Independent Learning: What It Is and How It Works

immanuel vinikas headshot
Immanuel Vinikas
Updated July 7 2022
independent learning
immanuel vinikas headshot
Immanuel Vinikas
Updated July 7 2022

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things,

because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”

                                                                                                                         –Walt Disney



Independent learning is all about empowering students to take ownership of their learning. Knowing how to learn and explore topics of interest is a skill that will serve your students a whole lifetime. Here’s how to help them develop that skill.


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What is independent learning?

An independent learner has all the tools needed to take their learning into their own hands, by investigating and exploring new knowledge with lower involvement from an instructor or institution.


With independent learning, students do their own research and ask questions, rather than relying solely on the materials that their teacher or instructor hands them. They also take ownership of their educational path by setting their own goals and monitoring their progress.


Needless to say, this type of student-centric learning gained a lot of traction with the popularization of the internet and experienced exponential growth during the CoVID pandemic.




Main benefits of independent learning

The following benefits are directly related to the student’s academic performance:


  • Boosted student motivation and confidence
  • Improved student performance
  • Better understanding of the student’s own strengths and weaknesses
  • Freeing teacher time to concentrate on different tasks and remediation


These 4 benefits are the direct result of the independent learners having a long-term view and feeling in control of their academic itinerary.




Why is independent learning so important?

It’s important to encourage your students to become independent learners because it will have direct repercussions on their academic performance, as discussed in the previous section. But independent learning also arms the students with soft skills that will help them be more successful in other areas of their lives, such as:


  • Better time management
  • Proactivity and initiative
  • Organization and discipline
  • independence




What are the key elements and strategies of independent learning?

Independent learning can’t work in a teacher-centric environment so, obviously, the first key element in enabling independent learning is the shift to a student-centric environment where the students get a higher-level understanding of their learning. One of the teacher’s new responsibilities here is to help the student structure their learning environment and turn the class into a community of independent learners.


A second key element of independent learning is self-regulation. Students are in control of their own planning, pacing, and evaluation. Self-regulation also includes self-motivation.


A third and last key element we’ll discuss is the role of the teacher as an enabler. Independent learning requires a strong student-teacher relationship with a high level of trust. The teacher must adapt their approach to deadlines, ensure access to relevant resources, and maintain open communication about tasks and student progress.


8 ways you can help your students become independent learners

In this section, we share some ideas on how to get your students into the right mindset and give them a roadmap in their independent learning trajectory.


    1. Inspire them

Nothing like a good pep talk to get people to take action and show initiative. Get them excited about learning. Show them the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) of independent learning. Inspire them as a group. Peer support and the feeling of community are strong motivators.


    1. Evaluate where they currently stand and where they aspire to be

To know where you’re going and to know how to get there, you first need to understand where you currently are. Help the students identify their strengths and weaknesses regarding the course topic(s). Ask them to formulate clear goals that are attainable yet challenging.


    1. Help them become the (wo)man with the plan

Now that they know where they stand and where they want to be, they should now be able to work out a learning plan to help them get there. Suggest specific resources to include in their learning plan. Obviously, you should also involve students in your lesson planning.


    1. Give a crash course on time management

Part of the learning plan should be a schedule that’s optimized for the student’s learning pace, other activities, optimal learning/working times, etc. Share tips on how to stick to their schedule, create structure and routine for themselves, and be more efficient learners.


    1. Create structure and routine

Students can allow themselves to learn more independently in a framework and routine that gives them the space to do so.


    1. Help them improve their questioning skills

To foster debate among the students, it’s important to help them improve their questioning skills and show them how to develop critical thinking and a problem-solving attitude. Asking open-ended questions is a great first step. To help them develop these skills it’s important not to provide your students with answers, but rather with guidance on how to find the answers by themselves.


    1. Enable online discussions and collaboration

Make sure to include group-based tasks and activities so students have ample opportunities to discuss with and learn from each other. Create online forums and groups where students can meet after hours to ask each other questions, collaborate, and support each other.


    1. Give them tools to track their progress

The best way students can track their progress is by keeping records. Maybe suggest a learning diary detailing what learning tasks they performed at a particular time, how long it took them, and how they experienced it. They should look back at diary entries, assess how they feel today about that piece of knowledge or task, and note the progress. The student can also pair up with a learning buddy. They can follow up on each other’s progress and assess each other.



What skills do students need to become independent learners?

Some students are independent learners by nature, others need to hone a new skill set to become independent learners, and yet others fare better in a more traditional teacher-centric environment. Independent learning requires the following skills:


Cognitive skills: thinking, reading, learning, memorizing, reasoning, and paying attention. Independent learning requires problem-solving skills, a sense for classification, and logical reasoning.


Metacognitive skills: these are the skills that underlying strategies that students apply to perform the cognitive skills listed above. Obviously, metacognitive skills are needed to monitor one’s own progress and self-assess.


Affective skills: These pertain to individual interests, values, and attitudes and help one manage their feelings. Affective skills will help the students self-motivate.




How can schools promote independent learning?

For independent learning to work, the school or institution first needs to enable and support it and put a school-wide practice in place:


Teacher support

Independent learning is mostly a bottom-up approach, and the educational institution must offer the same leeway to teachers as teachers do to students to make the new learning approach work. The institution needs to implement a structure where they can get direct feedback from students about their learning journey and progress.


Study support

Study support implies extracurricular learning activities that enable the students to choose their learning activities and set their goals. It also helps keep a communal study level within the community of independent learners. If a student falls behind, he or she can call upon tutoring services outside school hours to catch up.


Student empowerment

Empowering students to take ownership of their own learning is an impulse that needs to come from the institution, as well. It’s up to the school to hand students the relevant learning strategies, along with basic training on how to apply them.


Student feedback

As said earlier. Independent learning is largely a bottom-up approach where students shape their learning journey and consequently influence school strategies and the overall learning method. Therefore, institutions must have mechanisms in place to receive student feedback.




I hope this guide will help you foster independent learning with your students. The good thing about independent learning is that you can sprinkle it lightly onto your lesson plan or you can smear it generously. It’s really up to you, your students, and your institution. As long as all three are duly involved. To whatever degree you will apply it, it will provide your students with skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.