Promoting Effective Independent Learning

In this article, author Andrew Shenton shares his top tips for educators looking to facilitate high quality independent learning for Sixth Form students.

10 tips for educators on promoting effective independent learning

09 September 2021

Posted by: Andrew K. Shenton

In recent years, the task of finding and using information successfully has become ever more complex for students in schools. There is now so much published material, in so many different forms, from so many originators and of such varying quality that even one task in the overall assignment-writing process – that of separating valuable content from material which scarcely merits our attention – has become highly onerous. By the time young people reach Sixth Form age we may want to assume that they will have acquired over the course of their school lives the information skills necessary to complete the work required of them and to progress satisfactorily in any future studies they may undertake in Higher Education. It is much more likely, however, that they will need to undergo formal training in the skills involved.

In Facilitating Effective Sixth Form Independent Learning: Methodologies, Methods and Tools, I set down how such a programme of instruction can be established and what it may cover. The book is written for educators seeking practical guidance derived from real-life experience and trusted, well established literature. The work deals with fundamental issues that should be considered before the programme begins and suggests a range of strategies for developing in students skills associated with

  • identifying an appropriate topic for investigation
  • formulating a worthwhile research question
  • applying suitable methodologies and methods for finding information
  • evaluating information that is accessed
  • managing time effectively
  • constructing the end product
  • avoiding plagiarism
  • reflecting on process and product

All the ideas are rooted in sound practice I myself have applied in my own school.

If, having written the book, I were to isolate 10 tips for educators looking to promote high quality independent learning, the following points would come to mind.

  1. Build in opportunities for student reflection at every stage of the work, from thinking about the wisdom of the topic choice in the first instance to a final evaluation of the outcome and the work that resulted in it.

  1. Underline the importance of key teaching points in different ways. For example, in attempting to help students formulate a sensible research question, we may explore a series of hypothetical questions with a view to identifying those that are good or bad; a typology may be used to alert readers to the thinking skills that are demanded of the best research questions; the questions generated by successful past students may be circulated as part of a discussion that establishes how they provide a sound vehicle for investigation.

  1. Think back to your own days as a student. Are you able to recall strategies that were employed effectively either by your teachers or by you yourself when tackling assignments? If the context is not radically different, consider including these in your teaching programme.

  1. Seek to promote methodologies – which concentrate on the rationale behind the application of particular methods – rather than just present a series of individual techniques. These can stimulate students to devise their own original approaches to solving information problems.

  1. After the initial teaching of the appropriate skills, look where possible to facilitate and guide, instead of merely instructing. This may involve arranging study visits, widening student perceptions, suggesting alternative courses of action and encouraging reflection.

  1. Be aware of how students’ cognitive limitations may come into play when they need to perform tasks that demand high level thinking, such as generalising and integrating in an assignment material from different places. It is easy to become frustrated when particular individuals seem not to take on board wise and well intentioned advice. We may assume they are not listening to us when it may simply be the case that what is being asked of them is beyond their capabilities.

  1. Many educators amass large collections of learning resources over the years. Revisit your own. You may unearth some that you had virtually forgotten but which could fill a particular niche in your programme. Material that is old may not necessarily be outdated and may still have value. For example, a lot of library collections are arranged in accordance with the Dewey Decimal Classification Classification Scheme that first appeared in the 1870s! Even activities designed years ago to help young people exploit this scheme will probably still have a role today – given the right context.

  1. When modelling outcomes, such as essays and reports, be aware that students may be tempted to copy their structures and formats. Creativity and original thinking may suffer accordingly.

  1. At the end of the project, encourage students to use existing frameworks and generic models of, for example, the ways people interact with information either to stimulate their ideas from scratch or to form a basis for comparison with their own efforts.

  1. Does your school have a policy on plagiarism? If it does not, you could develop one in accordance with a structured approach such as the ‘Three Ds’: Deter, Detect and Deal (with) or PCRR: Prepare – Contextualise – Review – Respond.

Coverage of these and other issues can be found in the book, Facilitating Effective Sixth Form Independent Learning. Buy it from Facet Publishing.

About the author:

Andrew K. Shenton, BA (Hons), MSc, PhD, DLitt, PGCE, FCLIP, has worked at Monkseaton High School, in north-east England, for the last 16 years. Dually qualified in education and information science, he has been involved in teaching the Extended Project Qualification since its inauguration in the organisation in 2010. A specialist in the fields of information behaviour, information literacy and research methods, he has over 200 publications to his name in these areas.

To contact the author directly, please email