Today I participated in a workshop run by the Higher Education Academy and National Union of Students in York in which they shared their findings from a study on independent learning. The work is not yet complete – a report will be submitted to the HEA in July, and hopefully disseminated more widely after that.
Some background: the study was concucted by Liz Thomas Associates, and included obtaining diary data from 120 undergraduate students on a week-by-week basis reflecting on their experience of independent learning. ‘Independent learning’ was defined for the students as ‘any course-related study that you undertake when not being taught by lecturers or other academic staff’. To gather more in-depth data, three of the diary-writers were selected to conduct peer interviews with approximately 18 others.
Preliminary findings show that students tend to see independent learning as being one of two kinds of activities:
- ‘Homework‘ type activities which are reminiscent of school, such as revision of lecture notes, guided reading, or quiz/task completion (referred to by the researchers as ‘IL1’ for short);
- Going beyond what was presented in lectures or prescribed readings to find out more information, solve a problem or generate new insights (referred to as ‘IL2’).
Much discussion was had about these two key findings at the workshop, and some speculation on the implications. In no particular order, here are some of the main points from the discussion:
- There appeared to be some correlation between students holding the IL1 view and those who wanted more structure and support for their learning (i.e. a more ‘school-like’ environment). These students also tended to believe that the reason why their lecturers asked them to carry out independent study was because there wasn’t enough time in class to ‘cover’ all the content.
- By contrast, there appeared to be some correlation between students holding the IL2 view and an openness to risk-taking (e.g. putting the time into reading something that might turn out not be relevant), as well as a belief that independent learning was valuable for its own sake. (Whether these correlations were significant or not was not clarified, but as the analysis is ongoing, I expect these issues will be given further attention by the research team.)
- Students showed awareness of the fact that programmes are usually designed to focus more on the acquisition of core concepts in first year, with a gradual increase in student responsibility for conducting independent learning through second, third and (where applicable) fourth years. They appreciated this progression, and final year students generally showed much greater confidence in their ability to undertake independent learning than first-year students did.
- It was suggested by colleagues at the workshop that a discipline divide might emerge when the data is more finely analysed, in that students in the ‘hard’ sciences will be more closely aligned with IL1 than those in the social sciences. Examples were given from geology, dentistry and computer science to back up the suggestion that, in some disciplines, there is a lot of ‘stuff’ to learn and a generally agreed sequence for learning this stuff before students can be asked to apply their knowledge meaningfully. Requirements from professional bodies were mentioned as a (sometimes unhelpful) contributing factor here.
- Approximately 25% of the students in the study were international students. National or cultural differences have not yet been correlated with the other findings.
- Students indicated that they typically form social networks of peers to support their learning – often on Facebook or Whatsapp. The workshop did not discuss whether this social learning was more correlated with IL1 or IL2. (I think this would be an interesting avenue to explore.)
- Survey and interview results indicate that assessment is a significant driver in motivating students to learn in certain ways. Predictably, multiple-choice type assessements tend to encourage more rote learning, while authentic problem-solving tasks tend to encourage more independent learning.
This last point – the extent to which assessment drives (or indeed should drive) independent learning – received a lot of attention in the workshop. Opinion was divided on this: on the one hand, some colleagues argued against a ‘narrow, teaching-to-the-exam’ approach to curriculum design and delivery. On the other hand, the case was made (by me amongst others) for re-evaluating our assessments to ensure that they a) reflect the full richness and depth of the intended learning outcomes for the module; b) are creative, interesting and engaging for students (and markers!); and c) provide choice for learners. A good example of such an assessment is given in a case study in the HEA’s ‘Compendium of Effective Practice in Directed Independent Learning‘ by my colleague at Loughborough University School of Business and Economics, Keith Pond. The case involved students engaging in an assignment for the ‘Corporate Reconstruction and Turnaround’ module, in which a real, currently failing business is analysed based on court records. Students are also given the opportunity to meet with the Administrator for that business, who is dealing with the case at the time of the module delivery. In this assignment students carry out substantial independent learning – from searching for and selecting relevant information, through to analysing the case and predicting the success of the business for survival. This kind of learning is far more like the kind of work that students will do as members of a professional community of practice in their future careers than revising their lecture notes for an exam.