: Independent learning beyond the classroom. John Holmes, Director of TGRS, shares his experience of teaching children how to organise their learning independently

Independent learning beyond the classroom.

John Holmes, Director of TGRS, shares his experience of teaching children how to organise their learning independently

by Tudor Grange Research School
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We want children to leave our secondary schools as independent learners, able to study with a degree of autonomy, and making active choices to manage and organise their learning. All too often, though, we are faced with students bearing down on their examinations who seem unable to revise: even those students who, after much careful instruction, are able to work independently within our classrooms.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our students struggle with independence. Paul Kirschner reminds us that independent learning only works for experts who already know what they know, know what they don’t know, and know that they need to know in order to solve the problem at hand. And by definition, that’s not a student’ (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017, p.216).

But we are working with students so how do we foster and inculcate independent learning beyond our classroom?

The seven-step model
The Seven-step model’ from the EEF’s Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-regulated learning is a significant tool for guiding our planning as we seek to shift responsibility for learning from the teacher to the pupil and teach children how to work independently.

Seven step model 1

What we can’t do, is provide lots of opportunities for freedom and independence, and assume that practising independence will lead to secure independent learning skills. Independence is our goal but the only way to get there is, well, dependence. This is the paradox at the heart of independent learning: students absolutely rely on their teachers to teach them the expertise they require to be independent.

This is as true of independent learning outside the classroom as it is within it: nobody innately knows how to revise (indeed, they often don’t know what they need to revise), and this complex skill requires careful teaching.

Teaching pupils how their brain works

An important of this teaching, as suggested by Dylan Wiliam, is sharing with students our knowledge of how people learn so that they have a user manual for the brain’ (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017, p.212). Following this advice as we have sought to teach pupils how to organise and manage their learning has made a powerful difference in our classrooms.

For example, I have invested a lot of time teaching Coe et al.’s summary of Bjork and Bjork’s research into desirable difficulties”:

  • Varying the Conditions of Practice: Varying the learning context, types of task or practice, rather than keeping them constant and predictable, improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term.
  • Spacing Study or Practice Sessions: The same amount of time spent reviewing or practising leads to much greater long-term retention if it is spread out, with gaps in between to allow forgetting. This is one of the most general and robust effects from across the entire history of experimental research on learning and memory.” (Bjork and Bjork, 2011, p59).
  • Interleaving versus Blocking Instruction on Separate To-Be-Learned Tasks: Learning in a single block can create better immediate performance and higher confidence, but interleaving with other tasks or topics leads to better long-term retention and transfer of skills.
  • Generation Effects and Using Tests (Rather Than Presentations) as Learning Events: Having to generate an answer or procedure, or having to retrieve information – even if no feedback is given – leads to better long-term recall than simply studying, though not necessarily in the short-term. Testing can also support self-monitoring and focus subsequent study more effectively. Basically, any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity” (Bjork and Bjork, 2011, p61).

(Coe et al, 2014, p,17)

My students will groan and roll their eyes when I tell them I won’t answer their question because I would be helping to rob them of a powerful learning opportunity. But, if my teaching has gone well, they understand why this is the right thing to do.

They can also connect these desirable difficulties to Dunlosky et al’s (2013) summary of the effectiveness of different learning techniques (also cited in The Guidance Report). I share this research too, as my classes and I work our way through the seven-step model.

Effectiveness of ten learning techniques

Teaching independence
And it absolutely is a case of working through the seven-step model for any one of these strategies we would hope to use. The Guidance Report reminds us that that teachers should explicitly support pupils to develop independent learning skills”. This will include, among other things, clear instruction, guided practice with support gradually withdrawn, and timely and effective feedback (p.22). Such teaching needs to be connected to specific tasks because self-regulated learning is context dependent: there is little evidence of the benefit of teaching generic learning to learn’ sessions.

Seven step model 2

These steps are applicable for teaching pupils how to create self-practice tests; the creation of revision timetables, or any other strategy.

What we’ve seen

The Guidance Report stresses the risk of pupils having inaccurate judgements of effective learning strategies. Our experience is directly in line with the advice in the report: Explicit teaching can help alleviate this issue” (p.23). The Report also talks about the need to support pupil motivation. Our limited experience – which should certainly not be taken as research evidence – is that pupils tell us the success they have found using effective strategies has motivated them to want to revise more. This is consistent with Ryan and Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory of motivation, which argues that feelings of competence are a prerequisite for motivation.

It can feel daunting, to invest time in teaching how to manage learning independently; time that could be spent teaching or re-teaching examination content. Our experience is that the investment more than pays itself over time.


Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A., 2011. Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59 – 68).

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L.E., 2014. What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J. and Willingham, D.T., 2013. Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public interest, 14(1), pp.4 – 58.

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John Holmes

Director of Tudor Grange Research School

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