Developing independent students


Developing independent students

Why do some students start the school year with good intentions of working hard at it, but sometimes fail to translate that into long term behaviour change? What gets in the way of these good intentions? Essentially, how can we help students to become good independent learners?

Why Behaviour Change is Hard

Once a year students at Cornell University have the opportunity to buy a daffodil as part of the University’s charity fundraising for cancer research. Prior to the big daffodil drive, researchers asked 251 students how many of them were planning on purchasing a daffodil. Over 80% of students said they would and that on average they would buy at least 2. However, upon returning after the event, the researchers found that less than 50% of all the students actually bought a daffodil, and those that did only bought 1.

This may explain why some students struggle to revise and work independently, as there is a disconnect between someone’s good intentions and their eventual behaviour (one reason why gyms make so much money). So what can teachers do to bridge this gap?

Develop Metacognition and Self-Regulation

Helping students develop metacognition has become an area of increasing interest for both researchers and teachers. Metacognition refers to the ability to help students think better about the learning. This can be done by helping them plan beforehand, monitor their performance during, and then evaluate their performance after. Other strategies include teaching them about which learning strategies work well (hint: retrieval practice and spacing), and getting them to ask themselves better questions.

Focus on Mastery, Not Comparison to Others

Research has shown that students who compare themselves to others tend to have lower levels of motivation, confidence, self-regulation and 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.

Get Students to Remove Their Own Distractions

A rather fascinating and quirky study recently found that students were most likely to wander in class on Mondays and Fridays. This was explained by them being distracted about either the previous or upcoming weekend events.

Fortunately for us (and for them), research shows that it is possible to teach yourself to focus on the things you can improve, even from a very young age. Essentially, our ability to focus is not a fixed quantity. It can be improved and developed. For example, one such 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.

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, your work ethic is increased. 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.

Final Thought

Helping students become independent learners and take responsibility for their learning is the holy grail of education. The older the 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. A full length version of this article was originally written for Optimus Education. You can read the more in-depth version with additional tips at The strategies mentioned in this article touch on these and hopefully provide some guidelines on how to help students master these key skills.

If you'd like to learn more about this subject, have a look at our resources on how to improve metacognition.

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