Autonomous, Independent Learning

This is an analysis of autonomous, student-led, project-based education. The first section looks at definitions, and then the evidence behind the claims for its efficacy. The next section considers what prevents the use of independent learning methods, finally I list skills that need to be taught for students to become successful independent learners, and suggest resources that may be useful.

What is independent learning?

Many prefer the phrase ‘self-directed’ learning, the term ‘heutagogy’ is also used as a contrast to (e.g.) pedagogy.  One attempt at a definition might be it is a process, method and philosophy of education where students acquire knowledge by their own efforts, and in the process develop skills in inquiry and critical evaluation. True independent learning requires freedom of choice in determining both objectives and methods (supported by educational professionals) and places additional responsibility on the student for both achievement and value of goals (after Candy (1991) quoting Forster (1972)). Terry Heick (2015) has a useful comparison chart between teacher centred, student-centred and self-directed teaching/learning.

Why should everyone become an independent learner?

Because what we need during our lives will change beyond what is formally taught when we are young, and being able to learn from resources that we can find will enable us to stay independent and take a full part in society. I learned about electronics with thermionic valves at school (late 60s), was taught a bit about transistors at university (70s), and had to teach myself about integrated circuits so I could teach op-amp circuits (80s and 90s). This century when I was given an iPad at college, I went on line and learned how to use different apps from young American teenagers, who seemed to spend their time making ‘how-to’ videos and posting them on YouTube. Being an autodidact is both easier and more necessary in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

We live in a society with easy access to more knowledge and culture than at any time in human history, and if we choose to learn and think critically about whatever intrigues us, not only will we become more fulfilled and creative, but also with our individual unique mixture of experience and knowledge we may produce previously unobserved insights as one area illuminates another.

David Hansen (2002) has written that Dewey believed that individuals both lost and found themselves in what they chose to study. And Liem and Martin (2011) wrote that, “Being an engaged learner is addictive”. What greater present can we make to students than to give them the opportunity to become motivated learners with academic mindsets?

Enough of the polemic, practical learning aims:

Meyer et al (2008) claim the benefits of self –directed learning include:  improved academic performance; increased motivation and confidence; greater student awareness of their limitations and their ability to manage them; enabling teachers to provide differentiated tasks for students; and fostering social inclusion by countering alienation as benefits of students becoming independent learners. Hase (2013) claims that cognitive science supports student centred, self-determined learning as more effective, and further invokes constructivist ideas such as students only learn new ideas thoroughly when challenged to re-evaluate previous beliefs and re-construct their understanding. The contents pages of the book he and Kenyon (2013) have edited lists articles describing and analysing the use of self-determined learning in both academic and vocational contexts.

In its insistence on the removal of responsibility from teacher to learner, and the subsequent requirement for the student to consider her or his strategies and tactics, independent learning certainly requires students to ‘think hard’. And as Professor Robert Coe, has said more than once (e.g. 2015) “Learning happens when people have to think hard”. Professor Coe is rigorous in requiring evidence to support claims for any educational technique, (Coe, 2013) so we may be confident that self-directed learning can improve academic performance.

As students take responsibility for their own learning, they will gain awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. So active learning should increase metacognition. The subsequent  ‘ability to manage’ links to Carol Dweck’s idea of ‘growth mindset’ (e.g. Dweck, 1999 and 2008), and then to students’ capabilities to coach themselves through difficulties and develop ‘grit’, (Martinez, 2006).

In contrast, to complete this survey of the advantages of active learning, I include an impressive list of the disadvantages of ‘passive learning’, produced by Peters (2011). He identifies the following:

  1. Limited knowledge of examples of applications of what is learned
  2. Few links to pre-existing knowledge
  3. Smaller likelihood of long term recall
  4. Exams results do not differentiate between deep understanding and rote application of learned examples
  5. Faculty takes responsibility for learning process rather than students – instructor-dependant rather than self-dependant leading to
  6. Learned dependency – students reluctant to take on other methods of learning

So if self-directed, independent learning is the most effective way for people to learn, why isn’t that what we do most of the time in schools and colleges?

I think my most frequent excuses would have involved phrases like ‘time pressure’, ‘department Schemes of Work’, ‘the need to complete the specification’. The ofte irresistible temptation is to give summary notes, supported by (of course) perfectly clear explanations and then to practise likely examination questions. Particularly for students facing external examinations, and in a school/college culture where such preparation is the norm. Indeed, I found that even small variations to the traditional didactic pattern, for example different note taking techniques or students working in unfamiliar groups, met resistance from students until they were convinced of the methods’ validity; both by my sharing educational research findings and their own experience.

