Four simple ways to encourage self-directed learning
by Roberta Nicora

It’s common to hear academics remark that students are ‘spoon-fed’ at school and that many arrive on their courses lacking in the skills they need to succeed at an undergraduate level. Directed independent learning is oxymoronic, they’ll sometimes argue, since higher education must surely mark the end of overdependence as students learn to develop academic autonomy and self-reliance. At least in theory.

The reality is that there’s often a skills gap between the final year of secondary school and the first year of university. When we consider that contact hours at sixth form are generally matched by ‘study periods’ involving plenty of homework, designated study spaces and clear guidance as to how students should be using their time, this is perhaps understandable. Many students quickly rise to the challenge but, for others, the transition can be tough.

Rather than expecting complete autonomy from the outset, some institutions work hard to support students through the process. Providing a staged and scaffolded transition through the first year, they equip their students with the support, guidance and study skills they need to enjoy a successful university career. Here are four effective strategies:

1. Communicate expectations  

Our students arrive with a range of prior learning experiences and pre-conceived ideas about academic study. Fresh from a high performing sixth form centre with a reputation for ‘hot-housing’ its students, Ryan’s experience involves intensive revision sessions and close parental involvement; while his classmate, Rachel, completed her Access to University programme through a distance learning provider while holding down a full-time job.

Forming part of a series around strategies to support international students, this thought-provoking Independent Learning Report from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) reminds us that cultural attitudes towards university can vary more than we might imagine. It recommends that tutors find out about their students’ attitudes to university level study, expectations from their tutors and how they intend to facilitate their own learning.

With this mind, it’s useful to communicate some basic expectations from the outset, informing students where to find resources and access available support. It’s worth revisiting this discussion at later points in the year as key messages can become lost in the excitement of the first term.

2. Promote support systems  

The journey to independence needn’t be lonely or isolated when most universities offer many forms of academic support and peer assisted learning programmes. It’s useful for students to have a point of contact within a university, such as a personal tutor or academic mentor, to point them in the right direction. Sometimes it’s as simple as highlighting a library induction or ‘introduction to note-taking’ session.

Some universities actively involve parents and carers in the transition to university, stressing the importance of independent study skills from the first open day.  

3. Provide easy access to high quality learning resources

Dr Daniel Belton of the University of Huddersfield describes how he provides a range of rich, interactive learning resources for his students, including online tutorials, auto-marking formative assessment tools, model responses and various other student-centred learning experiences.

“As a teacher, it is my responsibility to design engaging learning experiences that promote autonomous and deep learning” says Belton, who is also a Senior Fellow of the HEA “It is then key for students to make the most of the learning opportunities they are presented with.”

Of course, digital resources held on the institutional VLE or other virtual space are more likely to be accessed if they are appealingly presented, up-to-date and thoughtfully organised. Just as on-campus library facilities should be clean, comfortable and inviting, an online learning space should be a place where students want to spend their time.

To help students access learning from any location in their own time, some universities provide access to Kortext digital textbooks. Kortext students don’t need to worry about lugging weighty textbooks home for the holidays or making late-night library trips to locate a journal. Instead, they can access texts from the sofa of a friend’s house or on the bus to a part-time job.

4. Develop opportunities for self-assessment

The most effectively designed programmes often embed frequent opportunities for self-assessment in a way that encourages learners to evaluate their progress and consider how they will approach future learning.

“One of the ways I engage students in self-curated learning outside of the classroom is with carefully scaffolded reading assignments” explains Belton “Students are directed to read specific pages of a text and required to make detailed notes against a list of learning objectives. Once complete, the notes are uploaded and a quiz based on the reading is unlocked for students to take”

Other commonly mentioned strategies in this jointly published report from the HEA and QAA include learning logs for students to record ideas about their reading, reflective questions provided at the end of a lecture or module, digital diaries, individual learning plans and e-Portfolios.

The road to academic independence isn’t always smooth but, with hard work and the right opportunities, most students can develop greater self-reliance, enhanced metacognitive skills,  and a lifelong sense of academic confidence.