Independent Learning

One of the aims of higher education is for students to move from a state of dependent learning, being reliant on others, to independent or autonomous learning, where the learner takes responsibility for their own progression (HEA, 2014). Mckendry and Boyd (2012) and Thomas et al. (2015) highlight the use of multiple terms to describe independent learning, including student-centered learning, self-regulated learning, self-instruction, lifelong learning and directed independent learning.

Terms used interchangeably may cause confusion for staff and students alike. Therefore, it requires academic staff to be clear regarding the process that students will undertake to be a successful independent learner (Mckendry and Boyd, 2012).

According to research by Thomas et al. (2015, pp. 7-8), independent learning is defined as a process where: “…students are guided by the curriculum contents, pedagogy and academic staff, but play an active role in their learning experience either on their own, or in collaboration with peers…”, in other words, students are directed by “…the core curriculum or through additional support services”.


Staff guide to student independent learning
(PDF File 194 KB)

Activities for staff to encourage students to become independent learners (PDF File 303 KB)

Supplementary Resources for Independent Learning
(DOCX File 35 KB)


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  • Brown, P.S. (2012). Introducing a Negotiated Curriculum. In: Irie, K., Stewart, A. (eds) Realizing Autonomy. London: Palgrave Macmillan pp. 49-64.
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  • Higher Education Academy (2014) Independent Learning. York: Higher Education Academy.
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  • Mckendry, S. and Boyd, V. (2012) Defining the “Independent Learner” in UK Higher Education: Staff and Students’ Understanding of the Concept, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), pp. 209-220.
  • Moore, K (1993) The use of learning contracts in a self-managed learning MBA course, in: Laycock, M. and Stephenson, J. (eds.) Using learning contracts in higher education. London: Kogan Page
  • Thomas, L., Hockings, C., Ottaway. J. and Jones, R. (2015) Independent learning: student perspectives and experiences. Available from: [Accessed 24 August 2022]
  • Thomas, P., Khanom, N., Adelaja, B., Mehbali, M. and Lambe, S. (2022) Constructing an Academic Skills Toolkit for embedding academic practices, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education,
  • Wong, B. and Chiu, Y-L. (2019) Swallow your pride and fear: the educational strategies of high-achieving non-traditional university students, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40 (7), pp. 868-882. DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2019.1604209