Peters (2011) found the same obstacles to student centred, self-directed learning:  ‘Although active learning strategies are the most effective means for promoting deep learning and understanding, implementation is impeded by student and faculty preferences for stimulus-response learning.’ He was writing about study for masters’ degrees, but I think the argument has validity at all stages in education. As teachers we are accountable, whatever the age of our students we feel must cover material to give students their best chance to get the best grades, and to progress to the ‘next level’. Both students and teachers like certainty (Frambach et al, 2012, discussing culture challenging self-directed learning in medical education).

Peters warns that if active learning tasks are simply an ‘add on’ to a course (a “thin veneer” to otherwise passive techniques such as learning notes and examples from the lecturer) then they will lack credibility for students. He quotes Burchfield and Sappington (2000) – the majority of undergraduates and 1/3 post grads do not read assigned materials, especially if they are set as extension work rather than pre-reading for a course. Active learning techniques can all too easily be subverted by a teacher, for example if despite class discussion, an instructor indicates that when it comes to the examination there is only one correct answer (Peters, op cit).

Additionally in some cultures there is a problem if the hierarchical structure is challenged (Frambach, et al, 2012). A teacher may fear loss of status and control if students have more autonomy. And if students are insufficiently prepared for taking responsibility they may resent the lack of teacher guidance. Parents may question teachers who depart from what they expect.

Teachers often fear that students will learn less effectively if their learning is self-directed. There are two effects to consider here. First is that independent learning skills need to be taught, FOFO has never been an acceptable teaching strategy. Stel (2011) commented on the limited understanding of teachers of metacognition. She and her co-authors found teachers often believed all that was required for students were tips for learning, and that higher order reflexive skills were appropriate only for the most able students.

Secondly, teachers’ views that students will not (rather than cannot) learn independently may be based on their own experience with adolescent students. Students’ academic progress is often not linear. Although metacognitive skills broadly increase from age 12 to 22, Stel (op cit.) found discontinuities occur, notably between age 14 and 15. Subsequently Veenman (2014) claimed that in students younger than 14 metacognitive skills tended to be subject specific, and there was little transference. Stel wrote that many students make a leap in using metacognitive skills (eg for problem solving, text studying) which sadly could be backwards or forwards. Fluctuations were the norm, so that for 14 year olds she found no correlation between use of metacognitive skills and effective learning. Stel also claimed that in this age range acceleration and ceiling hypotheses both break down. BUT she found that generalisation of metacognitive skills did broadly increase over the secondary schooling age range.

Finally, as Peters (op cit) has pointed out, another reason that passive learning techniques are popular is that they involve less work for both students and teachers. It is easier for teachers to recycle a course where all the information is included. Easier to mark assignments where answers are just right or wrong. And easier to stay in the familiar groove of didactic practice, than to risk change.

How can we overcome the obstacles to teaching students to become independent learners?

Within a teaching institution there may be a ‘climate’ that is resistant or even hostile to non-traditional learning approaches.  It is difficult for an individual teacher to overcome institution barriers. Sharing research findings, sharing examples of good practice with colleagues (and management and parents), paired observations are all useful tactics. Interested teachers can join and set up discussion groups – both physical and electronic. There are many on-line, Twitter is a useful source (for example @teachThought, look for Terry Heick).

Student engagement is vital for students to be willing to invest the energy and effort needed for independent learning. Two factors are identified as important by many authors: authenticity and relevance of what is studied, and taught metacognition so that students can appreciate their progress. ‘PBL’ (project based learning) is a process wherein both these factors can be addressed.

There seems to be agreement that ‘Project’ or ‘Problem’ based learning is an appropriate method to both engage students and help them develop independent learning skills. My understanding of the difference between them is that ‘projects’ are more open and last longer than ‘problems’. Thus a problem based task might be useful to teach a particular skill. Problem based tasks may be appropriate preparation for true Project Based Learning (PBL), (see Barron et al, 1998). A search on JSTOR (October 2015) reveals something like 7800 articles relating to problem based learning, written from educational, psychological and subject specific standpoints.  In addition to academic research that demonstrates PBL promotes effective learning (references as for independent learning) there are endorsements and useful materials from education professionals – particularly in the US and Australia (see for example ‘Learning Frontiers’ and articles by Terry Heick in ‘Professional References’ at end of paper).

