In defence of independent learning

Image: IKON

Issues of teaching intensity have once again been brought to the fore by recent TEF announcements. Boil it all down and it means that we are arguing that teaching in small groups is better for students than big lectures. A one hour lecture with 150 students is less intense than a one hour, one-to-one tutorial (as if knowledge were diluted by the numbers that have it). Such factors as input time (contact hours) and staff-student ratio do sustain some commonsense understandings. But equally some people might experience the 150 student lecture as a highly intensified “espresso” of the topic.

Teaching quality is an input measure related to the performativity of teaching: what teachers do well or badly in public performances, in front of a class (whatever that might mean in the age of many “publics”, moocs and learning analytics). Contact time is, essentially the number of hours the teacher can be seen to be in front of a class. Intensity, then, is a factor of the number of students with whom a teacher is face to face over a period of time (number of hours divided by number of students).

Much of the work on learning in HE over the past 15 years has focused more on output measures: learning outcomes or objectives, benchmark statements, graduate attributes, marking criteria, GPA, employment destination. We have almost forgotten how to talk about teaching input. Teaching became “facilitating learning” through the Freireian 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and the conversation was dismissed, largely replaced by the student learning experience. We then measure satisfaction with that experience and extrapolate back to teaching.

Let’s start with a shared assumption: independent learning is an aspirational outcome of any period or programme of study in higher education. The demonstrable ability to direct one’s own learning is more or less what a degree signifies, but no senior manager likes to be told that it is notoriously difficult to identify a hard link between teaching input and learning output in most circumstances.

What the research says

Early work by Marton and Saljo (1976) set the frame for multiple orientations towards learning (note learning, not teaching). And, “student-staff contact” is the first of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) well known principles of good undergraduate education. But what student-staff contact means varies from person to person, department to department, place to place and time to time. That variability is hugely important. The second of Chickering and Gamson’s principles of good practice is student-student contact. This can be very briefly summarised as small group-work works. Group-work correlates with higher output measures. But, group-work also produces low satisfaction scores. If you want higher outputs, the arguments for group work are as strong as those for independent learning.

So what is independent learning, that we might recognise it for what it is? Lau produced a useful semantic field study for terms correlated with “independent learning”, which included: Active, Reflection, Reading, Improvement/improve, Myself, Resources, Self-access, Internet, Learning, Practice, Research (Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3),Table 3…; page 7). As an aside, I considered omitting the term Learning, which I felt was redundant. We may even ask whether “independent learning” is simply another way of saying “learning”. Just as Salomon argued there can be “no distributed cognition without individual cognition” – and vice versa, I might add – there can be no independent learning without group learning. Both have experience and emergence among their epistemic features.

Capacity and capability

Some people do appear more capable of independent learning or its various closely associated phenomena, than others. Others may gravitate towards programmes or modules where group projects figure highly. But, people can and do help others to be more independent. It is no accident that identity and community are so tightly entwined. The concept of a “zone of proximal development” has become an axiom of much educational theory, where the more able (community elder?) helps the younger or less able to achieve beyond what they could without support or “scaffolding”. All this is to say that Independent learning can be learned. Independent learners may be identified as having the capability of autonomous or self-directed learning. It has long been held that a teacher is a resource for such learning but not the only one. Independence may be seen as the acquisition of a degree of agency, self regulation or self efficacy.

Likewise, a lower student-to-teaching-staff ratio is usually a pretty good thing. But there are levels below which relationships as well as resources become constrained. The problem is that we really do not know where these levels are. But we do have a pretty good idea that they are different for different people: individuals and groups: teachers, students, employers, government and the public. And we know that some subjects manifestly consume more resources (and teachers) in being taught. But do they pay back the individual or society more than those subjects that consume less? And there are counterposed teaching or learning efficiency arguments asserting (usually) that through more effective deployment of (often) innovative technology or curricula – for example a 2 year BA Hons – that more students can be taught better. Put that into your intensity mill and grind away.

Students meeting their own expectations

When you dig into the Government’s own data on teaching quality you find the answer is, as ever, a bit more complicated. The government aspires for higher education to be, “an engine of social mobility”, “a driver of economic growth” and “a cornerstone of our cultural landscape…” and yet also suggests:

students are dissatisfied with the provision they receive, with over 60% of students feeling that all or some elements of their course are worse than expected and a third of these attributing this to concerns with teaching quality

(Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) 2016, paragraph 5)

That third works out at about 22 percent of the sample. The supporting reference for this paragraph is HEPI-HEA (2015) Student Academic Experience Survey: summary and recommendations. Reading the HEPI report we find another reason explaining elements of a course that were not as expected:

Those who felt their experience had not matched up to their expectations or had been better in some ways and worse in others were asked why. The most common option was that they had not put in enough effort themselves.

So for maybe 12 percent it really is about teaching: efficiency, effectiveness and intensity however measured. But, for most students it is not really about the teaching. It is about learning. What the report does say that students want is support for self-directed learning [my emphasis], as well as development and recognition of good teaching, support to develop the relationship between research, teaching and scholarship, support for the emotional and relational aspects of learning communities, and to provide high quality learning spaces.

I work at a university as an educational developer – and I suggest mine and my colleagues’ mission is to provide for that list, starting with support for independent learning. We do not believe monitored intensification of teaching will do it.

Or if one-to-one is going to be the benchmark measure of high quality intensity, there really is a staff problem. Yes, more teachers in HE will help. But it is not all of the answer. We may find that a de intensification of teaching and an increase in independent learning, aptly modelled and supported by university teaching staff might improve outcomes. Despite much to critique, higher education is a rewarding place to work. But, how much do you have to suffer before you sing the blues?

Graduate attributes

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has for a long time now asserted that a Level 6 qualification (BA Honours Degree) can only be awarded to students “… who have demonstrated”, as well as “an appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge…“,  “the ability to manage their own learning.” (QAA 2014 Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications, page 26) My university suggests, “The ability to organise oneself and perform as an autonomous, effective and independent learner” is an element of being a graduate: attested by a degree (Oxford Brookes University, Graduate attributes).

So, do universities teach independent learning well or badly? How do you value or assess independent learning? How do you help and guide an independent learner? Aye, there’s the rub. Does providing more help and guidance produce greater independence?

There is a hint of a measurement challenge here. How and when do you assess an individual’s independent learning? The “contact hours”, “teaching intensity” versus “teaching deficit” debate is not about whether or not you cast the learner adrift, but simply a question of when. Do you hothouse students until high summer then plant them straight out into warm ground? In which case the DLHE measures might be a proxy. Or do you move them from seed bed to cold frame to cloche so that they are well established by the time the covers come off? If so, then maybe old-fashioned degree classification (or college scarf?) is more important.

I suggest that the argument about a teaching deficit arises from several failures. First a failure by some policy proponents to recognise or value independent learning through the available metrics. Second a failure by teachers to accept that independence can (and must?) be taught. And finally a failure by students to recognise what they are “buying” is the ability to go it alone as much as to rub along effectively in groups, teams or other organisations. All this is exacerbated by the student as consumer problem, and the political volatility of not only the HE sector but the wider times.

Author’s acknowledgement: with thanks to my colleagues who teach on the PCTHE at Oxford Brookes University.

2 thoughts on “In defence of independent learning”

  1. You are totally right, I am obliged to read this post.
    Everyone should have their own capabilities to learn something independently.

  2. Tony O'Malley says:

    An excellent article that I found for myself and which has taught me lots about learning!

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