#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 11: How much work should I do at home? Using directed independent study to promote effective learning

As academics we tend to have an inflated opinion of the value of what we teach. By this, I mean that we tend to assume that it is what and how we teach that will have by far the greatest impact on how much learning our students do and the quality of this learning. This is understandable of course. We invest a considerable amount of expertise, time and effort into designing courses and modules, and some of us sweat blood thinking-up new and exciting and engaging ways of working with our students and explaining and conveying ideas, concepts, problems, arguments and key aspects of content etc. We develop creative learning materials, beautifully designed PowerPoint and Prezzie slides, lecture notes and lab exercises etc. The creative effort required to deliver a single module is, in many cases, awe-inspiring. However, the reality is that despite all this magnificent effort and laudable commitment to ceaseless quality enhancement (i.e. what John Ruskin might have referred to as ‘intelligent effort’) the fact of the matter is that much of the learning that students do – in many cases the lion’s share of the learning – is developed and conducted outside of the classroom, in-between the ‘bits’ of formal teaching that we work so hard to design, refine and polish. In his seminal work Dimensions of Quality (2010) Graham Gibbs concluded that class contact hours had very little to do with educational quality. Of much greater importance was the quantity and quality of study. It was the student’s commitment to study, their active engagement in the learning process, and the quality of the effort invested in study that determined the value of the educational experience and the amount of real learning that had taken place. In other words – and this is a difficult thing for some academics to accept – it is what the student does that is of much greater importance than what we do as teachers. In particular, it is the independent study that students engage in – and the quality of this study – that drives their learning.

However, that doesn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – mean that academic are redundant. Far from it. But it does mean that we need to reconceptualise the ways in which we can be more effective in supporting student learning. By this, I mean that we should consider, both collectively and individually, how we can build literacies around independent learning, in the same way that many academics have been working to develop information literacies, or assessment literacies with their students for some time. Of particular importance is the role we have to play in promoting Directed Independent Learning (DIL) –an approach which involves academics creating or providing a ‘framework’ around which the independent learning of the student can be woven.

Here, however, we encounter some conceptual problems. There is no single definition of independent learning in the sector, and certainly no shared understanding of what Directed Independent Learning is or might involve. Indeed, it has already been pointed out by the authors of a major HEA study on independent learning that the term has the hallmarks of an oxymoron, since HE study is normally seen as being either independent or directed. The two elements appear to be contradictory, but in reality are complementary. Students need ‘structures’ within which to work and around which to ‘hang’ the learning that they do on their course. We can provide the hanger – they wrap their learning around this frame in ways that are unique to each student. Which bits of the ‘framework’ students choose to utilise is entirely their choice – this is outside of our control. However, we can influence the ways that students utilise the ‘gaps’ between lectures, seminars or lab sessions by providing structured activities, tasks, either requiring individual study or collaborative learning. It is the ‘framework’ that we can provide that constitutes the ‘directed’ element of Directed Independent Learning (DIL). However, in addition to designing and providing said framework we also need to explain it and unpack it for students. We need to discuss with them the importance of their own independent study, and how DIL will work on the modules we are teaching. It is important to introduce the concept early, explore it and if necessary to return to it. By doing so, we emphasise its importance and its centrality to the learning process.  Employability has rapidly shot up the priority list of every university in the last 10 years, and it should not be forgotten therefore, that DIL is a key ‘life’ skill – student will need to be effective independent learners in order to be effective lifelong learners and in order to be effective professionals, continually up-dating their own skills, knowledge and practices. Students are paying some of the highest HE tuition fees in the developed world, so it may also be worth emphasising that by maximising their effectiveness as independent learners they are also maximising the value of the degree course they are studying on.

Of course, it is important not to overwhelm students with masses of Directed Independent Learning from day 1. They need time to acclimatise and adjust to their university, to the course, to their cohort, and to the HE learning process. But the concept of independent learning can and should be addressed early on, and the amount of DIL should be gradually increased as the students gain in experience and confidence. Early-on students will need guidance on what kind of independent study to focus on, how much to do, and in some cases this will mean being very specific about the texts they may wish to focus on reading. By year 2 they should be sufficiently attuned to DIL to be able to engage successfully with small-scale individual projects, and by year 3 many students – quite rightly – are expected to engage successfully with more ambitious and challenging projects and dissertations. The amount of DIL should reduce over time, as the amount of SDIL (Self-directed independent study) increases. Personal tutors or advisers can play a key role in ensuring that students are engaging effectively with DIL, but for DIL to be successfully integrated it also needs to occasionally involve collaborative working (e.g. group-based activity), or effective and open sharing of resources between students. It is also important to ensure that DIL links to work students are engaged with in class, and students need to be able to see, also, that there is a link between their commitment to DIL, and their overall academic performance.

Engaging with DIL is a crucial step on your students’ journey to becoming truly autonomous, independent learners and effective professionals and leaders. But the process of fully embracing the concept of DIL requires academics to re-focus their efforts, and in particular to place renewed emphasis on learning and learners, rather than teaching. Again, it requires a paradigm shift – from a teaching paradigm to a learning paradigm. The scope for academics to support Directed Independent Learning is tremendous in the future, and one suspects that a key to this will be enhanced use of new learning technologies (including the next generation of virtual learning environments, and new forms of virtual reality) that facilitate student study outside of the classroom. Exciting times lay ahead…

Sources and links:

Thomas, E., Jones, R., and Ottaway, J., (2015) Effective practice in the design of directed independent learning opportunities, Higher Education Academy. See: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/effective_practice_in_the_design_of_directed_independent_learning_opportunities.pdf

Compendium of effective practice in directed independent learning, High Education Academy. See: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/compendium-effective-practice-directed-independent-learning

Anglia Learning & Teaching webpages on Directed Independent Learning. See: http://www.anglia.ac.uk/anglia-learning-and-teaching/good-teaching-practice-and-innovation/approaches-to-learning-and-teaching/directed-independent-learning

15 Top Tips for Student-Centred Teaching


Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).

We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.

  1. Does your own department or university have an agreed definition of Directed Independent Learning?
  2. How do you develop students’ understanding of what Directed Independent Learning involves?
  3. What is the balance between ‘direction’ and ‘independence’?
  4. What do you do to enhance the impact of Directed Independent Learning in your own modules or courses?
  5. What developments in technology do you think might help us to enhance the effectiveness of Directed Independent Study in the future?

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