If recent interruptions to schooling have taught us anything, it is the benefit of nurturing students to be independent learners, particularly for parents struggling to home-school perhaps whilst themselves working from home.

But the benefits of independent learning go far beyond the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances of the 2020 pandemic. There are many positive outcomes for students, including:

  1. increased confidence in their abilities, improved self-belief and self-esteem;
  2. increased motivation;
  3. better retention of knowledge acquired;
  4. increased resilience, willingness to “have a go” and perseverance;
  5. development of transferable skills;
  6. improved self-reliance and problem-solving skills;
  7. a positive attitude to study and to life generally;
  8. a “self-starter” approach desirable to future employers;
  9. increased pride in one’s work and a sense of ownership of one’s work;
  10. the ability to think for oneself, to use critical thinking, and in due course make a positive contribution to society.

So how can we help our students and our children towards the goal of independent learning? Here are 10 ideas:

Individualised Instruction
The “one-size-fits-all” approach of most schools, although a practical necessity, does not work well for every student and tends to benefit only the “average” student. Even then, it does not always ensure that such students achieve their full potential. Every student is unique, with a particular set of aptitudes, abilities, needs, learning styles, motivators and demotivators. To nurture independent learning, each student should be set work appropriate for his or her particular needs and abilities, regardless of age or school year group.

Just Right” Level of Study
If a student has not yet mastered a particular topic it is counter-productive and discouraging to try and teach topics simply because they are considered appropriate according to age or year-group. This is why “teaching to the test” or tutoring to pass a particular exam can be a barrier to independent learning. Students should start with work at a comfortable level for their needs and abilities at the time. This back-to-basics approach rebuilds students’ confidence, fills in gaps in their knowledge, and puts in place all the foundations needed to address more challenging work in due course.  In this way, students are enabled to begin learning new concepts and topics by themselves, rather than having to be taught.

In due course, a student’s work should always be set at the “just right” level for that student. It should be neither too easy (leading to boredom and loss of interest) nor too difficult (leading to discouragement and self-doubt) but “just right” for the particular student’s current academic ability and study skills. Ensuring the work is always at the “just right” level requires continuous monitoring and observation of the student’s progress.

Logical Progression of Topics
Just as a child must learn to walk before he can run, there is little point in introducing punctuation to a child who has not yet learnt to read and write or introducing fractions to a student who does not understand the concept of division.

Topics should be introduced to students in a logical progression, each topic building upon the concepts previously covered. In this way, students can learn independently in small steps, each building on the step previously learned

If students are to learn independently, they must be allowed to master each topic fully before moving on to the next, which means that topics and concepts should be thoroughly practised before the student moves on.

The fear of and dislike of maths, common in many adults and children, is often a consequence of a missing link – a concept which has not been fully understood before the student was required to move on. If the missing link is not identified and corrected, it creates a stumbling block to future progress. The same applies when learning to read and write. If a student has never fully mastered the skill of blending sounds together, he or she will struggle with fluent reading. If a child has not mastered correct letter formation, he or she will struggle with poor handwriting. If a student cannot read fluently he or she will struggle with comprehension, and so on.

“Mastery” is an essential component in achieving happiness in learning, work and life generally. It denotes “a drive to achieve and improve upon one’s skills until a standard of excellence is achieved through repetition and practice” (B Ballinger parentingthemodernfamily.com). It does not denote perfectionism or having unrealistic expectations of our children but rather acknowledges that each step must be mastered before moving on to the next step.

Think of the delight on your child’s face when he or she first learned to walk, despite frequent falls along the way! Similarly in academic study, mastery of each topic builds up the student’s confidence and self-esteem, increases his willingness to have a go and to persevere when things get tricky, and enables him to overcome fear of failure – all essential characteristics of the independent learner.

Daily Study Habit
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going”. The author of this quote (Jim Ryun) is a former Olympic athlete, but his words apply equally to academic study. Students and their parents/teachers should not expect always to feel motivated to learn every day, but by developing a daily study habit they will nevertheless make progress. The development of a daily study habit is a significant step towards becoming an independent learner.

Daily study allows students to develop their knowledge and understanding steadily through small steps, to retain and build upon concepts and topics previously learned and to avoid the “Summer Slide” (or “Lockdown Learning Loss”).
Daily study also gives the student the positive feedback of achieving mastery every day whilst recognising that academic achievement is a long-term process.

Study Skills
Without the necessary study skills, students will struggle to learn independently. Desirable skills include: the ability to organise one’s own work, a regular daily study habit, focus and concentration, good rhythm and pace, legible handwriting, attention to detail, good posture, willingness to “have a go”, perseverance, time management, ability to prioritise tasks, ability to perform under time pressure, ability to correct and learn from mistakes, careful reading of instructions, thinking before writing, etc.

One of the benefits of starting at a comfortable level for their academic ability (step 2 above) is that students can concentrate on developing these study skills rather than being overwhelmed by the academic difficulty of the work.

