Beware the black hole of ‘independent learning’

Opinion: We need to put much more thought into what we really expect from our graduates

The dominant mode of learning in third-level education is supposed to be “independent learning”, or what some institutions refer to as autonomous student learning.

In the modern modular system that all universities have adopted, students are often expected to spend more than 30 hours per week learning independently. Indeed, if you include class and laboratory time, students are expected to put about 50 hours per week into their studies.

But what exactly is independent learning in a third-level context? When I was an engineering student in UCD in the early 1980s, our independent learning consisted of the following: we studied the lecture notes we had transcribed in class, we did all the problems provided by the lecturers and we did the past exam papers. It was really only in our final-year research and design projects that we had to show true initiative. Of course, the student experience in the arts and humanities was a bit different.

And yet, and this is a crucial point: most of us turned out fine, well able to cope with the truly enormous changes that were to occur in the 1990s as the internet age dawned and the working environment was utterly transformed by digital technologies.


So, when we talk about independent learning in 2016, are we really just talking about the study of content that has been delivered or perhaps assigned as additional reading by the lecturer? Or are we expecting even more from our students in this internet age? And if so, what is it that we are expecting and how do our expectations vary from discipline to discipline?


The concept of independent learning and what it means lies at the heart of many of the difficulties we are encountering in third-level education.

It is an ill-defined term that I suspect is intended to convey a movement away from a supposedly teacher-led culture to a learner-led one. Indeed the modern use of the word “learner” rather than “student” is part of this ideological shift.

But, in the view of many education researchers, it requires a lot of experience and maturity, and plenty of prior knowledge, to be a true independent learner. These are attributes that the typical undergraduate does not have, at least not in the early years of their studies.

I think we should see the concept of an independent learner as that which we expect our students to become, not what we expect our students to be. In that case, we really need to put more thought into how we define independent learning and also into how our definition of it varies from the first year to the final year of our degree programmes. And we need to communicate these definitions to our students.

Regardless of the finer points of how we currently view and define independent learning, we know both anecdotally and from the Irish Survey of Student Engagement that most students do nowhere near the amount of independent learning that is theoretically expected of them.

Yet, with a few exceptions, nobody seems to be overly concerned about the academic standards in our universities. Maybe this inconsistency means that our independent learning numbers are unrealistic. Or perhaps, our expectations of our students have become lower.

High expectations

Curiously, however, our expectations of our graduates are now sky high. We expect our students to emerge from our institutions as creative, critical-thinking, problem-solving graduates with disciplinary knowledge depth but capable of approaching problems from multidisciplinary perspectives. We have raised the bar very high indeed.

As educators, I think we tend to focus too much on what happens in the classroom and the laboratory. The black hole that is independent learning is where we really need to focus. We need to find out what are the key social, cultural and environmental factors that determine how much independent learning our students actually do. More importantly, we need to find out what exactly our students are doing when they are learning independently.

As a sector, we are too inward-looking. We have convinced ourselves that by constantly innovating we can come up with fixes for all our education woes. We need to start looking outwards and seeing education in its cultural context.

The way to start that process is to really dig deep into this thing we call independent learning. And we also need to think hard about our expectations, both of our students and of our graduates.

  • Greg Foley is a lecturer and associate dean for teaching and learning at DCU's faculty of science and health