Learning Frontiers, Insights and Ideas 1 (op cit) claims, “Engaging learning is connected and integrated,” and gives supporting examples. Issue 2 develops the idea of relevance to the real world and lists three attributes of successful projects:  real world relevant (students should be able to answer ‘Why are we doing this?’), confidence-building (project has value, meaning), rigour (output meets real world standards). In 2011 Deakin Crick and his colleagues surveyed student engagement in Bristol schools involved in an initiative called ‘Learning Futures’. They found a depressing decrease in engagement with age. They linked this to student resentment that school did not help a student to become the person s/he wanted to be and student belief that the teaching was not relevant to the students’ future. In significant agreement with the views expressed in Learning Frontiers, the authors concluded that for successful student engagement students needed real world learning experience with relevance and rigour and which was confidence building.

The benefits of taught metacognition have been touched upon earlier, and methods and resources will be described in the last section. Here it is maybe sufficient to say that Crick and his co-authors listed as a factor that prevented student engagement, “Students did not know what good learning looked like.” An awareness of metacognition can enable students to monitor and appreciate their progress, and to understand why they should expect to experience some difficulties. Effective feedback for both independent and traditional learners should not be forgotten, as a means for both helping students understand where they are, and how to move on (reference for importance of effective feedback: Hattie (2008)). The Higher Education Academy booklet ‘independent learning’ discusses how important it is to reach an understanding with students over what is expected from them as ‘independent learners’ and what support there will be for the students.


What should students be taught to help them become independent learners?

Here I’ve listed skills, and techniques that may be helpful for each one. There are also comments to justify the inclusion of different skills, and links to where more information can be found. Many techniques overlap – for example ‘working collaboratively’ requires ‘communication skills’.

Skill Comments/Justification Useful Techniques
Work collaboratively Students make more progress if they can access the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

More theory and practical examples from Saul McLeod in Simply Psychology


One of the ‘4C’s – (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking),  identified as essential skills (National Educational Association, 2011)

Group work techniques (from Global Digital Citizen Foundation, 5 Sept 2015, Open Colleges 8 November 2012, TeachThought 23 Sept 2014,edSurge 30 April 2015)

1.          Group goals

2.          Groups 4 to 5, mixed aptitude. Rotate group composition, equal nos. m and f. Establish respect for varied viewpoints.

3.          Establish flexible group norms (for interactions, negotiation, humour)

4.          Build open communication within groups (academic and emotional)

5.          Large tasks – have group roles, anyway shared leadership/responsibility. More guidance at start (scaffolding).

6.          Include learning process as part of assessment

7.          Allow time for individuality and avoid group think

8.          Moveable furniture – be flexible about your space

9.          Group work arrangements:

(1)    Expert groups (called ‘jigsaw’ by Clifford)

(2)    Clusters

(3)    Buzz groups

(4)    Round robin

(5)    Goldfish bowl

10.      Sharing ideas:

(1)    Padlet or lino (to replace actual ‘stickies’)

(2)    Mindmap apps

(3)    Blog  e.g. with Blogger – teacher reads all student posts

(4)    Google docs/drive, evernote

(5)    Social media (with monitoring)


Metacognition Education endowment foundation, working with Univ of Portsmouth, ‘Changing Mindsets’ found that developing a growth mindset in year 5 students increased learning – just below statistically significant %.


AQA Extended project specification requires students to “develop and improve their own learning and performance as critical, reflective and independent students”.


Martinez (2006) relates metacognition to critical thinking: Metacognition can be seen as evaluation turned inward, especially turned toward our own ideas. He further points out that evaluation is at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy of skills, and relates that Vygotsky taught that the skill of evaluative thinking was developed through group discourse.

Metacognition, particularly ‘growth mindset ‘ ideas can help students develop ‘grit’. “With enough effort I can learn this.” (Martinez, 2006)

Teach brain structure and link to growth mindset

1.       Intro for students: Khan academy on You Tube ‘You can learn anything’ , ‘How the Brain works’ and others by Sentis on You Tube – very basic intro, (thanks to Hannah Learns blog for these)

2.       TED talk Josh Kaufman The first 20 hours – how to learn anything. Persuade our students they want to be learning junkies!

3.       Carol Dweck Growth mindset  – longer TED talk – just the intro for students, or Khan academy for 3 minute version. Dweck (2008) claims  increased challenge seeking, conscientiousness, sociability, and resilience in those with growth mindset.

4.       Extracts from Benedict Carey’s “how we learn: the surprising truth about when where and why it happens”, extracts available via e.g. Edutopia website, kQED News, gives techniques and some brain science behind them.