Set High (but Achievable) Expectations – Aim to Study above School Level
When our children excel at a musical instrument or in athletic prowess, we and they are not usually content with “good enough” or being as good as the next person. They want to be the best they can be in their chosen field. The same applies to academic work. Why should a Year 6 student stop learning simply because he happens to be at the desired level of attainment for his age? Why not go on and excel in his or her chosen subjects and achieve his or her full potential? Children’s brains, with their less developed prefrontal cortex, are better designed for learning than adults’ brains, and we all know as adults how little time there is to learn new skills and concepts once the business of adulthood begins.

There is another reason to encourage students to learn above their school level – until they are doing so, they are not truly “independent learners” but merely practising what they have been taught at school. By going beyond school level, they are using all the study skills and concepts previously mastered to learn new concepts and continually develop their skills and academic ability.

To ensure mastery and to maintain work at the “just right” level, it is important to measure each student’s progress continuously by prompt marking of work and corrections, regular achievement tests and monitoring of daily performance.

Not only should we give constructive feedback to students, but we should also listen to feedback from students – are they finding the work too hard or too easy, are they comfortable with their daily workload, are there any topics they would like to practise further?

This feedback loop ensures that the student is valued as an independent learner and is encouraged to take ownership of and responsibility for his or her own learning process.

Learning from mistakes and failures”
Some students strive for perfect scores and become disheartened when they achieve less than 100%. But a child learning to walk topples over many times each day yet never lets this deter him. None of us would be the walking, talking adults we are today if we had allowed our “failures” (falling over, mispronouncing words) to become a barrier towards our goals of learning to walk and talk.

Fear of failure or distress at making mistakes are learned behaviours which can be unlearned, and learning from mistakes is an essential component of independent learning. In addition, leaving mistakes uncorrected is a sure way to erode confidence and delay mastery of a particular concept.

Where students make errors, they should not be told the correct answer but should be encouraged to identify where they went wrong and then correct the error themselves. That way, they are less likely to repeat the error, will learn the relevant concepts more quickly, and will gain confidence from “owning” their work and knowing that they are in fact capable of perfect scores through their own efforts.

Coaching, not teaching
There is a limit to how much a parent or teacher can teach a child but no limit on how far a student can progress with independent learning. Independent learning is the key to achieving one’s full potential. To nurture truly independent learners, parents and teachers should therefore avoid “over-teaching” their students. Instead they should aim to act as a “coach” or “guide”.

A child learns better from doing a task (whether a practical task such as walking or an academic task such as long multiplication) than from listening to a detailed exposition on how to perform the task. Imagine an adult trying to explain to an 18-month-old the mechanics and physics involved in walking before then telling the child to stand up and walk! Provided the student has (through the above step-by-step approach to mastery) developed the basic building blocks and necessary study skills and has mastered all the necessary prior concepts, he or she will be able to apply those skills and concepts to new problems and situations, just as the child who has learned to walk will be able to apply this mastery to enable him or her to learn how to run.

So what is the role of a parent or teacher? Here are some thoughts:

a) provide the appropriate physical environment to enable the student to learn independently – a quiet time and place to concentrate;

b)  assess the student’s current ability level (both academic ability and study skills) and set work at the “just right” level for the student;

c)  promptly mark the work and any corrections, monitor progress, and act on feedback from the student and from his or her daily work;

d)  emphasize the study skills the student will need and model those skills for the student to emulate, including encouraging the daily study habit;

e)  encourage and praise the student, provide positive reinforcement and rewards, avoid negative or unconstructive criticism, give constructive feedback, set achievable goals and reassure the student that he or she has the ability to achieve these goals;

f)  rather than giving answers, guide the student towards the answer, reminding him or her of the skills and concepts he or she has already mastered which might help in answering the question;

g)  keep positive and focused on the long-term – by definition step-by-step mastery does not happen overnight, although there are daily rewards from each small step.

With early learners, there is of course a need for some one-to-one teaching – the correct way to hold a pencil, the correct formation of letters and numbers, the correct pronunciation of phonic sounds, modelling how to blend sounds together, how to count objects. But even children as young as 4 or 5 can be encouraged to begin the journey towards independent learning. The earlier they start to take ownership of their study – turning the page on their own, writing or tracing independently, organising their work, writng their own start and finish times – the sooner they will reap the benefits and begin building the confidence in their own abilities that will take them far.

Education does not mean stuffing facts into students’ minds so that they can pass this or that exam. Whilst it is important to have a goal to aim for, passing exams should not be the sole aim of education. The word itself comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to lead forth”. As educators, our role is to “lead forth” our students from dependence to increasing independence and equip them with the necessary tools to become independent and well-adjusted adults. Nurturing independent learners is thus one of the key components of a successful system of education.

Anna Dalglish, Maths and English Instructor
Kumon Guildford North Study Centre

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