Beware of the “independent learning” black hole

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The dominant mode of learning in higher education is said to be “independent learning”, or what some institutions refer to as independent student learning.

In the modern modular system that all universities have adopted, students are often expected to spend more than 30 hours per week learning independently. Indeed, if you include class and lab time, students should devote around 50 hours per week to their studies.

But what exactly is independent learning in a third level context? When I was an engineering student at UCD in the early 1980s, our independent learning consisted of the following: we studied the course notes that we had transcribed in class, we did all the problems provided by the teachers and we made the last exam papers. It was really only in our research and design projects of the last year that we had to show real initiative. Of course, the experience of arts and humanities students was a bit different.

And yet, and this is a crucial point: most of us have done well, well able to cope with the truly enormous changes that were to take place in the 1990s at the dawn of the era. ‘Internet and the work environment completely transformed by digital technologies.

So when we talk about independent learning in 2016, are we really just talking about the study of the content that has been delivered or maybe assigned as additional reading by the lecturer? Or do we expect even more from our students in the Internet age? And if so, what do we expect and how do our expectations vary from discipline to discipline?

Difficulties

The concept of independent learning and what it means is at the heart of many of the challenges we face in higher education.

It’s a poorly defined term which I think is meant to translate a movement from a supposedly teacher-driven culture to a learner-driven culture. Indeed, the modern use of the word “learner” rather than “student” is part of this ideological shift.

But, in the opinion of many educational researchers, it takes a lot of experience and maturity, as well as a lot of prior knowledge, to be a true independent learner. These are attributes that the typical undergrad doesn’t have, at least not in the early years of their studies.

I think we should see the concept of the independent learner as what we expect our students to become, not what we expect from our students. In this case, we really need to think more about how we define independent learning and also how our definition varies from the first year to the last year of our study programs. And we need to communicate these definitions to our students.

Regardless of the intricacies of how we currently perceive and define independent learning, we know both anecdotally and from the Irish Student Engagement Survey that most students fall short of the amount of independent learning that is theoretically expected of them.

Yet, with few exceptions, no one seems overly concerned with the academic standards of our universities. Maybe this inconsistency means our independent learning figures are unrealistic. Or maybe our expectations of our students have become lower.

High expectations

Oddly, however, our expectations of our graduates are now very high. We expect our students to come out of our institutions as creative, critical-minded, problem-solving graduates with in-depth disciplinary knowledge, yet able to approach problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. We have indeed set the bar very high.

As educators, I think we tend to focus too much on what’s going on in the classroom and in the lab. The black hole of independent learning is where we really need to focus. We need to find out what are the main social, cultural and environmental factors that determine the degree of independent learning of our students. Most importantly, we need to find out what exactly our students are doing when they are learning independently.

As a sector, we are too withdrawn. We have convinced ourselves that by constantly innovating, we can find solutions to all our educational problems. We need to start looking outward and seeing education in its cultural context.

The way to start this process is to really dig into what we call independent learning. And we also need to think seriously about our expectations, both of our students and our graduates.

  • Greg Foley is Lecturer and Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at DCU’s Faculty of Science and Health


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