Developing Independent Learners

Learning and Teaching Forum Lunchtime Workshop Programme – Workshop 10, 12 May 2021

Sandra Jeffrey and Louise Rudd – International Pathway College, University of York

Report from workshop chair, Alex Reid, Department of Psychology

Link to Session Recording (UoY log-in required)

This workshop firstly aimed to define what exactly it is we mean by ‘independent learning’ and how it is conceptualised within different departments. A Jamboard entitled ‘Defining Independent Learning’ was set up for attendees to contribute following smaller group discussions. Key themes that emerged indicated that for independent learning to occur students must: (i) take responsibility for aspects of their own education, (ii) move beyond course materials of their own initiative, and; (iii) make their own individual and informed decisions regarding course content. It was noted that although the phrase ‘independent learning’ is not necessarily a student-facing term it can still be conceptually integrated into marking criteria and fostered through class tasks and setting student expectations.

A second aspect of this workshop was to identify challenges and issues with independent learning. This was done through another set of group discussions and an additional shared Jamboard entitled ‘Independent Learning in 2021‘. Differences between cohorts were highlighted with postgraduates generally being seen as showing more momentum regarding independent learning. For international students other key issues included language barriers and different cultural expectations regarding what exactly independent learning is. Lastly, motivation and a loss of shared community were also flagged as potential problems – especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Sandra and Louise then went on to outline how they dealt with some of the aforementioned issues in the International Pathway College. In 2018 they established a ‘pre-sessional’ weekly project for incoming international students designed to increase learner autonomy and confidence, and highlight the value of independent learning. Students worked in pairs to complete a student-led task. For example on how to make the most of the library (task outline, pdf) or top tips for studying in the UK (task outline, pdf) . Tasks followed the same systematic structure and followed a variety of topics deemed to have intrinsic usefulness for the students taking part.

Louise and Sandra argued that benefits of this model included realistic (and preemptively establishing) expectations for international students on the topic of independent learning. The cultural values of York (including our pedagogy) were inherently impressed on new students, including core elements such as the importance of receiving and processing feedback. Louise and Sandra believe this approach has allowed new students to become proud of working independently and that it has permitted them to build confidence and take ownership of their work.

In closing, if other departments wish to adopt a similar model then it is advised to get students to work in pairs to foster a healthy learning dynamic. Clear instructions were also imperative (see the above examples), as was providing coherent and meaningful feedback. Additionally, outcomes should be impressed upon students so they are aware what it is they need to achieve.

Sandra and Louise welcome thoughts and feedback regarding this workshop. The following link takes you to the workshop slides (Google slides), and they have also provided a post-workshop Padlet (UoY Google log-in required) for anyone who wishes to contribute additional ideas or follow-up thoughts.

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