How to Build Effective Independent Learners

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Jill West is a Cengage author and an instructor at Georgia Northwestern Technical College


Children are born with an innate sense of curiosity, but few develop sophisticated learning skills without guidance. The biggest impact instructors can make on their students’ success is not accomplished through covering all learning styles or sufficiently entertaining students. It’s teaching them how to become independent learners.

That’s where you come in.

An independent learner is motivated to learn, can manage their learning activities effectively, and problem-solve along the way to make the most of their learning efforts. While some of these skills need to come from within, the most important thing you can do as you guide learners toward independence is to build relationships with your students. Students will care more about the material they’re learning if they know you care about them.

Independent Learners Thrive on Relationships

My first semester in college, I faced a traumatic experience that could have derailed my academic career. I went into a Psychology class one day in mental-crisis mode. I didn’t have my bag or books or anything. My professor saw me, he really saw me. He handed me a notebook and a pen and kept right on lecturing. With that one gesture, he provided an anchor of normalcy and grace for me in the middle of the storm. As I handled the other issue over the next few weeks, I wanted nothing more than to keep showing up to his classes and keep doing well. He made a difference in my life.

With my students, I keep reminding myself that even the smallest thing I say or do that acknowledges their struggles and their value can be the one thing they hold onto as they keep moving forward. Your connections and actions will be the key to building relationships with your students and fueling independent learning.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The foundation of good relationships is communication. Make sure your students know you’re there to support them.

Outline Clear Expectations.

It’s tough for a student to hit a target if they don’t know what they’re aiming for. Provide rubrics, guidelines, and syllabus for students to gauge their own progress. We can also help ease the cognitive load students face with regular reminders.

Encourage Communication.

Students don’t have to be social butterflies; however, those who take the initiative to ask questions and make sure they understand the expectations will benefit. To nurture this skill, frequently invite students into the conversation, and when they do reach out, be mentally present with the student so they feel heard and known.

WebAssign Tip: If you’re looking for a way to build students’ foundational skills like communication, assign College Success and Math Mindset modules.

Personalize Interactions.

In an online environment, I offer many opportunities to communicate one-on-one with students, whether that’s through email or impromptu video calls. While most of the information I give is repeated to many students, I personalize it to each student’s needs by asking questions about their challenges. This helps me build a relationship and discover where students are struggling and offer each one the guidance and tools they need to keep growing as independent learners.

Establish Progress Checks.

I keep an eye on each student’s progress through their assignments and reach out when I see someone falling behind, or if I see an especially low grade for an assignment or test. It’s amazing how productive a simple email can be that says, “I noticed you got behind. Is everything okay? What help do you need?”

Self-Discovery and Reflection Helps Independent Learners

An effective independent learner can problem-solve to optimize their learning efforts and seek resources to answer their questions. As an instructor, you can give students opportunities to build these skills.

Activities for Information Discovery

While a lot of instructors don’t like discussion boards, I enjoy that opportunity to connect with students. I try to incorporate activities where students discover information, share what they’ve learned, or show off something they’ve created. It’s a chance for all of us to reflect on what’s been learned and any questions that arise.

Opportunities for Self-Reflection

While some students need more support at the beginning of a class, I look for micro-opportunities to slowly hand over responsibility for their learning. We discuss their questions and where they can find resources to answer those questions. I point out patterns in the material, and I celebrate what we learn from mistakes. I also make a big deal of those times when they figure things out on their own.

The foundational task of every student in one of my classes is to develop a sense of independence with the material. They’ll walk away knowing they’re more capable than they were when they started.


Independent Learners Value Freedom & Responsibility

You’ve likely heard the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt and others, “With freedom comes responsibility.” Each semester, I build in opportunities for freedom and emphasize the responsibility that comes with that freedom.

For example, I teach an intro STEM course required by all students regardless of their major. Students often enroll in the course in their first semester of freshman year and have never taken a college class before. The environment can be intimidating and sometimes they need time to adjust to college-level expectations.

I set due dates as guidelines, but students don’t lose any points for submitting work late. If students fall behind, they start to feel the stress of being behind and experience the struggle of catching up as a natural consequence. I’ve found that natural consequences are more effective at cultivating motivation than punishments would be.

Although I check in with anyone who starts falling behind to provide support, I reinforce their responsibility to do the work to catch up. While this specific technique might not work in all classes, the point here is that I incorporate freedom where possible to emphasize responsibility.

I’ve used this same approach of natural consequences for nearly two decades of parenting four kids, as well as incorporated it into my classroom. I’m not there to punish them, push them or scold them. My job is to encourage, and to provide guidance and assistance where needed. Students choose the level and types of help they want from me. My goal is to empower them to make their own decisions and understand the consequences of their choices so that they can grow as independent learners.


To introduce the subject of independent learning to your students, share Jill West’s video presentation with them.