Independent Learning - More than meets the eye
There is no doubt that independent learning is a tricky topic for EFL teachers. This approach of independent learning, where students take control of their own work and organise and manage their studies, is promoted widely in UK universities as a way to enable students to unlock valuable skills such as self-awareness, self-motivation, and decision-making abilities. Skills which are undoubtedly valued in the workplace, especially in high-level jobs where autonomy, evaluation and quick incisive decision-making are great assets.
So why isn’t it initiated in the same way when it comes to university language entrance exam preparation such as IELTS? There are many answers to this. One possible reason is because students are reluctant to learn outside of traditional teacher instruction. Perhaps they believe the teacher is responsible for their learning, they are used to particular methods of learning, or simply they lack motivation. It could also partly stem from teacher reluctance too, after all, no teacher wants to make students do something that they may not be willing to do. In addition, setting up a classroom for independent learning might seem like a mountain of administration and organisation, and the teacher may feel wary about not being able to monitor their students and provide guidance.
However, many of these concerns and reluctancies can be countered with clear initial steps, and further to this, there are many benefits of giving independent learning a try in exam classrooms.
The benefits of independent learning
Often, an exam preparation classroom is a juggling act for the teacher, with students of varying needs, whether in level, style of learning, areas of weakness or all three, and the teacher needs to plan to fulfil the whole class needs as best as possible. This means that all the students may be improving in general in class, but it isn’t specifically targeted to those individual aspects. This is where independent learning, and one of the teacher’s most valuable assets, comes in. While the teacher may not be able to cater for all individual needs and progress in class, they do know what their students need perhaps even more than the students themselves. In order for students to improve quickly and focus on their specific problems, some learning outside of the classroom is necessary, and the essential role of the teacher is to structure and guide this. Put simply, a clearly structured and guided focus on independent learning might help students progress more effectively, and more quickly.
In addition to this, independent learning can build confidence in the students’ own abilities. When tackling something difficult, instead of thinking “my teacher didn’t teach me this”, the independent learner may think “I haven’t learnt this yet. I’ll look it up”. These two approaches are a world away. This will not only help students in the exam, but it is likely to help them in their further studies no matter what the context.
A simple, structured approach
So, how can you start fostering independent learning in your classroom? The most important thing is to make sure you don’t throw yourself in at the deep end. Take manageable steps for yourself and for your students and build on these steps bit by bit. Independent learning doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, a barrier for students, and it doesn’t need to be an administrative mountain for you. Implement something that you know you, and your students, can do. Here are some easy ways to start:
There is no reason why you can’t tell students that they are going to begin an independent learning process, and explain to them what it is for, and what the benefits are: that it helps develop skills they can use in the future, that it can help them improve their exam skills more effectively, and that it will make them feel more confident about the exam. Also explain to them how it will be done in practice.
One useful way of beginning independent learning is reserving a little regular class time for reflective diaries. Teachers could structure this in any way, but it could just be a case of answering two simple questions: what was difficult for you this week? What can you do to improve that? Higher levels students can discuss what they wrote and advise each other on how they can improve these areas or resources they’ve used (with the teacher’s guidance). For lower-levels, teachers could write suggestions for improvement on the board. Students can then take these ideas and do them during the week, and in next week’s diaries, the first thing they answer four questions: What did you do to help with last week’s problems? Did it help? Why/why not? What was difficult for you this week? What can you do to improve that? This then promotes a cycle of reflection and improvement in the students’ own time – the first steps of independent learning.
Another simple strategy can be to use their homework to direct independent learning. There are many approaches to marking homework, from giving very detailed feedback to merely supplying a few ticks and a comment. One area that could improve independent learning is simply to list one or two common weaknesses the students show in their homework. While this lends itself more to productive skills, you may also be able to find weaknesses in receptive skills – are they not following instructions? Are there particular question types that they get wrong? Is spelling answers a problem? Is it the ability to listen to connected speech and other areas of pronunciation? Teachers should take this as far as they feel comfortable. Once areas of weaknesses are highlighted, tell students that they need to work on these areas in their own time and tell you what they have done at the end of the week.
Whatever route you choose, there is some important scaffolding to put into place before you begin. This scaffolding centres around reliable resources and class time. Ensure students have a range of self-study resources that they can use for their independent learning. Self-study resources should be known to and accessible to students, good quality, and have the answers so students can check their own work. One useful set of resources can be Collins IELTS series, a series of self-study books for IELTS. Like this series, the resources should give clear explanations, be explicit in how they relate to IELTS, and also focus on grammar and vocabulary development in general. In this way, no matter what focus the student’s independent learning is on, they should find useful support in the self-study resources on offer to them.
Accountability is a large part of independent learning at the beginning, as this should help promote motivation. Ensure you save some class time to find out what students have done to improve and get them talking about it to other students. The benefits of this are that students often notice the work others are doing and their improvement, they become more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as a class and as individuals, they feel their exam preparation is becoming more personalised, and the teacher can focus on teaching with a little less distraction and worry.
Written by Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson
Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson both teach EAP and EFL and work as Target English, writing tests and materials for exams and EAP. They have also co-written a number of books for Collins, including Listening for IELTS and Lectures (Collins EAP series).