workload, and reflecting on your learning techniques and whether they are effective. Part of independent learning is understanding what works for you, and what skills you might need to improve on.

The Library’s My Learning Essentials award winning skills programme can help you develop a variety of skills that are essential to your studies. The resources cover a whole range of academic topics such as essay writing, critical reading, referencing, proofreading and plagiarism. There are also sessions on overcoming procrastination, understanding assignment tasks, planning for revision.

One key thing to remember is that independent learning does not mean studying by yourself! In some instances you may find it easier to work through a question or problem with a friend or someone else on your course. Working with others and talking problems through maybe the most effective way of finding out the answer to something. Therefore group work, peer/pass mentors or study sessions are great tools for independent learning.

Independent learning requires a lot of self-motivation, organisation and also a self-awareness of your learning needs and behaviours. Although a step up from previous school work or college this way of learning will help develop your creativity, intellectual curiosity, and problem-solving abilities. Meaning when you finish University you won’t just have a deeper knowledge of your particular discipline but will also be armed with the soft-skills employers value in the workplace.

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