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A guide to independent learning in the classroom

Children writing independently in a classroom

Effective independent learning can be a powerful tool in the classrooms of primary or secondary schools. Not only does it enhance essential skills and the growth mindset of pupils, but it also gives you, the teacher, peace of mind that individuals in your class are learning without the need for your constant attention.



What is independent learning?

Independent learning is an approach to studying where pupils have no ongoing support from teachers, parents, or other adult supervisors. Children are given responsibility for their own learning goals, motivations, and development.

It’s an incredibly important skill to learn and improve upon, developing vital characteristics that pupils will lean on during higher education and into the workplace. In the age of increased blended learning and home learning activities, its importance will only grow. 


How much help should a teacher give during independent learning?

This is one of those questions where there is no clear or exact answer. In truth, independent learning isn’t about just leaving your pupils to their own devices and hoping they find solutions. Inevitably they will get stuck, and you should step in and allow them to get back on track.

What’s more important is the messaging and strategy around that. You might not want to give them the answer but offer them a helpful explanation of processes that give them the means to find the right solution next time. See the section below where we outline independent learning strategies that you could adopt that enhance learning without handing over all the answers.


What are the benefits of independent learning?


Increase motivation and confidence and other learning outcomes

Independent learners are more invested in their learning. Pupils can identify their own knowledge gaps and are challenged to be find solutions to tasks. When they find those solutions, they can take greater pride in knowing they were solely responsible. In turn, this boosts motivation and confidence, and makes learning more enjoyable for that pupil.


Improve differentiation

When incorporating independent learning, teachers are given more opportunities to set differentiated tasks. Higher performing learners can continue to master topics at a faster pace, while the teacher is freed up to help those who require it.


Improve other characteristics like organisation and creative thinking

That level of responsibility, to take ownership of your learning experience, challenges pupils to be organised to get the best out of the lesson. When it comes to tackling a challenge, they have to think creatively and use an growth mindset to find the right solution.


Develop lifelong learners

Independent learning will become a huge part of every pupil’s life, not just in education but well beyond it. At A Level and University, pupils are expected to be independent learners, challenging theories and exploring concepts with a critical mind.


Increase academic performance

Add all of these benefits together and you get a more rounded and more academically capable learner. In time, that should translate into better educational outcomes for that pupil.


What strategies enable pupils to become independent learners?


1. Promote modelling behaviour

One of the most effective strategies for independent learning is allowing pupils to model the behaviour of the teacher. Demonstrate what process you would take to solving a task or problem, before challenging the class to solve similar problems using that same process.


2. Develop the right skills

In order to excel at independent learning, it’s essential pupils are strong in three skill areas:

Cognitive skills: like memory, problem-solving and creativity

Metacognitive skills: like planning, evaluating success and identifying mistakes and organisation

Affective skills: those related to emotion and attitudes, like motivation and satisfaction

This is quite a broad range of skills but being aware of what’s required can help you differentiate when assigning independent learning tasks. Plus, if you feel certain class members require more development in a certain area, you can tailor your teaching to their needs.


3. Use resources to engage students

Educational resources are an ideal way to engage students with something fun when learning independently. Move beyond simple worksheets and bring in an educational aid. There are loads of examples, but here are just six:

  • Electronic Phonics: use diagraph, trigraph and letter tiles to build words and have them read out loud. A fun and engaging way to practise phonics.
  • Glow Writer: These fluorescent chalkboards are great for multi-sensory engagement for reluctant writers.
  • Pencil Prompts: Pencil Prompts are great to expand vocabulary, challenge expressive language or improve spelling.
  • Maths Jigsaws: A simple maths solution to practicing sums, maths jigsaws are a fun way to refine basic addition or subtraction skills.
  • Number Rods: This maths manipulative is fantastic for developing knowledge of number bonds and understanding multiplication concepts.
  • Maths Activity Cubes: From times tables to adding up money, Maths Activity Cubes can develop many different topics and enhance all skill levels.

ICT and other forms of technology are also effective in independent learning, as they can provide instant assessment and feedback. If you do have any pieces of tech in your classroom, make sure to use them for independent learning tasks.


4. Encourage self and peer-assessment

Independent learning doesn’t just have to be pupils working on their own. Working with their peers is another great way to encourage the development of the same skills. Allow the class to assess each other’s work, offering feedback and marking, and you’ll develop those vital metacognitive skills. For the same reasons, you should also encourage self-assessment.

Modelling behaviour can be utilised here too. Higher-level pupils can take on the role of model, demonstrating how they find solutions as you would ordinarily do.


5. Make use of scaffolding

Scaffolding is likely one of the teaching strategies you make use of the most. It too can be used as a tactic for developing independent learners. The end goal is for pupils to master the topic so much that they can find solutions to problems independently. Put a structure in place that offers help and support before removing it step-by-step as they learn, gradually giving them more independence.


6. Double down on homework feedback

Homework is where a lot of your classroom efforts come together, and it’s where independent learning comes to the fore. Once homework has been submitted, you can enhance a child’s confidence and motivation for independent learning by offering adequate and supportive feedback. Plus, feedback is always a great way to encourage children to reflect on their work and identify mistakes.


7. Offer study support

After-school study support is excellent for supplementing the development of independent learning. If pupils agree to attend and engage with learning activities outside of normal school hours, they’re showing direct intent to take control of their learning goals and motivations – a key facet of independent learning.

Plus, the extra knowledge they acquire will hold them in good stead when they get back to normal classwork. The extra confidence boost will feedback into their work, making them even more equipped to learn independently.


8. Create the right environment

What’s important to recognise is that the ability to learn independently is one that can be taught and developed. It won’t happen for your pupils on its own. Instead, it’s up to teachers to take a few of the strategies outlined here and create an environment where independent learning can thrive.

<a href="" target="_self">William Hinch</a>

William Hinch

Hope Education writer

Will has been writing for Hope Education since July 2020, helping provide teachers with tips, advice and insight that helps them educate the next generation. Away from his educational writing, Will is a typical Yorkshireman; a lover of ale, cricket and tea!

28 January 2021

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