Our Dean of Students was telling me today about a presentation he recently gave, in which he highlighted views expressed by students on what ‘independent learning’ meant. They essentially said that it meant ‘learning on my own’. The sense is of an ‘absence’ or ‘lack’ – so independent learning is the same thing that happens in a seminar, lecture or tutorial, just without the support that such contexts provide. Independence seems to mean isolation, not autonomy.
In the humanities, we emphasise the importance of independent study. It’s part of learning and practising our disciplines. It develops skills that we describe to students as valuable for their future lives: defining a problem or question, pursuing a line of enquiry, synthesising evidence, critiquing others’ interpretations, constructing an argument. The products of such a process – still often essays – provide the raw materials for assessing students’ academic achievement. Far from being a deficit model, independence is part of being intellectually resourceful and productive (which can be brought to bear not just in individual but also in collaborative work).
The apparent disjuncture between the student and the academic understanding of ‘independent learning’ could be a real issue, not least in terms of students’ capacity to develop that ‘graduateness’ that seems to be associated with an ability to be reflective and to take responsibility and ownership for learning.
Recent UH graduates Lewis Stockwell and Florence Afolabi’s reflections in their recent post on the Guardian learning and teaching hub on collaborative/partnership vs consumerist/transmission models of HE delivery seem relevant here. In a context where student satisfaction stands as the main indicator of ‘quality’, the belief that they’re just being ‘left on their own’ is a potentially damaging one. Maybe it’s akin to the perennial issue with feedback. Do we need to invest more in explaining what independent study actually is, what it looks and feels like, its dead ends and u-turns as well as its moments of insight and discovery – and, importantly, its place at the heart of academic practice? Or is something more fundamental involved? Can we square the circle and remodel and describe independent study in a way that enables students to develop academic initiative and independence and allows them to feel supported (and, yes, satisfied) in doing so?