Promoting independent learning: research-based strategies

How can we encourage students to take ownership of their learning, alongside teaching them the required knowledge to progress or pass exams? Bradley Busch shares key principles from research findings

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Bradley Busch is a psychologist and the director of InnerDrive. InnerDrive run workshops that helps students develop a successful mindset and perform under pressure. This is based on...

Why do students start a piece of work with the intention of working hard at it, but sometimes fail to follow through with their good intentions? Are they lying, either to themselves or to you, when they make bold predictions about how hard they are going to study either at home or in their free periods?

To answer this question, we must examine the findings of the ‘Daffodil Days’ study.

Once a year, over four days in spring, students at Cornell University are encouraged to buy a daffodil. All the money raised goes to the American Cancer Society.

A month before the daffodils are due to go on sale, researchers asked 251 students if they were planning to purchase a daffodil and if so, how many they would buy. Over 80 per cent of students said they would and that on average they would buy at least two. However, when the researchers went back after the event, they found that less than half of those students bought a daffodil, and those that had had only bought one. 

The researchers concluded that a significant gap can exist between someone’s good intentions and their actual following through with the necessary behaviour. This would go some way to explaining why students struggle to revise and work independently.

A class of fully independent learners is a teacher’s holy grail. The older students are, the more important this skill is. Independent learning requires motivation, concentration and effort.

Based on studies in cognitive psychology, I’ve provided a few principles that should be kept at the heart of your teaching.

Encourage a sense of purpose

This is all about getting pupils to care about their work. Simply put, if they are more invested in it, they are more likely to apply themselves.

In one study (Reeve et al, 2002), psychologists manipulated the environment in which students were taught.

  • Some were told that they had to study hard in preparation for a test
  • Others were told that such hard work was simply expected of them.
  • Others were told that what they were learning would help them achieve their goals.

The result? Those who were told that the information would be useful to them, and subsequently had a sense of purpose, put in more effort.

If students identify how the material will help them or what skills it will develop, they are more likely to engage. Something as simple as completing the sentence, ‘Doing well at this will help me because […]’ is a good starting point here.

Focus on mastery, not comparison

John Nicholls’ seminal study on student motivation (Nicholls, 1975) found that students can view a forthcoming exam in a variety of ways.

Some of the participating students saw the exam as an opportunity to see how much they had learned, while others saw it as an opportunity to compare themselves with their peers. From this distinction, Nicholls defined two types of motivation.

Mastery orientation

This describes students who feel most successful when they have mastered a task. This means putting in maximum effort, and taking pleasure in refining skills.

Ego orientation

On the other side of the coin, some students feel accomplished when they have performed better than their peers. The emphasis here is on displaying superior ability and knowing where they rank against the wider group.

One study of students’ motivational beliefs (Wolters et al, 1996) concluded that students who compare themselves to others tend to be less confident, less motivated and poorer performing. Teachers can encourage a mastery orientation by having students:

  • measure themselves against their previous effort
  • focus on ‘improving themselves rather than proving themselves’
  • reflect on what they have learnt from each learning experience.

Remove distractions

Unsurprisingly, students’ minds are more likely to wander on a Monday or Friday – such is the appeal of weekends.

Research shows that better concentration is something teachers can encourage in their pupils, even from a young age.

Our ability to focus is not a fixed quantity. One study found that simply having your phone out, even if you aren't using it, can make you perform up to 20 per cent worse in cognitive tests

One of the most famous studies in psychology circles happens to be about marshmallows. It found that students who did not look at the tempting marshmallow in front of them were less likely to be distracted.

It's not just visual distractions either: a recent study found that students who worked in silence performed 20 per cent better than those who worked while listening to songs with lyrics. 

Removing any potential distractions from the immediate environment will make concentrating easier for your students.

Ask students to choose their partners wisely

Working with other people can mean less stress, better performance and greater resilience. Such were the conclusions of a recent journal, which found that if the person next to you is working hard then you are likely to work harder as a result.

Interestingly, this was found to be consistent regardless of whether your partner was completing an easier, more difficult or even completely unrelated task.

Avoid the planning fallacy

Left to their own devices, your pupils tend to procrastinate. Of every four, three would consider themselves procrastinators. Two would say that their procrastination is problematic. Most are poor at estimating how long a task will take to complete, as they become distracted or face unanticipated barriers along the way. This is ‘the planning fallacy’.

If a teacher sets small, regular deadlines, they are more likely to help students avoid the planning fallacy. They will manage their time better and reach better outcomes as a result.


‘Feeling "Holier Than Thou": Are Self-Serving Assessments Produced by Errors in Self- or Social Prediction?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79/6, pp. 861-875.

‘Providing a Rationale in an Autonomy-Supportive Way as a Strategy to Motivate Others During an Uninteresting Activity’, Motivation and Emotion 26/3, pp. 183-207.

‘Causal attributions and other achievement-related cognitions: Effects of task outcome, attainment value, and sex’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31/3, pp. 379-389.

‘The relation between goal orientation and students´ motivational beliefs and self-regulated learning’, Learning and Individual Differences, 8/3, pp. 211-238.

‘Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment’, Psychological Science 13/3, pp. 219-224.

Last Updated: 
18 Nov 2021