Academic independence

Learning how to be independent

Andy Homden suggests that unless students acquire the habit of academic independence, they will neither fulfill their potential nor be ready for the expectations of higher education and the world of employment. But – they have to be shown how.

The benefits of academic independence

There is a range of significant benefits for both students and schools in acquiring the habit of academic independence: mastering the necessary skills not only has a positive cognitive outcome but also a significant impact on student social and emotional well-being as individuals grow in confidence.

To achieve an effective level of independence, however, students need guidance and practice. In short, they need to learn the kind of academic skills that will ultimately free them to take control of their own learning, which is vital as they enter college or the workforce.

Characteristics of independent learners

What are the characteristics of successful independent learners, around the age of 18? Firstly they understand the language used to undertake inquiry and manipulate it accurately to express their ideas.  Their confidence arises from the fact that they are widely read: they know things and are aware of the context in which they are working. They are resourceful and equipped with a range of expression that enables them to sustain and support an argument, even if (or perhaps especially if) it is a little unconventional. They have the empathic skills to see things from more than one perspective and the tools needed to conduct a logical line of inquiry, which is seen through to a conclusion. They understand the provisional nature of any hypothesis, however convincing the evidence, and know how to test it. They can take their understanding of one area of knowledge and transfer it effectively to others. Because they know how to do things and how to express their ideas, they get on with it . . . . . independently. They take the initiative, but also know when to ask for help.

Differentiated guidance to develop genuine independence

As in any cohort of learners, some will develop these characteristics quite quickly and with less support. However, they still need to practise academic skills in the right way to develop their understanding as fully as possible. Many more students are able to grow into this style of learning, but need more sustained guidance. They are a key group, and can influence their cohort either positively or negatively, depending on the progress they make. If they receive the right kind of guidance in a consistent way, they will “get it”, understand the work, and take control of their learning. Like the first group, once they have grasped the various methodologies, they have to practise. However, if they remain on the cusp of understanding of what they need to do, they can become particularly frustrated. Either way, this group can have a major influence on how the cohort as a whole feels about learning, for good or ill.

A third group experiences more difficulty, and will need greater support for a longer period of time. It is worth persisting with them, for two reasons. Firstly there will come a time where they have to make their own decisions and they need to be as ready as possible. Secondly, because in my experience, given the right kind of intervention, active support and the opportunity to practise, they get to the point where they are able to make a great many decisions for themselves and work independently.

The dangers of creating a dependency culture in school

Without the right guidance, followed by the opportunity to practise relevant skills, many 14 – 18 year olds appear disinclined to engage in academic matters which seem increasingly irrelevant to them. Their frustration builds. If things go beyond a certain point, even those students who are really keen to learn, will appear to transfer responsibility for their learning to others (especially to their teachers) as a deeper circle of dependency is created. Teachers respond to this cultural shift by feeling frustrated themselves. Under the pressure of league tables, the school starts teaching mechanically to the test as a way out, but if enough students feel there is nothing in learning for them, a general culture of under-achievement and dependency can become embedded.

Creating a virtuous circle for learning independently
Proposition 1

If a critical mass (and that means 75% of the population) develops the characteristics of becoming effective independent learners and are able to use the appropriate language confidently, a virtuous circle of achievement is created, more students will enjoy their work and standards, as reflected in exam results, will rise.


A coordinated approach focusing first on the use of language

It’s not really about asking students to work harder. Most students work hard if they think they are getting somewhere and know what to do. It’s about students knowing what they need to do in order to take control and then express their ideas. Restoring – or building – an academic “feel good” factor is of course to some extent about what happens in different departments as they make specialised learning accessible and enjoyable. However, good practice in each faculty is much more likely to flourish if a school takes on a coordinated approach to the cultivating the habits of independence.

Establishing an effective culture of independent learning depends on a number of factors, particularly with regard to establishing the right kind of staff – student and other interpersonal relationships. However, above all, it requires a school wide focus on how students acquire and manipulate language. Every lesson must become a language lesson, whatever else it is about, and every lesson will reflect a consistent approach to three main skill sets:

  1. How to enrich personal vocabulary
  2. How to present and substantiate an effective argument
  3. How to build and use an appropriate body of knowledge
Proposition 2

Most students, whatever their natural aptitude, can achieve a workable degree of competency in each of these areas if they are shown how in a consistent way across the school, and are given the opportunity to practise their skills regularly.

Learning how

The desirable outcomes in each skill set are supported by other concepts beneath the surface which have to be addressed. There is nothing new in any of them. It’s a question of emphasis and consistency. For example, let’s take the idea of building vocabulary. If a student understands what a word means, and if the word expresses an idea that is useful, it is likely that he or she will use it, and use it well. However, an understanding of a word’s meaning rests on three main ideas: definition, use and origin, represented in this way:

The general approach for vocabulary acquisition needs to be defined in the school’s language policy and then simplified to make it memorable, in this case M = D+U+O. Vocabulary is explicitly introduced, discussed and used in every lesson. As this happens, students generally find it easier to give examples of use before attempting a broad enough definition to cover all possible applications. Further light can be thrown on meaning if they are asked to explore the origins of the word, a practice that is unexpectedly powerful. The other two skill sets, presenting and substantiating an argument and building and using an appropriate body of knowledge can be similarly represented.

By emphasising language and explicitly teaching students how to use it within these three skill sets, a school can take major strides towards establishing a genuine culture of independent learning. Good things follow.

Andy Homden is CEO of Consilium Education. If you are interested in exploring these ideas about building student vocabulary and developing academic independence, please contact him on


Feature image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

For further ideas about building student vocabulary, see: