Strategies to improve students’ independent study skills (2023)

There is a clear gap between GCSE and A Level study and supporting students to make the leap is important. Teacher Helen Webb discusses her work to develop students’ independent study skills

Last year I taught a particularly challenging cohort of year 12 biologists. While I was privileged to teach some very exceptional young students, there were a disproportionately high number of students that struggled with the demands of post-16 study.

I was faced with three large classes of year 12 biologists, the majority of whom seemed to struggle with anything beyond copying a few notes and completing some basic learning activities.

When I casually flicked through some of the students’ folders, there was little evidence of any independent work completed outside of lessons, save for some token attempts at homework.

Following conversations with these classes it was very apparent that many of these students were feeling very overwhelmed with the increased workload at post-16, were unclear of the expectations from their various subjects, and were generally unclear on how to get started with their studies.

A few weeks into the autumn term I had to go back to basics. My strategy was to teach independent study skills alongside the course content. Where appropriate, I would aim to include one learning objective per lesson with a focus on just one skill at a time.

The aim was to provide students with a toolkit of ideas to improve their note-taking and independent study, in bite-sized chunks.

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The approach did result in rapid improvements to the quality of students’ work in school and at home as evidenced through regular folder checks. I introduced the skills in a similar sequence with most classes, adapting activities where necessary to fit with the best way of delivering the course content. The following were some of the most successful approaches.

Setting expectations

During part of an initial lesson I simply asked students to read through the relevant pages of their text book and make their own notes related to the lesson’s objectives.

While I appreciate that this is far from the most inspiring of lesson plans, the intention was to make clear to students that I expected after every lesson for them to go home, read through the related pages in their text book and ensure that they had a complete set of notes for each specification point.

Allowing time in class for them to go through this exercise had various benefits. Not least, it took the mystery out of note-writing, specifically in reference to the time and detail that students thought might be required.

I was able to resolve the many concerns over “have I written enough?” or “is this what you are expecting me to write?” It also got the students started on their independent study and as a result they were not daunted by an empty folder when they were embarking on work at home.


This was an attempt to increase students’ analytical skills and encourage more thorough note-taking. Following a typical teacher-led explanation of the lesson content, I provided students with a fairly comprehensive typed set of notes related to the lesson’s objectives.

These were clear and bulleted, however I had deliberately left out certain details (but I had not given any hints like blank spaces etc).

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Students then had to refer to their subject specification and use their textbook to annotate and add to the notes on the handout. The more competent students also tended to add diagrams and/or rewrite the notes again so that they were neater and made better sense to them.

This task also highlighted the importance of engaging with the specification when revising and understanding the level of detail and understanding that is required.


This successful exercise simultaneously encouraged students to cut down on writing lengthy sentences and paragraphs that are difficult to revise from and also to gauge what the key and most important points are.

I have repeated this task in various guises as it is tremendously effective but the general structure is as follows:

Students have a fixed time period in which to read and plan a short explanation or presentation to a partner, in this time they can write as little or as much as they like.

They must then reduce their understanding of this concept to a fixed number of key words. So far, I have limited this to three, five or 10 words depending on the task and usually encourage the use of images too.

Students then have to explain their topic to a partner using only these words as a prompt. I saw particular success of this activity in a year 13 class when I asked students to recount some particularly challenging biochemical processes (chemiosmosis and oxidative phosphorylation) and was greeted with a sea of blank faces.

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I asked the class to first recall their aid memoire words from the previous lesson and much to their own surprise they were then able to piece the information together and provide a pretty impressive explanation.

Key words

Like many subjects, biology has a vast amount of subject-specific language and unless students have a confident grasp of the key terms they drastically limit the progress they can make.

While some students do choose to create their own glossaries and will perhaps use them for reference or use a “look-cover-test-check” technique to assess their learning, I encourage the creation and use of flash cards (see below) to define key words. I find it useful for students to keep some blank flash cards with them in their file and they can add key term flash cards to their collection lesson by lesson on an ad hoc basis.

Flash cards

I continually notice that students tend to waste time only revising aspects of the subject they enjoy or already feel confident with and will avoid aspects they find daunting or uninteresting. Unsurprising, but again, it significantly limits progress.

I tackled this issue using a technique that I have used successfully when tutoring individual students through a vast amount of content in a short space of time.

I present students with a print-out of the specification for the topic in question. I ask students to first highlight all the key terms. I then ask them to tick them if they can give a confident definition (obviously this task works well in pairs) and if not they create themselves a flash card with the key terms and the definition on the reverse.

I then ask students to repeat the process only this time testing themselves on their understanding of each specification statement as a whole.

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This task not only ensures students revise all aspects of the specification but focuses their attention on the aspects they find the hardest. I then encourage students to test themselves using their flash cards either at home or with friends, but with a twist – as soon as they can give a confident explanation of a key word or concept they put the card to one side and only focus on the decreasing pile of less understood flash cards.

