From the jaws of defeat: When independent study goes wrong

Written by: Dr Andrew K Shenton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When studying independently, students often learn more when things go wrong or badly. Dr Andrew K Shenton discusses how we can derive success from failure in independent learning


We tend to associate problems in life with barriers, frustration and lost time. They are, however, very often essential to a student’s progress when tackling an independent learning assignment.

Indeed, it can be said under these circumstances that many cognitive gaps may be plugged as the individual responds to adverse experiences.

We can even go so far as to say that one of the foremost tasks in the research process – that of looking for information – itself typically emerges when the learner finds themselves in a problematic situation.

Specifically, on discovering that their own internal resources, such as personal knowledge and memory, or the material immediately available to them, like their own class notes or the teacher’s handouts, are of no or insufficient assistance in meeting the challenge, they realise that a special form of problem-solving must be applied.

After some analysis of the assignment brief and what it entails, this process usually begins with the execution of a series of information-related actions. The skills within the overall sequence initiated tend to be largely concentrated in one of three areas:

  1. Recognition that information is necessary, leading to a gradual appreciation of the material required to deal with the need.
  2. Seeking of appropriate material.
  3. The use of this evidence to meet the student’s obligations and so resolve the situation that gave rise to the need.

Let us take a moment to consider various “adverse” circumstances associated with these stages and which ultimately lead to the individual making progress.


Uncovering our own limitations

My own experience working with even the oldest secondary school students suggests that, in advance of beginning an information search, few embark on the pursuit with a clear grasp of the characteristics of the information they want.

With respect to the subject of the information, the fact that the accessed material must address certain aspects of the topic may not become crystallised in the learner’s mind until their initial approaches to an information system yield too many hits and, in narrowing the search as a result of necessity so as to restrict the amount of material retrieved to a manageable degree, the student isolates what constitutes their real territory.

This may also help the person answer their research question directly when writing the assignment later on, rather than simply covering the general topic, which forms a common failure in student research.

It may, however, be only at the point where the learner begins interacting with the material and they realise the unsatisfactory nature of what is in front of them that they appreciate that content must exhibit particular qualities with regard to, for example, its currency and the level at which it is pitched, either in terms of its conceptual complexity or its readability.

Initially, the seeker may have been guided simply by the knowledge that what they find must in some way pertain to their overall area or, ideally, their more precise study foci. Even in this very basic respect, the individual’s understanding may be flawed if they have insufficient awareness of the key issues within the subject of interest.

Paradoxically, it may be only through exposure to information, with the person consequently becoming better informed and starting to identify the most significant matters they need to address, that they also realise the very significant limits and inadequacies in their knowledge.


Using information

The experience of adversity is perhaps most educational in the domain of information-use, and in particular the creation of the end product. It is striking how many of today’s adults admit quite openly that, in their own school days, they were never trained in how to write an effective essay step-by-step. Rather, they were given pointers by their teachers when it became apparent that the work they had submitted was sub-standard and, over time, they developed a better grasp of what was expected of them.

We may be critical of such instances, especially as by the point of assessment it is clearly too late for the student to improve the work, unless the subject of the comments has been no more than a draft. Yet, if teachers are to present systematic instructions on essay writing that are equally meaningful to all members of a group, much depends on the educator possessing a high degree of understanding of the learners’ individual incoming levels of knowledge and skills.

When classes of 20 or 30 are involved, such an awareness of each person’s unique situation may be impractical.

Where the teacher’s feedback gives general good practice advice on essay-writing, it should be reasonably easy for the student to relate this to comparable assignments in the time ahead. If, though, the brief has been more idiosyncratic or the teacher’s observations are peculiar to the work at hand, taking the implications of the guidance forward may well be more challenging and the student could lack the cognitive capability to detect high level principles that are more widely useful and applicable.

It is this skill which ultimately enables knowledge to be transformed into wisdom.


Going beyond each information aspect

Some processes that are essential elements of independent learning are not tied exclusively to any of the separate needing, finding and using information stages described above.

One is the skill of “surviving criticism”, which forms an integral part of the academic road-map postulated by Richenda Gwilt and Kristy Widdicombe (2012). It is featured in their model alongside such obvious abilities as reading and note-taking, evaluating sources, writing academically and referencing.

More generally, much of the reflection that is necessary for self-development is concentrated on adverse experiences. A learner may realise that their current ways of working, which have served them well in the past, no longer deliver the required results as the academic assignments they undertake become increasingly onerous.

Generic prompts offered to everyone by the teacher may mean that the student addresses uncomfortable questions, like whether, at the end of the work, what has been achieved could have been realised more efficiently. Perhaps alternative approaches that were considered but rejected may have led to better results.


Final thoughts

At the heart of this article has been the premise that students may learn more from a bad independent learning experience than a good one. Typically, adversity in assignments that demand finding and using material involves disappointing interactions with information or information systems or unfavourable reactions from teachers to the student’s work or efforts.

For learning to take place, two significant conditions have to be met. First, the student must be sufficiently humble to acknowledge, at least to themselves, that their early ideas could be improved and, where a well-established way of working breaks down, they may find themselves having to take action that does not seem intuitive or even runs contrary to what they consider “common sense”.

Second, in the longer term, we may well feel that if wisdom is to be gained, the learner must have sufficient cognitive capability to make effective use in a new situation of knowledge obtained in previous circumstances.

In cases where students struggle to employ the necessary degree of abstract thought, much depends on the ability of the teacher to facilitate a successful transfer from one situation to another.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay and a former lecturer at Northumbria University. To read his previous articles for SecEd, go to https://bit.ly/seced-shenton


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