Simplifying our practice: Independent learning skills

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a series of five articles, Adam Riches is looking at how we might simplify common classroom practice in order to make teaching and learning more effective. Part three looks at boosting students’ independent learning skills

Self-efficacy, for me, is one of the most powerful attributes you can harness in a learner. Building a student’s belief that they have the capacity and skills to complete learning tasks and achieve set goals has a phenomenal impact on their wellbeing, confidence and their outcomes.

Building self-efficacy in students is one of the best ways to streamline your teaching of new content, to improve the sustainability of learning, and to empower the learners in front of you.

To achieve true self-efficacy, we need well-structured, quality first teaching, which enables learners to apply schema when unsupported.

And as well as delivering curriculum content, it is important that we interweave and interleave approaches that build students’ resilience and independent learning skills.

What are self-efficacy skills?

It would be short-sighted of me to give a definitive list of skills that make a learner “independent”. But there are some common skills that most of us would agree are necessary for learners to be able to study effectively on their own.

First and most importantly, learners need to have efficient and effective methods of summarising information. Note-taking, recording and ordering new material is a skill that directly links to retention of learning and knowledge.

In addition, learners need to be explicitly taught about how their brains work. A better understanding of what is happening in their heads when they learn makes them much more aware of why they are doing what they do.

Furthermore, learners must be able to revisit information in a way which is challenging and stimulating, so another necessary skill is the ability to self-test.

And it is important for learners to be able to access the stimulus they are using and so the process of reading and decoding texts is of significant importance. You will have other skills to add, but we would all agree that these skills are vital when it comes to how effectively learners are able to work outside the confines of the classroom and outside the realms of our influence – not least when it comes to homework and revision. But acquiring and mastering these skills is not simple.

Simplifying our practice: Articles in this series

  1. Marking and feedback (October 2021). Click here.
  2. Instructions and expectations (October 2021). Click here.
  3. Self-efficacy (November 2021). Click here.
  4. The learning environment (November 2021). Click here.
  5. Planning (December 2021). Click here.

Self-efficacy is not innate

One important factor to consider when thinking about self-efficacy is that it is not something that comes naturally for everyone. Some learners will be more independent than others. However, no matter the student, it is vital that teachers actively “teach” strategies for independent working.

The big question of course is what does this look like? Well, it means that student skills are taught explicitly alongside subject content.

Let me give you an example, one I always come back to: note-taking. We assume learners “know” how to take notes, but frequently students will just write a chronological list as they are exposed to stimulus/content. Then when revising independently, they will revert to this (not hugely effective) method.

Now consider how much more effective the learning would be if you actively taught them in lessons how to take notes using the Cornell method (see online). Not only would their time be better spent when they revise, they would also have more confidence and a prerequisite skill and format for success.

The key lesson is that we need to teach learners skills that allow them to be self-sufficient – we cannot assume that they will naturally be able to make that leap.

Scaffolding and modelling

Regardless of what you are teaching, be it a skill or curriculum content, scaffolding and modelling should be a key part of your planning and learning process.

Remember that fewer models and less scaffolding will mean that the desirable difficulty of a task is increased significantly.

As we teach learners to become more independent, they will need support. We can model and scaffold independent learning skills both for working in class and (especially) for homework tasks.

Teachers do not always provide the same levels of support when setting homework than they do in class, and when this support is lacking learners will not engage with homework as well as they could.

We also need to avoid throwing learners in at the deep end when it comes to independent thinking. Modelling and scaffolding should show the thought processes required for independent and critical thinking.

These scaffolds and models may take many forms – the key is making resources clear and accessible. Given the advances made in remote and online learning during the Covid lockdowns, we could use these systems now to provide that additional support for when learners are completing work at home.

Something as simple as uploading your resources to the learning platform can be a significant step in supporting learners who are transitioning from what you have taught in class to working on it alone at home or elsewhere.

Give time for independent practice

The long and short of this is that learners need time to learn and practise applying learning approaches by themselves in controlled conditions so that they are confident when they try to apply these same skills and ideas out of class.

Planning independent practice time into every lesson is important for progression – and this can also give you the chance to circulate and check for understanding during lessons as part of your teaching.

After a phase of new teaching, scaffolding, modelling and questioning time must be given for independent application. It is easy for us as teachers to assume learners have assimilated new information, but as we are so frequently reminded by summative assessments, this is not always the case.

Independent practice builds self-efficacy sustainably and means that learners are able to try things out in a safe environment.

Having said this, independent practice needs to be just that – independent. Taking a step back when teaching can be counterintuitive while learners are working, but besides interventions to identify and correct misconceptions, try to keep out of it and let your learners fly!

There is no hard and fast rule as to when is best to apply independent learning, but short bursts in lessons will better empower learners to start processing ideas on their own so that when they do sit their exams, they are in the habit of problem-solving and not relying on you to provide them with stimulus.

Change the culture

Getting learners to be more independent also comes from the culture that is created across a school, not just in a subject or two. Don’t get me wrong, any level of positive change can have a huge impact, but to build true self-efficacy in learners, schools need to empower teachers to have a consistent approach.

Giving time in form groups or during assembly makes learners think more holistically about what they are doing in and out of class. When this is coupled with practical strategies to apply learning, you can quickly build momentum.

Train your staff

Taking the time to empower staff is as important as empowering the learners – in fact the processes go hand-in-hand. Engaging in CPD around how to build independence is time well spent.

Having some specific approaches that teachers can use across a department or a school is a good way to keep workload low and avoid overburdening teachers. It may be something as simple as having a “skill of the week” or it may just be about ensuring that teachers are informed so that they can make the right choices in their planning and in their independent task-setting.

Regardless of approach, the more informed staff are, the more they will buy-in to the importance of helping learners to work more independently. It is vitally important that you build a culture of trust around the application of these concepts and ideas.

Final words

Not only does building self-efficacy in learners boost their confidence, resilience and integrity, it also makes teaching them easier for everyone concerned. The better equipped they are for learning, the more able they will be to learn.

Further information & resources

  • SecEd Podcast: The secrets to quality first teaching (featuring Adam Riches), April 2021:


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