Developing Independent Learners

Why do some students start a piece of work with good intentions of working hard at it, but sometimes fail to live up to their starting aims? Are they lying, either to themselves or to you, when they make bold predictions about how hard they are going to study either at home or in their free periods?

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To answer this question we can examine the findings of The Daffodil Study. Once a year, over four days in spring at Cornell University, students are encouraged to buy a daffodil. All the money raised goes to the charity American Cancer Society. A month before they were due to go on sale, researchers asked 251 students if they were planning to buy a daffodil and if so, how many they would purchase. Over 80% of students said they would and that on average they would buy at least two. However, when the researchers went back after the event, they found that less than half the students actually bought one, and those that did, only bought a single daffodil.

It seems that there is a gap between someone’s good intentions and the actual follow through with the necessary behaviour. This, in part, explains why some students struggle to revise and work independently. However, research from cognitive psychology can help guide teachers into helping students take more ownership, responsibility and independence in their learning. Click here to find out more about this study.


Encourage a Sense of Purpose

This is all about getting students to care about what they are doing. If they care about it, they are more invested in it and are more likely to apply themselves. One study that illustrated this manipulated the environment that students were taught in. Some were told that had to study hard because there would be a test. Others were told that it was what was expected of them. And some students were told that learning the material would really help them achieve their goals. The result? Those who had the explanation as to why learning the topic would be useful them to (i.e. those that had a sense of purpose) rated the material as more important and were more likely to put in more effort to it.

A sense of purpose can be encouraged in a number of ways. If students can identify how the material will help them or what skills they will develop as a result, it will increase their engagement levels. Something as simple as completing the sentence ‘doing well at this will help me because…’ is a good starting point here. For more tips, read our 5 ways to encourage a sense of purpose in students.


Focus on Mastery, Not Comparison to Others

Over forty years ago, psychologist John Nicholls ran a seminal study on student motivation. He found that students viewed an upcoming exam in very different ways. Some saw it as a chance to see how much they had learnt, whereas others saw it as an opportunity to compare themselves with their class-mates.

From this study, Nicholls characterised two different types of motivation. The first, mastery orientation, describes students who feel most successful when they have mastered a task. This is usually characterised by individuals putting in maximum effort, and where pleasure is gained by improving and developing their skills. On the other side of the coin, students who feel most successful when they have done better than their peers are said to have an ego-orientation. The emphasis here is on displaying superior ability and knowing where they rank against their peers.

Research has shown that students who compare themselves to others tend to have lower levels of motivation, confidence, self-regulation, academic performance and increased anxiety. Teachers can help encourage their students to develop a mastery orientation by having students measure themselves against their previous efforts, focus on ‘improving themselves rather than proving themselves’ and actively reflecting on what they have learnt from their experiences.


Remove Distractions

A recent study found that students’ minds were most likely to wander in class on Mondays and Fridays. Presumably, thoughts about the previous or upcoming weekend were just too distracting.

Research shows that the ability to improve concentration and attention is something that can be developed, even from a very young age. Our ability to focus is not a fixed quantity. One study found that simply having your phone out, even if you are not using it, can make you perform up to 20% worse in cognitive tests.

One of the most famous studies in psychology, the Marshmallow Test, found that students who did not look at the temptation in front of them were less likely to engage with it. It is not just visual distractions either. A recent study found that students who worked in silence during their study sessions performed 20% better than those who worked whilst listening to songs that had lyrics.  So if you want to improve concentration, before any work is started, ensure that the immediate environment is removed of all potential distractions.

For more, see these 8 hacks to improve focus.


Get Students to Choose Their Study Mates Carefully

Working with other people has been associated with reducing stress, improving performance and developing resilience. It can also help boost focus and work ethic. That was the finding of a recent journal which found that if the person next to you is working hard then it increases your work ethic. Interestingly, this impact was found to be consistent regardless of whether they were doing an easier or more difficult task than you, or whether the task is similar or unrelated to yours.


Help Procrastinators Avoid the Planning Fallacy

Left to our own devices, people tend to procrastinate. In fact, some studies have found that 75% of students consider themselves procrastinators, with 50% doing so regularly and to a level that is considered problematic. Research suggests that most students are poor predictors at estimating how long a task will take to complete, as they get distracted or face unexpected obstacles along the way. This is called "the Planning Fallacy". Find out more about it in this blog.

One study found that one of the best ways to overcome the planning fallacy is if a teacher sets small regular deadlines. This was proven to help students manage their time better and perform significantly better in their coursework, achieving higher grades overall. 


Final Thought

Helping students become independent learners and take responsibility for their learning is the holy grail of education. The older students are, the more important this skill is. In order to help them develop this, an understanding of a range of psychological theories is needed, as independent learning requires motivation, concentration, effort and overcoming procrastination. The strategies mentioned in this article touch on these and hopefully provide some guidelines on how to help students master these skills.

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