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A fresh look at independent study

What place does support for effective independent studying occupy in discussions about quality and standards in higher education? Paul Penn argues that how students actually learn is seldom addressed in policy interventions.
This article is more than 1 year old

Paul Penn is a senior lecturer in psychology.

The Office for Students consultation on regulating standards in higher education has, once again, put the spotlight on the quality of university provisions.

Cue media tub-thumping about “Mickey Mouse” degrees, politicians bemoaning loan repayment prospects and university management agonising over appropriate statistical benchmarks.

Regrettably, all too frequently discussions about the metrics used to assess the student learning experience miss an issue that undermines the attainment of successive intakes of undergraduates. Universities have not taken heed of important research from psychology in shaping the delivery of support to students in the very thing that accounts for the lion’s share of their scholarly activity – their independent studying.

The exception, not the rule

Gaining admission to university might, intuitively, seem like a decent litmus test for the adequacy of a student’s approach to studying. However, research has repeatedly shown that the approaches to studying undergraduates most frequently use (for example repeatedly passively rereading source material) are also the least effective. It might seem improbable that scores of highly motivated and intelligent individuals get something that is self-evidently so vital for their academic success routinely wrong.

However, there is a simple explanation for this from the psychological literature. An individual’s ability to monitor and evaluate the way they approach learning (their metacognitive ability) is subject to an array of errors. These errors promote the habitual use of study practices that intuitively feel much more effective than they objectively are. For example, a student who studies by repeatedly rereading from an open book will feel like they are getting to grips with the source material. However, this is an illusory judgement of learning caused by the fact they’ve not tested their recall of that material under conditions where their source is no longer available to consult. The false sense of confidence generated by ineffective approaches to studying has an insidious effect on future learning.

Do students engage with support?

At this point you might rightly argue that universities have provisions dedicated to supporting independent studying. However, for students to avail themselves of such help they must first recognise that they need it. It is precisely this kind of insight that metacognitive errors and their associated intuitively satisfying (but objectively ineffective) approaches to studying rob them of.

Engagement with study support at university often falls victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a metacognitive flaw in which an individual is vulnerable to having the most inflated impression of their competence precisely when they are the least objectively competent. That’s the cruel thing about metacognitive errors: they can only be addressed with a concerted effort to get the very kind of help that they lull students into thinking they don’t need.

Nothing in the metrics

Addressing metacognitive errors and the ineffective approaches to studying they give rise to is a fundamental prerequisite for improving the quality of the student learning environment and experience. Be this as it may, in examining teaching and learning practice, universities often focus too much on what happens inside the lecture theatre and not enough on what occurs outside of it.

It is a truism within higher education that if you want to understand university policy you should look at the details of the applicable national metric and work backwards. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) provides little impetus for universities to more thoroughly address the way students approach independent studying because it doesn’t reliably capture and assess such provisions. I recently found six TEF Gold rated institutions promoting the long-debunked theory of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles as part of their website-based advice to students on how to study! Yes, you read that correctly: institutions judged to be “outstanding” for their teaching and learning provisions were trying to help their students study more effectively by promoting the educational equivalent of phrenology.

Moving forward

Students spend most of their degree programmes studying independently. Therefore, the quality of university provisions in supporting this activity must become central to discussions about standards in higher education. Research on metacognition points to a wider need for efforts to support independent studying to be much more closely aligned with psychological literature.

Universities need to recognise that students frequently enter higher education habitually using ineffective approaches to studying that systematically undermine their academic attainment. And efforts to help students study more effectively need to move beyond the traditional extra-curricular or study skills module-based models of delivery. Instead, evidence-based guidance from psychology on effective studying needs to be organically incorporated early into degree curricula. Finally, national metrics of the quality of a university’s learning environment need to capture and assess the standard of the guidance given to its students on effective independent learning much more reliably than is currently the case.

2 responses to “A fresh look at independent study

  1. This is an important piece, raising an issue that we rarely consider in sufficient detail. Metacognition may feature in some programme, usually Education and Psychology, but is absent in most. Assumptions are made that, if students get into university, they will know how to learn. If they don’t succeed, it’s because they are not ‘good enough’ rather than institutions considering that maybe the modes of teaching are impenetrable to them or just not attuned to their prior learning experiences. This is even more the case at present. We tend to (erroneously) consider students as digital natives, thus used to doing everything online. They may certainly make full use of technology for social interaction but may have no experience of using technology as a mainstay of their learning. This is something we need to address with urgency.

    1. Dear Jo,

      Yes, it’s never been more important to help students ensure that their study practices are aligned with what we know about how to learn effectively. I’ve often wondered why universities can be so reluctant to meaningfully engage with something so obviously vital for student attainment. Maybe it’s akin to the scenario whereby a long-term couple has a relationship problem but won’t discuss it as it’s tantamount to admitting that: “we’ve been doing things wrong this whole time”.

      It’s vital that HE steps up in this respect and takes more ownership of the quality of advice and guidance given to students about how to succeed in their studies. Having TEF gold rated institutions promoting things like learning styles to support indpendent studying reflects very poorly on the standards in an area of scholarship that should be a pillar of every HE institution.

      Learning doesn’t begin and end at the threshold of the lecture theatre, so let’s make sure our practice reflects this.

      Thanks for reading my article and commenting!

      Best wishes. Paul

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