Independent Learning

“No one has a clue what the world will look like in five years, let alone sixty years. Yet we are expected to educate for it.” 

– Sir Ken Robinson

Due to the unpredictable nature of the future, both society and workforce, it is crucial that students develop skills for the independent management of their learning. In addition, this manner of education fosters intellectual curiosity and intrinsic motivation by empowering students in their own learning, which could address many of the behavior, attendance, and engagement issues that plague American schools. These skills could be considered on top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but it is also easy to see how they coincide with this well known thinking taxonomy as well.

Bloom’s Taxonomy graphic property of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Thinking hierarchy original content by Jason Liu. Design by Danielle Strohmeyer.

Promoting Key Concepts: This level focuses on students’ abilityto comprehend and recall information. The most basic levels of instructional techniques aid in the achievement of this level. These actions include creating objective based lessons, particularly objectives grounded in content based knowledge (i.e. understanding the physical geography of the Balkan Peninsula), and ensuring students have mastered these objectives in some way. It also included connecting and utilizing prior knowledge to advance understanding.

Improving Inquiry and Thinking Skills: This moves in traditional realms of higher thinking. Can students utilize the information they are learning to achieve a task (application)? Can the use information to highlight elements for further discussion (i.e. both identifying the theme of a narrative and discussing how the author developed this theme). Again, many not uncommon teacher actions work to address these levels of thinking, such as asking students to use effective evidence to articulate an idea and creating original summaries of content idea.

Some elements of improving inquiry and thinking are less common though, and they are important in laying the foundation for the highest level. Take for example promoting informed decision making by asking student to not only justify their choices, but also to outline the implications of these choices. Also, teachers can empower the highest level of skills by introducing mind mapping and graphic organizers.

Encouraging Self-Regulation: This area is at the top of the thinking taxonomy for a reason, not only do these levels require a basis of knowledge and an ability for high level thinking, they require self-regulation skills such as defining the task, establishing criteria, organization, and so on. This skills are what pushes education into the 21st Century, into a new world of independent learning.

“Students who do not learn how to “manage” themselves well as they proceed through school experience more setbacks, become discouraged and disengaged from learning, and tend to have lower academic performance. They may also be responsible for more classroom management issues” (Wilson, 2014).

Independent Learning Defined

Just as with citizenship, there is no one clear definition of what skills might complete one’s character. There are however, several working definitions sourced from different sources.

Kesten (1987):

“Independent Learning [is] defined as that learning in which the learner, in conjunction with relevant others, can make the decisions necessary to meet the learners’ own learning needs. These decisions ought to be made within the bounds of social acceptability and by self-directed, self-motivated, willing learners…Independent learners accept responsibilities and standards as well as understand the limitations imposed by available resources, prior knowledge, level of development as well as their personal skills, disposition and abilities.”

Kesten’s definition is supported by the Oxford Reference (2016), which states independent learning is “[a]n approach to learning in which pupils are encouraged to be self-regulating.”

The final goal is life-long learners who are self-managed, empowered, and intrinsically driven, but what skills do they need to be taught to get there? As with definitions, a plethora of lists exist, but in most there are overlap in key areas. Lockwood (2008) interviewed students, teachers, and parents, then found the most relevant areas where their beliefs on how to create independent learners matched. From that list, these are the areas where teachers and parents agreed: cooperation, thinking/problem solving, independence, ability to take risks, persistence, decision making, communication, and ability to seek help from community (p. 44). These skills match closely those outlined by others as well, such as Hendrick (2014) whose list includes: strong self-regulation and metacognition skills, intellectual curiosity, digital skills, intrinsic questioning, and self evaluation skills. The lists are very similar and contain a mix of relevant skills clearly addressed in many content area and specialized classes, such as “digital skills”. Other skills are consistently the effort of quality educators, such as “critical thinking skills”.

Suggested traits (click for detailed information):


Hendrick, C. (2016, September 4). What do we mean by Independent Learning? Retrieved December 5, 2016, from do-we-mean-by-independent-learning/

Independent Learning. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionary: A Dictionary of Education (2 Ed.). Retrieved 2015.

Kesten, C. (1987, June). Study Completed for the Saskatchewan Department of Education Core Curriculum Investigation Project. Saskatchewan Department of Education Viewpoints. Retrieved from ED292836.pdf

Lockwood, J. (2008, June 27). Skills and Attributes that Encourage Independent Learning: A Case Study of Teachers, Parents and Students. Retrieved December 6, 2016, from

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