Bonds and Peach (1992) quote Spring (1985) and state that metacognitive strategies should be taught explicitly by

5.       (i) planning the strategy to be learned, (ii) modelling of the strategy by the teacher, (iii) guided practice while the teacher monitors the students, and (iv) feedback to the student from the teacher and classmates

The following are based on a list of ideas from Marilyn Price Mitchell 7 April 2015 writing for Edutopia

6.       Practise identifying what is not understood

7.       Provide opportunities to reflect on cognitive growth e.g. Before this course I thought … now …

8.       Students keep learning journals (link to blogs in collaborative, or any format student chooses, e.g. an ebook to collate multimedia material).

9.       Wrappers – before activity describe key skill points – eg listening skills or notetaking skills. After ask students for 3 key points, then let them self check if theirs’ agree with yours. (me – or maybe rest of class!).

10.   Use essay v multichoice tests if possible – students use higher level thinking to prepare for essay tests.

11.   Facilitate reflexive thinking that addresses stereotypes, biases, prejudices.


Critical Thinking Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to  ‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’

1. Jennifer Kabaker (5 June 2015), via Edutopia, quotes ideas from the Deeper Learning Framework, developed by William and Flora Hewlett foundation.

2. Resources ranging from Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to using sticky notes at Teach Thought website.

3. Useful list of ideas at

4.  Many You Tube videos e.g. ‘how to teach critical thinking’ at , Thoughtful Learning, 2014.

Creativity Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘develop and apply skills creatively, demonstrating initiative and enterprise’


Ken Robinson (2006) ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (TED talk)


1.    Many ideas on TeachThought and Edutopia websites.

2.    Project based learning sites (Learning Frontiers, Powerful Learning Practice, Buck Institute), listed in professional references – all have specific suggestions.

3.    Many practical ideas and thought producing comments if you type ‘teach creativity’ on Twitter search.


Research Skills

(includes critical thinking!)

AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’


BBC keyskills  website Says students should develop ‘research skills including the ability to search for and identify suitable sources of information in the chosen subject area’, and understand ‘the format and structure of accepted academic forms of research report’  and ‘referencing, the evaluation of sources and the prevention of plagiarism’.


Susan Land, (2000), found that young students were poor at formulating search engine questions – often their focus was driven by initial results.


1.       Dorothy Mikuska, (2015), 8 reasons why students should still write research papers

2.       BBC website on keyskills at has useful tips in student friendly language.

3.       Research skills required by PhD students according to UKRC (2010), webpage produced by Cloudscapes – useful list if aiming high!

4.       YouTube videos on how to do internet searches, e.g.

5.     Resources for school librarians website at  – lessons on searching, how indexing systems work, plagiarism etc.

6.       Staffordshire University have a good guide to Harvard referencing on the internet.

7.       Many free referencing websites eg

8.       Martinez (op cit) points out that metacognition skills are involved for students to assess whether they understand material they have found. Bond, Bonds and Peach (op cit) say that metacognition skills help students to interrogate material with questions such as: “: 1. What is the main idea of this selection? 2. How many supporting details are there? 3. What are the supporting details? 4. Are there examples to help clarify the main idea? 5. What are the important dates, places, names, or terminology I should recall?”

9.       Concept maps, mind map apps such as ‘popplet’

10.   Provide (links to) relevant evidence from primary and scholarly sources


Communication Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’


BBC keyskills  website says students should develop ICT skills that will enhance the production of the report and/or the development of the project and presentation skills



1.       Using technology: making ebooks using (eg) creative book builder or book creator, making videos using (eg) Explain Everything or Smoovie, Animoto, making slide shows.

2.       Sharing info and ideas with other students – presentations, blogging, noticeboards – real or virtual such as Padlet or Lino. Using social media (with monitoring)

3.       Producing their own, reading and criticising each other’s draft reports.

4.       Loads of ideas on web, YouTube, Ted Talks.

Decision-making and problem- solving skills AQA EPQ specification requires students to

develop and apply decision-making and problem- solving skills


BBC keyskills  website says students should develop project management skills including time, resource and task management


1.    Project based learning sites (Learning Frontiers, Powerful Learning Practice, Buck Institute), listed in professional references – all have suggestions for problem topics and ways to approach them.

2.    Vygotsky’s theory of ZPD (see collaborative work above) suggests students can improve their problem solving ability when they collaborate.

3.    Authors agree that students are better motivated when the problems posed are real world, that the students deem relevant to themselves.

4.    Critical thinking skills can help students with decision making.

5.    Many ‘time management skills’ summaries available on web. Students should be encouraged to use planners – paper and/or electronic.



About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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