Supporting independence

Developing good habits for the next stage of learning

Statistics show that ‘Dropping out of uni’ is getting worse, not better. David Craggs thinks that schools have a major role to play in addressing the issue.

Dropout rates

A sad statistic of our time is that university drop-out rates continue to rise for the fourth successive year. Figures of international attrition rates vary, with some universities reporting the number as one in ten, while data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that almost one in five students in the UK don’t make it beyond their first year.

Why students drop out

Just why is this, and how can any ‘crisis’ be addressed? Most universities and related associations have given their view of the causes as a mix of financial, academic and personal reasons: choosing the wrong degree course, not having the necessary skills for the higher academic expectations, an inability to manage their own learning and time management, too much freedom to avoid studying and missing classes, a lack of learning structure, social issues including being away from home and struggling to make new friends and managing their money effectively.

In short, many students are not effectively prepared for university life.

 Owning the problem

Several education spokespeople including Marguerite McNeal, former senior editor at EdSurge state that many higher education institutions “point fingers at high schools for sending them underprepared students They can be doing more to help students succeed even before matriculation.”

The Times Higher Education points out that “others are disoriented by the change from the structured school environment to the more autonomous university world.”

Even students who generally succeed in high school can fail because they don’t enter university with the requisite study skills. When I think back to my own entry into University it was a difficult transition as I was no longer being spoon fed the information I needed.

While we provide a range of life skills for students to prepare them for the ‘real world’ including taster visits to universities such as Harvard, the development of independent learning skills and habits are at the heart of what we do to support a successful transition to university.

Our head of Key Stage 4, Niall Morrissey is a big advocate of this aspect of learning. According to Niall “we want to ensure that each of our students’ learning experience prepares them for success in the next stage of their learning and for this, we must ensure they develop as independent learners”.

 Online resources

An important aspect of this work is to ensure students can work independently online, for which we use a variety of approaches. GCSEPod is one example. The resource is used as a supplement for in lesson learning, revision and as a homework platform. It covers all areas of the curriculum with short three to five minutes video ‘pods’ to visually ‘teach’ or ‘revise’ key aspects of each learning objective. Students can autonomously go down the proverbial ‘rabbit-hole’ of pods to discover and gain information and knowledge. They have the freedom to do this while we are also being very specific in the tasks we give them, to ensure they’re on the right learning journey.

Our EPIC reading system is another example of a resource that provides all of our KS3 students with access to a variety of books; content is differentiated by ability so each student can work with their teacher to select the titles most appropriate for their development and then read them independently.

Linguascope offers practice questions for the students and self-marking tasks and worksheets. Not only does this reduce teacher workload, but students can become more autonomous, managing their own learning by understanding where they need to focus further work to maximize their progress. GCSEPod takes this one step further by directing each student to a bespoke playlists of curriculum content specific to their learning needs.

Striking a balance

It’s important for us to maintain a balance between supporting learning while giving students the invaluable experience of learning independently. Using online platforms really help here, as student performance data can still be captured while the kids are working on their own. These data provide us with the information we need to monitor, assess and engage with student learning on a very detailed level and give us insight into work patterns, areas of strength and improvement. We use them to cross reference with internal assessment results and GL/Cat 4 data to ensure we have an in-depth analysis of each student’s learning needs.

 Student reaction

I recently asked one of our students for her thoughts on learning to study independently. She told me, I actually enjoy studying on my own. I have learned to recognise and revise the topics that I struggle with. I also do quizzes on my own; not just the ones that our teachers upload as assignments, but I also add pods to my own playlists that cover areas where I know I need a little extra focus. I like learning tools that summarise topics, but with detail; getting all the information I need, in a shorter period of time.

Good habits

The good habit of independent learning, once formed, is hard to break, with students much better equipped to make that transition to their next level of learning successfully.


David Craggs is Head of Secondary education at GEMS Cambridge International School Abu Dhabi.




Further Reading:

International Schools

Feature Image: by Nikolay Georgiev from Pixabay
Support Image: by David Mark from Pixabay