Strategies to improve students’ independent study skills

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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There is a clear gap between GCSE and A Level study and supporting students to make the leap is important. Teacher Helen Webb discusses her work to develop students’ independent study skills

Last year I taught a particularly challenging cohort of year 12 biologists. While I was privileged to teach some very exceptional young students, there were a disproportionately high number of students that struggled with the demands of post-16 study.

I was faced with three large classes of year 12 biologists, the majority of whom seemed to struggle with anything beyond copying a few notes and completing some basic learning activities.

When I casually flicked through some of the students’ folders, there was little evidence of any independent work completed outside of lessons, save for some token attempts at homework.

Following conversations with these classes it was very apparent that many of these students were feeling very overwhelmed with the increased workload at post-16, were unclear of the expectations from their various subjects, and were generally unclear on how to get started with their studies.

A few weeks into the autumn term I had to go back to basics. My strategy was to teach independent study skills alongside the course content. Where appropriate, I would aim to include one learning objective per lesson with a focus on just one skill at a time.

The aim was to provide students with a toolkit of ideas to improve their note-taking and independent study, in bite-sized chunks.

The approach did result in rapid improvements to the quality of students’ work in school and at home as evidenced through regular folder checks. I introduced the skills in a similar sequence with most classes, adapting activities where necessary to fit with the best way of delivering the course content. The following were some of the most successful approaches.

Setting expectations

During part of an initial lesson I simply asked students to read through the relevant pages of their text book and make their own notes related to the lesson’s objectives.

While I appreciate that this is far from the most inspiring of lesson plans, the intention was to make clear to students that I expected after every lesson for them to go home, read through the related pages in their text book and ensure that they had a complete set of notes for each specification point.

Allowing time in class for them to go through this exercise had various benefits. Not least, it took the mystery out of note-writing, specifically in reference to the time and detail that students thought might be required.

I was able to resolve the many concerns over “have I written enough?” or “is this what you are expecting me to write?” It also got the students started on their independent study and as a result they were not daunted by an empty folder when they were embarking on work at home.


This was an attempt to increase students’ analytical skills and encourage more thorough note-taking. Following a typical teacher-led explanation of the lesson content, I provided students with a fairly comprehensive typed set of notes related to the lesson’s objectives.

These were clear and bulleted, however I had deliberately left out certain details (but I had not given any hints like blank spaces etc).

Students then had to refer to their subject specification and use their textbook to annotate and add to the notes on the handout. The more competent students also tended to add diagrams and/or rewrite the notes again so that they were neater and made better sense to them.

This task also highlighted the importance of engaging with the specification when revising and understanding the level of detail and understanding that is required.


This successful exercise simultaneously encouraged students to cut down on writing lengthy sentences and paragraphs that are difficult to revise from and also to gauge what the key and most important points are.

I have repeated this task in various guises as it is tremendously effective but the general structure is as follows:

Students have a fixed time period in which to read and plan a short explanation or presentation to a partner, in this time they can write as little or as much as they like.

They must then reduce their understanding of this concept to a fixed number of key words. So far, I have limited this to three, five or 10 words depending on the task and usually encourage the use of images too.

Students then have to explain their topic to a partner using only these words as a prompt. I saw particular success of this activity in a year 13 class when I asked students to recount some particularly challenging biochemical processes (chemiosmosis and oxidative phosphorylation) and was greeted with a sea of blank faces.

I asked the class to first recall their aid memoire words from the previous lesson and much to their own surprise they were then able to piece the information together and provide a pretty impressive explanation.

Key words

Like many subjects, biology has a vast amount of subject-specific language and unless students have a confident grasp of the key terms they drastically limit the progress they can make.

While some students do choose to create their own glossaries and will perhaps use them for reference or use a “look-cover-test-check” technique to assess their learning, I encourage the creation and use of flash cards (see below) to define key words. I find it useful for students to keep some blank flash cards with them in their file and they can add key term flash cards to their collection lesson by lesson on an ad hoc basis.

Flash cards

I continually notice that students tend to waste time only revising aspects of the subject they enjoy or already feel confident with and will avoid aspects they find daunting or uninteresting. Unsurprising, but again, it significantly limits progress.

I tackled this issue using a technique that I have used successfully when tutoring individual students through a vast amount of content in a short space of time.

I present students with a print-out of the specification for the topic in question. I ask students to first highlight all the key terms. I then ask them to tick them if they can give a confident definition (obviously this task works well in pairs) and if not they create themselves a flash card with the key terms and the definition on the reverse.

I then ask students to repeat the process only this time testing themselves on their understanding of each specification statement as a whole.

This task not only ensures students revise all aspects of the specification but focuses their attention on the aspects they find the hardest. I then encourage students to test themselves using their flash cards either at home or with friends, but with a twist – as soon as they can give a confident explanation of a key word or concept they put the card to one side and only focus on the decreasing pile of less understood flash cards.

Individual folder checks

For each topic I briefly check and score each student’s independent study file against a form with 12 criteria. I look for evidence of the following:

  1. All work organised neatly and logically in a file.
  2. All class notes...
  3. ...including work from any missed lessons.
  4. Further independent study notes (beyond class notes).
  5. Glossary or key term flash cards.
  6. Homework.
  7. Past exam questions/papers.
  8. Self, peer and teacher marking.
  9. Text book summary questions completed.
  10. Revision (e.g. flash cards, mind maps, etc).
  11. Evidence of further reading/resources.
  12. Use of our online revision program (confirmed in one-to-one discussion).


This exercise, initiated by our head of department, has been so successful that it has now been rolled out across the whole faculty.

It not only enables you to easily track the progress made by students in their independent study, but also provides an excellent starting point for one-to-one learning conversations and the provision of SMART targets.

In order to limit my marking workload I usually schedule folder checks and one-to-one conversations while the class is completing a topic test. As a department we have also consistently found a correlation between folder check scores and test scores, which is great evidence to motivate students with.

It has also been a useful tool to discuss with parents when explaining expectations or in cases where parents wish to support their children with their studies.

This year, to improve our intervention strategies, we are also piloting the use of a standard letter detailing the above 12 expectations to email to parents if students fail to submit a satisfactory folder of work.

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit


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