Individual folder checks

For each topic I briefly check and score each student’s independent study file against a form with 12 criteria. I look for evidence of the following:

  1. All work organised neatly and logically in a file.
  2. All class notes...
  3. ...including work from any missed lessons.
  4. Further independent study notes (beyond class notes).
  5. Glossary or key term flash cards.
  6. Homework.
  7. Past exam questions/papers.
  8. Self, peer and teacher marking.
  9. Text book summary questions completed.
  10. Revision (e.g. flash cards, mind maps, etc).
  11. Evidence of further reading/resources.
  12. Use of our online revision program (confirmed in one-to-one discussion).


This exercise, initiated by our head of department, has been so successful that it has now been rolled out across the whole faculty.

It not only enables you to easily track the progress made by students in their independent study, but also provides an excellent starting point for one-to-one learning conversations and the provision of SMART targets.

In order to limit my marking workload I usually schedule folder checks and one-to-one conversations while the class is completing a topic test. As a department we have also consistently found a correlation between folder check scores and test scores, which is great evidence to motivate students with.

It has also been a useful tool to discuss with parents when explaining expectations or in cases where parents wish to support their children with their studies.

This year, to improve our intervention strategies, we are also piloting the use of a standard letter detailing the above 12 expectations to email to parents if students fail to submit a satisfactory folder of work.

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  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit


How can I improve my independent study skills? ›

How to develop independent learning skills in secondary schools
  1. Provide clear criteria to help students assess their own progress. ...
  2. Encourage collaboration and peer support. ...
  3. Focus on filling in the gaps. ...
  4. Provide actionable feedback. ...
  5. Empower students to take ownership of their learning. ...
  6. Modelling in the classroom.
Nov 3, 2021

What is an independent instructional strategies? ›

Independent instructional approach takes the students as the center focus of learning and the teacher is limited in the process, as a support for the student. Independent instruction often revolves around the student.

Are techniques teachers use to help students become independent strategic learners? ›

Instructional strategies are techniques teachers use to help students become independent, strategic learners. These strategies become learning strategies when students independently select the appropriate ones and use them effectively to accomplish tasks or meet goals.

What are the strategies to improve study skills? ›

Test Preparation
  • Make flashcards.
  • Rewrite/re-read your notes; reorganize into categories.
  • Get help if you need it: use PASS and other learning resources.
  • Don't cram!
  • Know the test format.
  • Get all of your questions answered.
  • Verbalize what you know – tell/teach the material to someone else.

How can teachers promote independent learning? ›

These include: Giving pupils choices so they can reflect on their own interests and preferences. Encouraging group work so that learners can learn from each other. Collaborate with pupils to set shared learning goals.

What are the examples of independent study? ›

An Independent Study can be a creative project, which might be a writing project or a non-writing project. A writing creative project could be screenplays/scripts, novels, essays, blogs, etc. A non-writing project could be photography, film making, painting, etc.

What are the 7 characteristics of independent learners? ›

It should encourage the following characteristics: curiosity, passion, inspiration, discernment, self-motivation, self-examination, accountability, critical thinking and persistence. It should develop the ability of the pupil to know when they need support.

What are the 5 instructional strategies? ›

Consider the five categories of instructional strategies (direct, indirect, experiential, independent and interactive).

How do you teach students to manage their own learning? ›

One of the most effective ways to help students take responsibility for their learning is through goal setting. When students set goals and achieve those goals, they build self-confidence and become more willing to try again.

What are the key elements of independent learning? ›

The independent learner is able to set goals, make choices, and decisions about how to meet his learning needs, take responsibility for constructing and carrying out his own learning, monitor his progress toward achieving his learning goals, and self-assess the learning outcomes.

What are the six effective strategies to study? ›

Specifically, six key learning strategies from cognitive research can be applied to education: spaced practice, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, dual coding, and retrieval practice.

What are the 4 study strategies? ›

In this short article, we explore four general study strategies that help improve your learning. These include: preparing the study environment; organising your study schedule; tips for while you are engaged in study; and methods of boosting your reading efficiency.

How can you encourage learners to become independent and self reliant? ›

Here are 10 steps on how to make your child self- reliant.
  1. Teach them how to be more patient. ...
  2. Let them do tasks independently. ...
  3. Let them make their own decisions. ...
  4. Introduce them to household chores. ...
  5. Clean up time! ...
  6. Teach them about money. ...
  7. Read to them, but also encourage them to try to read alone.
Nov 22, 2016

How do you address students individual learning needs? ›

Strategies for Meeting All Students' Needs
  1. Collaborate with colleagues. ...
  2. Cultivate consistency. ...
  3. Develop a student-centered mindset. ...
  4. Set aside time to focus on study skills and extra support. ...
  5. Use multiple forms of assessment. ...
  6. Draw on other professionals' expertise. ...
  7. Partner with families.
Apr 24, 2012

How can you encourage independent thinking in the classroom? ›

Ways to Promote Independent Thinking
  1. Give Students Responsibility. For many students, there is nothing they love more than having the chance to complete tasks by themselves that make them feel empowered. ...
  2. Encourage Students to Ask Questions. ...
  3. Allow Opposing Views. ...
  4. Incorporate Coding.
Aug 18, 2022

Why is independent study important for students? ›

Research has shown that guiding students to become independent learners can result in improved academic outcomes, increased confidence and a greater ability to problem-solve, as opposed to relying on direction from others.

