Some thoughts on independent learning

The dominant mode of learning in third level education is ‘independent learning’. At least that’s what the numbers in our module descriptors imply. Yet, it would seem to me, and maybe I’m wrong, that the vast bulk of education research and innovation focuses on what is done in the classroom or the laboratory. Interesting, that.

Anyway, if you take the numbers in module descriptors seriously, we currently expect students to do upwards of 25 hours per week of ‘independent learning’ throughout a typical semester and pre-exam period. The Irish Survey of Student Engagement ( suggests that the majority of students do nowhere near that amount of independent learning and we really need to ask ourselves if we’re just pulling numbers out of a hat.

In any event, what exactly do we mean by independent learning because many (not all) module coordinators provide little or no breakdown of what is expected of the student  when they do their independent learning? When my peers and I look back at our time studying engineering in the UCD of the early 1980s, we tend to boast that in contrast to the modern student we “drove our own learning” as one might say these days. We conjure up an image of ourselves as model independent learners. But were we really? In fact what we did was this: we studied our lecture notes (that we had transcribed in class), we did all the problem sets provided by the lecturers (practice!), and we made a particular effort to cover as many past papers as we could (tactical learning!). At the same time, we completed CA assignments such as laboratory reports and design projects. We rarely had to do any ‘outside reading’ and when we did it was usually because the lecturer was so bad it was impossible to take coherent lecture notes. In truth, our third level education was all quite structured and uncomplicated and the contact times were very high. Nonetheless, we were able to cope with the extraordinary changes that were to occur in the 1990s as a result of the rapid increase in computing power and the dawn of the internet age. (I think there is a lesson in there for those who suggest that the 21st century is somehow different and requires a radical shake-up in how we teach.)

Anyway, the key word in the above paragraph is ‘studied’. So, when we talk about ‘independent learning’ in 2016, are we really just talking about ‘study’ and by ‘study’ I also mean doing the prescribed reading that is typical of a course in the arts and humanities. Or, are we expecting even more from our students in this internet age? And if so, what is it that we are expecting?

Many people talk of there being a crisis in third level education without anyone being very explicit about where the source of the crisis actually lies. (I’m ignoring the resourcing issue here.) My own view is that the whole concept of ‘independent learning’ lies at the heart of everything. I really think we should see the concept of an ‘independent learner’ as something that we expect our students to become, not what we expect our students to be. Being a true independent learner requires lots of experience and maturity. It’s not easy learning on your own.

I think all of this boils down to expectations. What do we really expect from our students and how do those expectations differ as they progress from first year to final year? Of course, we should always expect students to study hard; to study to understand their subject, not to rote learn; to practice and self-test consistently over the semester, if not always for 25 hours a week on top of their contact time. Education is a partnership and our job is to chart a course through a subject for students. In time, our students should, if they come on the journey, acquire sufficient knowledge and skill to become the knowledgeable independent learners and (where appropriate) the confident problem-solvers that we want them to be.

In a curious way, our expectations of our students have become simultaneously too low and too high. On the one hand,  we do not seem to have any concerns about our grade distributions*  even though we know that our students spend far less time on ‘independent learning’ than we expect them to. On the other hand, we expect our students to emerge from our institutions as creative, critical-thinking, problem-solving graduates, with disciplinary knowledge depth but capable of approaching problems from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.

None of this adds up and the large black hole that is ‘independent learning’ is where we should begin if we want to reconcile our seemingly low expectations of our students and our very high expectations of our graduates. Food for thought for the people at


*Except, perhaps, for the grade inflation guys down in IT Tralee.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Some thoughts on independent learning

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Some thoughts on independent learning

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