Art of e-learning

Students’ views on independent learning: findings from an HEA-NUS study


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:

  1. ‘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);
  2. 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:

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.