What is the importance of independent study? ›

Overall, independent learning is a critical skill for students to develop because it promotes creativity and intellectual curiously. We want our students to be active rather than passive learners. Instead of waiting to be told what to do, students can take ownership of their own learning.

What are 3 characteristics of students who tend to be successful in the independent study program? ›

The school recognizes that successful independent study pupils have the motivation, commitment, organizational skills, and academic skills necessary to work independently.

What are independent skills for children? ›

5 Basic Skills to Teach Kids to Become Independent
  • Time management. Being responsible for their own time is one of the things that children should learn early on. ...
  • Money management. ...
  • Simple cooking. ...
  • Taking care of their health. ...
  • Decision-making.

What learning strategies are the most effective? ›

The Science of Learning: Six Strategies for Effective Learning
  1. Spaced Practice. ...
  2. Interleaving. ...
  3. Retrieval Practice. ...
  4. Elaboration. ...
  5. Concrete Examples. ...
  6. Dual Coding.
May 13, 2020

What are the three main learning strategies? ›

The three basic types of learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. To learn, we depend on our senses to process the information around us. Most people tend to use one of their senses more than the others. The following will be a discussion of the three most common learning styles.

What are the 9 teaching strategies? ›

  • Identifying Similarities and Differences. ...
  • Summarizing and Note Taking. ...
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition. ...
  • Homework and Practice. ...
  • Nonlinguistic Representations. ...
  • Cooperative Learning. ...
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback. ...
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses.

How do you motivate students to study? ›

Additional Strategies for Motivating Students
  1. Become a role model for student interest. ...
  2. Get to know your students. ...
  3. Use examples freely. ...
  4. Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. ...
  5. Set realistic performance goals and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals.

What can teachers do to help students learn better? ›

How Educators Can Help Students be Successful Inside and Outside the Classroom
  • Be Creative. ...
  • Provide Relevant Study Materials. ...
  • Accept All Students. ...
  • Stay Up-To-Date. ...
  • Use a Variety of Teaching Methods. ...
  • Set Achievable Goals.
Jun 17, 2019

How do we support students in becoming independent word learners? ›

Give your students options and allow them to set their own goals. Allow students a chance to reflect on what they have learned and what they would like to learn. This will give your students a sense of empowerment and responsibility that will help them work toward becoming an independent learner.

How can I help my child build self confidence and independence? ›

How Parents Can Build Self-Esteem
  1. Help your child learn to do things. At every age, there are new things for kids to learn. ...
  2. When teaching kids how to do things, show and help them at first. ...
  3. Praise your child, but do it wisely. ...
  4. Be a good role model. ...
  5. Ban harsh criticism. ...
  6. Focus on strengths. ...
  7. Let kids help and give.

What are 5 ways to improve self-esteem? ›

  • Become aware of thoughts and beliefs. Once you've learned which situations affect your self-esteem, notice your thoughts about them. ...
  • Challenge negative thinking. ...
  • Adjust your thoughts and beliefs. ...
  • Spot troubling conditions or situations. ...
  • Step back from your thoughts. ...
  • Accept your thoughts.
Jul 6, 2022

What are the challenges of independent study? ›

The challenge with independent learning is getting to know what each student needs and is seeking, and making sure that resources and guidance are available to each student in a way that meets their needs. Everyday I work with students who are working with the same curriculum in a particular grade level.

What barriers might students face to independent learning? ›

6 Barriers to Learning (and How to Overcome Them)
  • Peer pressure. Not just a school yard issue, your workforce can experience this too. ...
  • Fear of failure. ...
  • Lack of self-esteem. ...
  • Lack of goals. ...
  • Course format. ...
  • Poor learner experience.

What are the weaknesses of independent learning? ›

Cons of Individual Learning

Again, independent learning limits the child's ability to learn teamwork. Since individual learning allows kids to learn at their pace, it can be time-consuming, especially for slow learners. It also takes extra effort to develop teaching plans and materials to suit every child's needs.

Why are independent learning skills important? ›

It will challenge your motivation and dedication, while developing your organisational and time management skills. Being an independent learner means being an active learner, taking responsibility for your workload, commitments and deadlines, and when mastered it will be the key to success in your studies.

Why are independent skills important? ›

Independent living skills enable a person, learning disability or none, to live on their own safely, happily, and healthily – allowing them to pursue a great quality of life! Personal organisation (time management, looking after possessions, etc.)

Is independent study a skill? ›

Independent or self-directed learning is an important skill, whether you plan to continue your studies after school or college or enter the world of work...


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