Independent learning: some ideas from the literature

Philip Candy, 1991

Independent study is a process, a method and a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation.


  • Independent learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Autonomous learning

Teacher control : Learner control

Teachers can facilitate independent learning through deliberate surrendering of certain prerogatives and the acceptance of responsibility by the learner.

Dimensions of independent learning:

Elements of personal autonomy:

  • Think and act autonomously
  • Have the ability to realistically appraise own shortcomings as a learner
  • Effective approaches to self-management as a learner

A goal and a process

  • Independent learning can be both a goal and a process: a method of learning and a characteristic of learners (present in varying degrees)
  • Educators can adapt strategies to different levels of independence or self-directedness
  • Includes freedom of choice in determining objectives within the limits of a given project

Gains for the learner

  • Ability to respond to change
  • Transferrable skills
  • Allows for different learning styles - learner can use own judgment about how best to learn
  • Self-direction is motivating and leads to higher order thinking
  • The excitement and pleasure of independent learning will carry over to the subject itself
  • Mirrors ‘natural’ learning in the rest of life

Losses for the learner

  • The educational system might not be designed for independent learning
  • Carl Rogers said that only 1/3 or 1/4 of students are self-directing; the rest do just what they are supposed to do
  • Too little (as well as too much) direction can cause frustrations for the learner
  • Students can lack the necessary knowledge in the subject matter to make a beginning
  • Students might have very specific expectations about the degree of direction that should be provided by the teacher

Challenge for the educator

It is a challenge to provide the correct amount of guidance without providing too much direction. Direction is needed to help learners identify areas of difficulty but too much direction detracts from their sense of ownership of the learning project.

Raaheim and Wankowski 1981

Success at university is associated with:

  • Personal confidence and feelings of competence as a learner
  • Hopeful, realistic view of future occupational and social roles
  • Emotional stability
  • Tendency to introversion
  • Relative independence from teachers
  • Tacit acceptance of extra-curricular work demands

Failure can be associated with:

  • Learning anxiety
  • Overdependence on teachers and significant others

There is a pedagogical gap in the transition from school to university:

School:: academic over-compliance; undue dependence on routines and teachers; survival is due to the protective structure of the institution

University: impersonal teaching; can lose nerve and confidence; learning structures set up by students themselves; must learn to learn by oneself.

Jacques 1992

Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle

Kolb found that people learn in four ways with the likelihood of developing one mode of learning more than another. As shown in the ‘experiential learning cycle’ model above, learning is:

  • through concrete experience
  • through observation and reflection
  • through abstract conceptualisation
  • through active experimentation

Differences in learning styles

The idea that people learn in different ways has been explored over the last few decades. Kolb found that individuals begin with their preferred style in the experiential learning cycle.

Honey and Mumford (1992), building on Kolb’s work, identified four learning styles:

  • Activist (enjoys the experience itself),
  • Reflector (spends a great deal of time and effort reflecting)
  • Theorist (good at making connections and abstracting ideas from experience)

Pragmatist (enjoys the planning stage)

Students and autonomous learning:

  • Set their own learning aims
  • Make choices over learning modes
  • Plan and organise work
  • Decide when best to work alone, work collaboratively and when to seek advice
  • Learn through experience
  • Identify and solve problems
  • Think creatively
  • Communicate effectively orally and in writing
  • Assess their own progress in respect of their aims

Teachers and autonomous learning:

  • Life-cycle theory of leadership applied to teaching (encouraging the development of independence)
  • Teacher gradually reduces direction and support as the learner increases in maturity and confidence.

Marshall and Rowland 1993 (audience: students)

Students are encouraged to:

  • Learn effective information retrieval (especially use of libraries)
  • Plan a balanced life (study, fun, other pressures)
  • Discover own learning purposes and learning style
  • Learn ways to smooth the adjustment from school (dependent learning) to university (independent learning) - from knowing and remembering to analysing and researching
  • Learn how to ask complex questions
  • Learn how to pursue own questions in formal education

Reference list: Independent Learning

  • Biggs, J. 1999 Teaching for quality learning at university Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press Buckingham.
  • Candy, P.C. 1991 Self-direction for lifelong learning Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series San Francisco, California.
  • Jaques, D. 1992 Independent Learning and Project Work Module 7: Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, UK.
  • Marshall, L and Rowland, F 1993 A Guide to learning independently Open University Press, Buckingham.
  • Raahem, K and Wankowski, J 1981 Helping students to learn at University Sigma Forlag, Bergen, Norway.