The HEA Scotland Spotlights series focuses on specific learning and teaching themes, bringing together select HEA and non-HEA resources and research to guide practitioners to relevant material to support them in developing their teaching practice.
The theme for Spring 2016/17 is supporting our students as independent learners. It includes:
- managing expectations;
- pedagogic approaches;
- developing metacognition;
- bringing it together.
The Winter 2016/17 Spotlight: Designing interaction for diverse cohorts, with recorded presentations, can be found on the archived spotlight page.
Fundamental to UK higher education is that learning and teaching practices enable students to develop as independent learners (UK Quality Code B3). However, as Thomas, Jones and Ottaway note in their report Effective practice in the design of directed independent learning opportunities, it is not always clear what is meant by this term.
Are we referring simply to any learning that takes place outside the classroom that contributes to the completion of modules, programmes and degrees? Are we referring to the enabling of students to be active in their educational journey, having a freedom of choice in – and a responsibility for – how they attain their educational goals? Do we mean supporting students to engage in active, enquiry-based or co-creational learning? Is independent learning interchangeable with autonomous or self-directed learning? To what extent should it incorporate concepts of interdependence, where learning is seen as a collaborative process to which each student is an integral contributor? [See O’Doherty’s Definitions of independent learning – initial overview, Mckendry and Boyd’s Defining the “independent learner” in UK higher education, and Kirschner’s (Inter)dependent learning: Learning is interaction].
Since we cannot agree on its meaning, it is unsurprising that our students can be equally confused. This can lead – as is highlighted in both Thomas et al’s Independent learning: Student perspectives and experiences and the HEA Scotland – NUS Scotland report Learning journeys: Student experiences in further and higher education in Scotland – to a misjudging of the difference between school and HE-level independent learning, to misunderstandings about the relationship between independent learning and contact hours and to an underappreciation of the value of independent learning.
- Effective practice in the design of directed independent learning opportunities
- Definitions of independent learning – initial overview
- Defining the “independent learner” in UK higher education
- (Inter)dependent learning: Learning is interaction
- Independent learning: Student perspectives and experiences [see also the webinar presenting findings from this report]
- Learning journeys: Student experiences in further and higher education in Scotland
Much research and resources, then, focus on managing student expectations and understandings of independent learning. So Farhat et al in their The academies project: Widening access and smoothing transitions for secondary school pupils to university, college and employment explore an approach to pre-entry support that works to build students’ levels of independence and confidence by introducing them to HE-level independent learning and equipping them with the skills necessary to traverse its landscape.
Such activities do not need to take place only prior to entry: Smith and Beggs as part of their Toolkit for effective transitions have developed student activities, facilitator guidelines, information leaflets and instructor slides for (amongst other things) the managing of expectations and the development of self-belief and academic resilience in the support of learning independence. Spiro, Henderson and Clifford also, in their article Independent learning crossing cultures: Learning cultures and shifting meanings, offer a number of strategies to support the development of independence through a phased scaffolding model.
Narrowing further to the modular level, Woloshyn in her Strategies for fostering independent learning through small MA Art History seminars explores the implementation of strategies for the explicit negotiation of expectations by staff and students that laid the foundations for an effective enabling of independent learning.
Finally, Green, in his report Independent studies in higher education English, explores how academic staff can work with students’ expectations and approaches to independent learning. Green focuses on the changing nature of these expectations throughout the student journey, thus the need for scaffolding, and examines a range of pedagogic interventions such as peer learning and use of module handbooks and VLEs.
- The academies project: Widening access and smoothing transitions for secondary school pupils to university, college and employment
- Toolkit for effective transitions
- Independent learning crossing cultures: learning cultures and shifting meanings
- Strategies for fostering independent learning through small MA Art History seminars
- Independent studies in higher education English
The link between certain pedagogic approaches and the development of independent learning is also explored by Moran and Vaughan in their article New Physics curriculum. Here, they present and evaluate the adoption of a new approach to their curriculum that incorporates from the beginning of first year problem-based and active learning with collaborative activities such as peer assessment. This approach was adopted with the specific aim of developing students as independent learners as early as possible. A problem-based approach is also described by Rosen in his presentation on A problem based approach to teaching employability and independent learning skills. Here, Rosen describes a first year computing module that incorporates a work-based approach in which students research, work in a team and present findings into a contemporary issue in computing, through which their independent learning abilities are developed.
The peer-learning activities seen in both of the above can also be found in Conboy and Hall’s project report Connecting transitions and independent learning: An evaluation of read/write web approaches (CoTIL). Here, Conboy and Hall explore the use of tools such as podcasting, discussion forums and blogs alongside peer mentoring for the development of subject and learning mastery.
Use of enquiry-based pedagogy related to real-life situations has also been seen to develop students’ independent learning abilities. This is explored in Nunn’s case study Fostering student engagement with issues of contemporary politics and culture, in Askham’s paper ”Tell me what I need to know”: Learning to address the challenge of changing student expectations, and in Bramhall, Radley and Metcalf’s work Users as producers: Students using video to develop learner autonomy.
- New Physics curriculum
- A problem based approach to teaching employability and independent learning skills
- Connecting transitions and independent learning: An evaluation of read/write web approaches (CoTIL)
- Fostering student engagement with issues of contemporary politics and culture
- ”Tell me what I need to know”: Learning to address the challenge of changing student expectations
- Users as producers: Students using video to develop learner autonomy.
Whilst the managing of expectations and the adoption of certain pedagogic approaches can support our students to be prepared for and equipped to become independent learners, it is through the facilitation of metacognition that our students can take true ownership of their educational journey thus establishing learning independence. By metacognition we mean here the critical awareness and understanding of our own thinking, skills and strategies as a learner: that is a critical understanding of and concomitant approaches to how we best learn.
The enabling of metacognition can often be found in personal development planning activities. For example, in their case study on Personal development planning and the economics tribe, Lee and Burden explore how the introduction of a personal development planning conference for their economics undergraduates supported the development of student understanding and awareness of how they learned and the need to direct this, resulting in the further development of them as independent learners.
Formative assessment has also been seen to yield such results. So Robinson illustrates, in his case study Developing the independent learner, how the use of formative assessment in an Engineering programme explicitly focused students’ minds on “what learners do” and how they do it, supporting the development of their understanding of their own learning practice.
Finally, the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) is an online software development tool designed by the University of Bristol to facilitate students’ development of metacognition. In her case study Using the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) in an exploration of the learning process and learning styles and how these can affect students' motivation and performance in higher education, Oram describes how ELLI was utilised within her School of Computing and Communications Technology, increasing her students’ awareness of how to learn and of their ownership of their learning journey, subsequently increasing student motivation and effectiveness in independent learning.
Bringing it together
Ultimately, supporting the development of independent learners requires a holistic approach that manages expectations, uses certain pedagogic interventions to develop learning skills and facilitates students’ metacognition to empower them to take ownership of their learning journey. This holistic approach is brought together briefly in the HEA guide International student life cycle: independent learning. Further, exploration of the variety of ways in which this can be achieved can be found in Thomas’ Compendium of effective practice in directed independent learning which brings together 44 case studies from a wide variety of disciplines across the UK that provide descriptions of, evaluations of effectiveness of and promotion activities for subject-based interventions.