Help students take the plunge with solo study

10th July 2015 at 01:00
Teach young people the tricks to self-regulate their academic learning and independent work will follow - even in summer

The summer holidays are not the greatest advert for independent learning. The likely reality of those six weeks for my students? Take your pick from sunny beaches, lazy days lounging in gardens and parks, music festivals and more. There's not much independent study getting done. The living is decidedly easy.

But perhaps we are misunderstanding the concept. Independent learning is too often believed to mean students working on their own, finding their own problems and coming up with their own solutions - the teacher being a mere "guide on the side".

This misrepresentation rests on the fact that we forget independent learning doesn't happen without a great deal of prior knowledge. It is the talk and dialogue instigated, structured and led by the teacher that best develops that crucial knowledge.

In their 2006 paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching, academics Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark have shown that students getting minimal instruction can too easily be overwhelmed. The working memory becomes swamped by an attempt to navigate the facts while lacking the requisite expertise to do so.

This is supported by research published in 2000 by Alexander Renkl, Robert Atkinson and Uwe Maier, From Studying Examples to Solving Problems: fading worked-out solution steps helps learning. They explore how guiding students from full examples, to increasingly more incomplete ones, and finally towards solving full problems, helps develop effective independent learning. The process of subtly taking away scaffolds and supports can assist students in moving along the path from novice to independent expert.

So if you are expecting spontaneous independent learning over the holidays, or at any other time of the year, you will be sorely disappointed. Rather than working in splendid isolation, we should instead be gradually encouraging students to self-regulate and manage their learning better, strongly guided by our instruction. Indeed, it may be best to stop calling it independent learning and instead use the term "self-regulation".

In his 1998 study Academic Studying and the Development of Personal Skill: a self-regulatory perspective, Barry Zimmerman charts the importance of self-regulation, students managing their own time and workload, setting goals, and thinking through problems and managing their emotions better.

How can we make this happen? We can help students to develop good working habits such as devising plans, making checklists, undertaking good revision strategies and so on.

Students also need to develop the subject-specific mental structures to self-regulate their academic learning. We can model thinking like a mathematician, an artist or a scientist.

Below are three approaches to get you started.

1 Triplicate note-taking

Students need to take meaningful notes to build their knowledge, thereby allowing them to work effectively and with increasing independence. We can help students to make their notes more memorable by teaching them to use a triplicate format.

The idea is simple: divide each page into three columns. The first is for standard notes - bullet points and all. The second column gets students thinking: they need to note down questions raised by the information. The third column is for images and mnemonics to jog the memory. If students can take good notes, they have an essential weapon in their armoury to undertake meaningful independent learning.

2 Twenty questions

When introducing a new topic, it is important to help students understand what they do and don't know. From this starting point they can better self-regulate their learning.

"Twenty questions" can be done individually or in groups. Essentially, you give students the bare bones of a topic and then have them formulate as many questions about it as they can. For example, you may get biology students to ask 20 questions about cellular structures. This makes students think hard and helps them to understand what they need to know. Given a similar task in future - one that demands independent thinking - the method may trigger a good set of questions to aid their thinking.

3 How-to guides

Students need structured support to thrive independently. If we want them to complete a substantial activity or project effectively, we need to make our success criteria explicit, giving tips and support. A how-to guide, either created by the teacher or the students in collaboration, can provide the valuable scaffold they need for independence.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York. He tweets at @HuntingEnglish and blogs at His next book for Routledge, The Confident Teacher, is due early in 2016

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21 August: Explanations We conduct explanations every day but seldom plan them or give them due time and care. TES surveys the evidence to unveil what makes a truly memorable explanation.

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16 October: Peer tutoring Sometimes our best resources are sitting in front of us. Unleash the power of peer tutoring - a proven strategy that can help students of all ages.

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