Monday, 7 May 2012

What does being an independent learner mean?

The day after being chosen to be in charge of “Laboratorio Pedagógico 2012” (an ICT course for secondary school teachers), planning began. My brain turned into “preparation mode” and I compiled a list of things I had to do, find out about and revise. I couldn’t stop classifying the material I had, gathering more, and testing both old and new ideas. As a result of all of this process I have come up with a good teaching plan and I feel confident my first experience as an ICT trainer will be a success. Can you guess how I feel? After evaluating my progress and what I have achieved, I have every reason to be proud of myself. How much formal training in ICT do I have? Well, only two 4-month courses (“Conectar Igualdad” and “Laboratorio Pedagógico 2011”). Most of what I have learnt is basically the result of my own effort, of my own appetite to learn. Formal training just showed me where I can obtain information, how to evaluate its usefulness and formulate my own thoughts and projects . “Well done, girl,” I said to myself “you’ve mastered the art of independent learning. It’s time to share what you know.”

What does being a self- directed or independent learner mean? Basically, it suggests you can make decisions about what, when and how you study and that, little by little, you’ll become your own learning coach. Is this something we must encourage our students to do? Oh, yes, absolutely! I believe students need to become creative, critical thinkers and we must transform from “imparter of knowledge” to ‘facilitator of learning’. How can we do it? In class, there should be enough room to make lots of mistakes and build resilience so that students can become skilled at HOW to learn anything they want to. In the 21st century constant change will be the norm and those who won’t be able to adapt to new situations will be in serious trouble!

 So, what can we do to foster student independence? There are many things you may try. These are some of the things I have done or I am planning to do with my students: 

  • Give choices
 Every time I can, I give students opportunities to make choices. Why? Because in that way they can start reflecting on their own interests and preferences, and take responsibility for learning. Examples of choices could be “Do activity A or B for homework” (I usually give and “easy” option and a “more complex” one so that students have to evaluate themselves and their progress in order to choose) or 'Answer 3 out of the 5 questions' or 'Choose one of these three topics to write about.' 

  • Involve learners in lesson planning
 I love when students become “teachers” for a day (and they love it, too!). Once I had an intermediate level class every Friday from 5.00 to 6.30 pm. Teenagers hated being busy up to so late and were visibly tired so I decided to change my routine drastically. Forty minutes before the class finished, I would stop teaching and sit among my students. One of them would stand up, show me what he or she had chosen (a song, a poem, a video, etc) and the activities he/she had created. I had a quick look at the material and said “Ok, go ahead”. The student would then deliver the rest of the class. Most teenagers brought their favourite song so we normally listened to it and filled in the gaps, chose the correct option or did whatever the student had planned. After that, we wrote all the words they didn’t know the meaning of on the board and get in small groups. Each group worked with a monolingual dictionary, chose 3 o 4 words to look up in it and then shared what they had learnt with the rest of the class. Finally, we talked about what the song meant, mentioned some facts about the band or songwriter’s life and went back home whistling a new tune. 

Another option I am trying out now is dividing the class into groups, giving each group a text from the course book and letting them “present” it to the rest. They must plan reading comprehension activities, teach the new vocabulary and create 2 or more exercises for their peers to practice the new words. I also told them the most creative groups will get extra credit, so now everybody is interested in doing something original! 

  • Encourage self and peer editing 
I have done this regularly and students love it. After each test, students have to correct their own mistakes (I just underline what’s wrong and mark the exam). Then, they get in pairs and, before handing in the revised version, they must check it carefully with this person. 

So, tell me, what are YOU doing to help your students become independent learners? I’d love your feedback so please take some time to comment.


  1. Maria Cecilia8 May 2012 at 10:07

    This is great Ana!!!!!Congratulations for your ideas!!!!I also try to do what you say sometimes it is possible sometimes it is not but it's good to keep trying.

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog, Cecilia!It's great to know you liked these ideas.We must keep on trying to improve... every single day!