Skip to main content

Independent Learning for Online Study

Find out how to put in place a structure to support your studies online.

During the move to remote and online learning, teaching staff will provide you with study materials such as video and audio recordings, handouts and slides, reading lists and recommended texts for independent study. However, just looking at these resources isn't learning. Learning is an active process by which you construct your own understanding and assimilate new knowledge into it, rather than just a passive process of information transmission. Whether you're watching a ReCapped Lecture, looking at a handout or reading a recommended resource, consuming it (or just staring at it) is not as effective as engaging with it. So what can you be doing with these learning resources to make sure you're using them effectively while you're studying away from campus?

Before you look at the learning resource, you could try two things to switch your brain on and prime it for active engagement.

  • Firstly, you could try taking 5 mins to jot down everything you know about this topic, and how it links to what you already know. Don't see this as a test, or worry if you don't know much or get anything wrong, it's just a way to prepare the ground and establish a basis, from which you'll find your knowledge confirmed, corrected or surprised.
  • Secondly, you could also write down what you don't know about the topic – what questions do you have that you'd like this resource to answer, and what do you want to get out of it? This means that as you watch or read, your brain will be proactively seeking for specific answers, picking out relevant information and setting goals for further research, rather than just letting it all wash over you.

While you're watching or reading, you could try these strategies to make sure you're actively engaged, processing what you're learning and not drifting off...

  • Try a layered approach to avoid getting bogged down. Skim read or just watch the first time, noting things you're interested in to come back to. On the next watch or read, evaluate what you marked out, and make critical decisions about it – why did I react to this? How does it link to other things I know? Do I understand it, or have any questions about it? Do I need to make a note of it? What purpose might I use it for? On a third reading, you might take action – make those notes, puzzle out anything you don't understand. All of these layers are pretty intense - trying to do all of them at once might mean you get overloaded and drift off...
  • Ensure you are making critical decisions throughout. Which are key or relevant points to be noted, and which are just examples, minor points or not relevant? Which are worth copying down as quotations, and which can be better summarised in your own words? Which sections are worth watching or reading carefully, and which can be skimmed or fast-forwarded through? There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers to those questions, and the answers depend on what you're doing – researching points for an assignment or webinar discussion, doing a critical literature review or trying to get a grasp of the fundamentals of a topic? But making these decisions keeps you actively engaged.
  • As well as making notes of the content, try making your own notes to self – either a record of your reaction ("I disagree!" "Interesting!" "I don't understand this"), notes of how it links to other learning ("That's similar to what I read in the textbook", "this explains that thing I didn't understand last week" "does this contradict what that other scholar said?") or what you might do with it ("this example will be useful for my assignment" "must read up more about this" "raise this in the discussion board")
  • To keep focussed and keep processing what you're reading or watching, you could pause every so often (every 5 mins or every paragraph) and write a short summary of what you've understood, in your own words. You could also do this at the end, to summarise the main points of the whole thing. You may never need to read these summaries again but they ensure that you are articulating what you've learned and have really absorbed it into your own understanding. They say the best way to learn something is to teach someone else – explaining it to yourself is just as good. If you're not sure you can accurately explain it, then this helps you set goals for future research. Make it very clear which are your own words and which are direct quotes though.

After you've engaged with the learning resource, the learning doesn't end there, but needs consolidating over time.

  • To keep some direction and momentum in your learning, jot down any further questions that arise from what you've just read or watched, so you can focus and target your independent reading. What your lecturers provide is just the starting point, but independent reading can become directionless and unfocussed unless it has a goal or purpose.
  • One of the most powerful learning strategies you can use is to test yourself. What can you remember of what you read or watched this morning, or yesterday? Can you explain this topic to yourself afterwards? How does what you're reading now compare to what you watched on Monday? Can you make flashcards and fill in missing information, or answer a question? It doesn't matter if you get it wrong, each time you practise recall and check your answer, it will deepen your knowledge.
  • Another good strategy is to keep reworking content. Can you turn that lecture ReCap summary into a mind map? Can you scribble down in a rough paragraph what you understood from that diagram? Can you represent what you read as an image? This process of explaining it to yourself, summarising it and expanding on it, really helps you construct it as part of your own understanding. 
  • Keep linking your learning together, and make connections. Can you combine that lecture handout with this textbook explanation and note what they have in common, and where they are different? Can you follow the development of a topic or debate over time or find different perspectives and approaches? Can you synthesise it all into a mind map? Can you find examples to apply the theory to? Remember too that it's not just adding to your stock of learning - your previous knowledge will be adapting and adjusting each time you learn something new, so how has what you just learned changed what you thought you knew?
  • Revisit learning over time, to really embed it. You might review the day's learning at the end of the day, or the  week's learning on a Friday afternoon. This can be at increasing intervals, and increasingly light touch but it will really help it become part of what you know. When you're reading or watching things in future weeks, keep reviewing how it links to what you've already learned in the module or on the course.
  • Make sure you keep a mental note of where you can't remember, don't understand any more or still have questions. This helps you to target areas you need to work on, either through revisiting them, or through further reading. If the explanation in a lecture handout didn't work for you, maybe an alternative one you find in a textbook will.