What is independent learning?
Students who are actively involved in deciding what and how they learn are typically more engaged and motivated.
That’s not surprising, because independent learners are extremely focused on their personal learning objectives. According to Philip Candy, independent learning is “a process, a method and a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation.”
In the context of language learning, independent learners can recognize their learning needs, locate relevant information about language and develop the required language skills on their own or with other learners.
There are many advantages of encouraging independent learning among your students:
- Increased recognition of strengths, weaknesses and progress
- Higher levels of confidence
- More motivation
- Better management of learning
- Improved performance
Not only will these benefits help your students while learning English, but they’ll also be beneficial for them at school, university and even in their day-to-day lives.
How can I help my students?
Some of your students may already be independent learners, however, the vast majority will need your support to become more autonomous.
Here are seven ways you can help.
- Make learning goals clear
Sharing learning goals with your class helps students see what they’re aiming for and they’ll also be able to assess whether they’ve achieved it afterwards or not. This can be done at the beginning of a lesson or series of lessons, or even as a lesson progresses.
Although many teachers set the goals themselves, if you want to create a really independent learning experience, elicit them directly from the students. A simple question could be “What do you think this activity is helping you get better at?”
- Personalize learning goals
Another thing to consider is setting different goals for different learners, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. This will be much easier if the students are setting their own goals. For example, when doing a task focused on the speaking paper in an exam course, one student’s objective might be to give more extended answers, while another might want to use more discourse markers.
- Focus on the process as well as the goal
Once your students have set their goals, they need to start thinking about how they’ll reach them.
One way to help them get on track is to provide them with a set of ‘success criteria’, which acts like a roadmap for the different tasks they need to complete. If your students understand what they need to do to be successful, they’ll progress much faster and be more motivated when they see how far they’ve come.
If one of your student’s goals is to improve their grammatical accuracy in the C1 Advanced speaking exam, for example, you could give them a rubric (like the one below) which they can use to assess their own performance.
Keep your assessment categories as positive as possible (e.g. solid, good and acing it) and link it to the official exam criteria where possible.
- Provide opportunities to reflect on learning
Students should constantly be encouraged to reflect on their performance and whether they’ve met their learning goals. This will help them become more aware of their strengths, weaknesses and the progress they’re making. Recognition of progress will help build confidence and motivation.
Opportunities for assessment and reflection don’t need to take a lot of time. Spending two minutes at the end of the class asking students questions like ‘What can you do better now than at the start of the lesson?’ will help learners develop important meta-cognitive skills.
- Offer feedback on learning
Teacher feedback also helps students develop the skills needed to become more independent. Offer feedback in a supportive and sensitive manner, making positive observations alongside any criticism.
Effective feedback should allow learners to understand where they currently are in their learning, where they’re heading and how they’ll get there.
- Encourage peer feedback
Feedback shouldn’t only come from the teacher. You should also get students to evaluate each other’s progress during and after an activity. Peer feedback is not only advantageous to the student receiving it, but there are also many reflective benefits of giving feedback to someone else.
- Transfer learning decisions to students
It’s impossible for students to become independent learners if you make all the decisions for them. Giving students the opportunity to make decisions about their learning will give them a greater level of autonomy. However, this should be a gradual process and not all students will be ready to take 100% control from the outset.
Start with small decisions first and ask questions such as:
- Do you want to do the task alone or in pairs?
- Would you like to use a set of useful phrases for support when doing the speaking task?
- Would you prefer to discuss questions about this topic or another?
This devolvement of responsibility built up over time will help learners to become more independent.
How does Gold Experience help my students become more independent learners?
Independent learning is especially relevant when preparing students for exams. Studying for a qualification such as the Cambridge B2 First or C1 Advanced requires a lot of work and motivation, and the more autonomous our students become the better.
Gold Experience 2nd Edition contains a number of resources that will help you develop independent teens.
Clear learning goals and models for success
Learning goals for each skill are outlined at the beginning of each unit in both the Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book. These describe what the student will be able or be better able to do at the end of the lesson.
An independent learning section
At the end of each unit there’s a dedicated section to help students become more independent learners. The tasks help students to understand the benefit of self-reflection and encourage them to give better feedback to peers. They help students – and you – to understand themselves better as learners. They also prompt a greater understanding of strengths and weaknesses that then helps students set realistic, useful, personalized goals.
A focus on process
To help students identify good practice in speaking and writing tasks, the Student’s Book provides model answers and tasks that encourage students to analyze the answers to better understand how to complete them successfully. Analysis focuses on approach, content and language. The Speaking file and Writing file give further tips on the process and how to achieve success in speaking and writing exam tasks.
Improve it sections in Writing lessons
In each Writing lesson, the Improve it section helps students to review work and make improvements. Scaffolded tasks help students to develop the skills they need to do this effectively.
In each unit there is a group project. These help students to develop creative skills, make decisions about the learning process and how they complete the project.
Resources for self-study
There are a number of resources to help learners achieve their goals. These can be used in class if the teacher wants to allocate part of a lesson to self-study or they can be used at home. They include:
- A Wordlist at the end of each unit in the Student’s Book
- An Extended Vocabulary section at the back of the Student’s Book
- Speaking, Writing and Grammar File sections at the back of the Student’s Book
- The Workbook
- Online Practice activities
- Flipped classroom tasks in the Teacher’s Book