Why I ... believe independent study is under threat

September 19, 2003

In 2001, I published a textbook that aimed to encourage first-year English students to think through their own ideas of what English is, has been or could be. Since then, I have led three related projects on independent learning that aim to help students participate as fully as possible in their own learning, including a scheme that looked at ways of supporting the transition from A-level to degree-level study.

These activities stemmed from a sense that not all students were engaging fully with the opportunities of degree-level study. Independent study, and the development of the critical abilities needed to examine a problem from its very beginnings and arrive at one's own conclusions, are fundamental to many disciplines - not least English studies, in which students are encouraged to explore how meanings are made in and about texts and how they (and other readers) might be agents in this making.

I do not believe that there was ever a golden age in which most students started out fully able to formulate understandings that did not depend on the authority or opinions of others. However, I do think that students'

capacity to develop independence is under threat and that some students gain degrees without really becoming more markedly independent than they were at A level. This is not primarily the result of dumbing down or the culture of explicitness. Its key cause is the erosion of student time, a result of the reduction of their financial independence. Many full-time students are now, in fact, part-time students: employed for between 10 and 20 hours a week, making them more of a "three-quarter" or "half-time" student than a full-time one. This may mean that time spent studying is narrowly planned: assignments must be submitted, but wide reading and thinking round a subject may be luxuries.

We can help students develop and sustain independent learning by building it into courses as a central plank rather than an optional one. But can tutors teach independence? It seems paradoxical, yet independence does need to be acquired. Assuming that all students know what they are meant to be doing outside lectures and seminars will not necessarily produce spontaneous independent learning.

To foster intellectual independence, we should first start by debating with first-year students the nature of learning, originality and evidence in their subject. We can do this by setting assignments that require students to find their own material and apply their judgements to it. Second, we need to make sure that in our teaching and learning materials we avoid any narrative that makes students dependent on the authority of the lecturer in a simple reproducible way. Third, we need to give genuinely competing and multiple narratives that ask students to return to their own understandings of frameworks and evidence and to produce their own paths through complex material that may be interpreted in many valid ways. Fourth, we need to let students develop the confidence to exercise their critical capacity.

Before they can critique existing explanations or define their own questions, students need to engage deeply with the ways in which knowledge and evidence are constructed in their disciplines, and learn how to seek relevant further knowledge. It is not dumbing down to introduce students as early as possible to concepts and approaches that will allow them to gain the confidence to develop their own voices and views.

We must also take into account how students in a more diverse student body will approach study differently. We should not provide students with the answers, but we should help them to learn how to make their own answers valid and valuable.

Chris Hopkins is the author of Thinking about Texts: An Introduction to English Studies , published by Palgrave. He will discuss independent learning and widening participation at an English Centre event later this year.

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