How to Become an Independent Learner
Being a proactive, successful independent learner has the potential to give your career or studies a real boost.
Because they know that by doing so, they can improve their prospects, and fast!
An independent learner is someone who takes full ownership of their learning and studies at their own pace, with a targeted view to improving their career.
They confidently know what they want to achieve, the skills they wish to acquire, and how they want to learn. They do not follow a set timetable.
Instead, they set their own agenda, and to a certain degree, their curriculum.
In other words, as an independent learner, you must invest in the process, do your research, and decipher your own learning process.
Independent-learning strategies can be a real deciding factor at any stage of your career.
However, independent-learning skills really come into their own if you’re vying for a particular job or want to advance your academic studies.
In fact, if you’re going for a heavily sought-after job, there’s a high chance that those who make the interview shortlist will be proactive, independent learners.
They would have taken the time to research all the skills required for a role to plug any skill gaps they may have.
Besides the obvious career benefits, being an independent learner has other benefits too. After all, independent-learning skills require you to be an active rather than passive learner.
Studying something because you want to understand more will only strengthen your intellectual curiosity. You will develop a real passion for education and exploring subjects in greater depth than your peers.
You will also grow in confidence because the more you know, the more able you will become. Likewise, having greater awareness of your skills will also highlight any weaknesses you have and enable you to put in place a plan to overcome them.
For undergraduates, introducing independent-learning strategies can be hugely beneficial.
By studying autonomously, pupils magnify the amount of time they spend learning compared to their peers who rely purely on tutor-led content.
They are setting themselves up for higher grades and better employment opportunities. In fact, an independent learner may choose to supplement studies with suitable work experience.
Being able to proactively decide what your knowledge gaps are and taking responsibility for your own learning are the two most important independent-learning skills.
The other two characteristics of an independent learner are motivation and self-belief.
Let’s cover these core skills in more detail:
As an independent learner, you will not have the luxury of following a pre-set curriculum. Instead, you must decide what you want to learn and in what order. There’s no tutor to report to or management oversight.
So, where do you start?
If you are looking to enter the world of work, a good place to begin is by reviewing person and job specifications.
You may have the essential skills listed for a role, but do you have the desirable skills?
Desirable skills are the abilities that an employer would like you to have, but they are not essential for performing a job. Having proven desirable skills is one way of making your resume stand out from the crowd.
A good way to achieve these skills is to create targeted independent-learning strategies (there’s more on this in a bit).
For example, it could be that you want to specialize in social media management for a company, yet do not have advanced design skills. As an independent learner, you may choose to upskill yourself in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Sketch, to demonstrate your ability to design visual media.
Being a committed independent learner requires a great deal of responsibility. After all, you need to know that the work you put in will pay off.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to engage in collaborative and independent learning when you know you can commit.
The more motivated you are as a person, the more success you will have as an independent learner.
If you’re career-driven, the chances are that you will proactively seek out learning opportunities.
You can always tell how ambitious a person is by their resume – it is usually peppered with strategic learning choices and additional qualifications.
One thing that all independent learners share is self-belief. By taking charge of their own learning, they have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and know that they can get there.
As a result, they are not afraid of the next challenge and putting in place the independent-learning strategies to get there.
Ambitious and targeted, an independent learner is also self-invested and determined.
They appreciate that this type of learning is not without its frustrations. However, they realize the value in every deliberate action.
After all, they are intentional and structured with their study, and you can be too.
So, what are the characteristics of a successful independent learner, and how do you create a strategy that works for you?
The chances are, if you’re reading this and are curious about developing your independent-learning skills, you’ll already have a ‘growth mindset.’
You’ll be someone who doesn’t want to leave things to chance. Instead, you’d much rather take control and embrace every opportunity.
However, to harness your mindset as an independent learner, you’ll need to be aware of your purpose. What is it that you want to achieve? You will need a SMART approach.
Once you know your purpose, you’ll want to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound (SMART).
Below is an example of SMART, independent-learning goals for an IT technician looking to take on a consultative role as an IT project manager.
- Specific – To create an independent-learning program that will demonstrate to an employer that I have the skills to manage an IT project. My specific focus is on taking businesses from on-premise to cloud-based solutions.
- Measurable – To pass all IT project-management courses specified for the role.
- Achievable – To pass the cloud-based solutions project-management course with a score of 80% or above (pass rate is 70%), therefore allowing a 10% threshold.
- Relevant – Choose courses based on what top-tier IT companies are looking for as essential and desirable criteria.
- Time-bound – Complete two courses each quarter, with a view to finishing all four within six months.
To help you reach your independent learner SMART goals, create a study plan that you know will work with your existing commitments.
The key here is about making sure your goals are achievable. As tempting as it may be, try not to set yourself up to fail with overly ambitious timeframes.
Once you know exactly what you want to achieve and are confident that your independent-learning goal is SMART, you’ll need to draw up a specific plan.
It would help if you prioritized your learning, which you can do by asking yourself:
- Where are my most obvious skill gaps?
- How do the courses in which I am interested connect? Is there a logical pattern for me to follow as an independent learner?
- Will I need more time for some courses than others?
Although it may seem counterproductive, many independent-learning strategies start with the basics. If you return to the fundamentals of a subject, it can give your confidence a boost and provide a solid foundation from which to start building your knowledge.
In understanding your priorities, you will have a good idea of what independent-learning activity you’ll want to complete and when. This will help with the planning, which is essential.
It’s a good idea to put aside specific study times each week. You can set diary reminders on your cell phone and pop them on the family calendar for everyone to see. By doing this, you’ll stop your study time from getting overrun by other commitments.
Look at your current calendar. Where could you see yourself fitting in time for independent learning? Could you get up an hour earlier? Would the morning commute suit a virtual lecture or podcast?
With everything we’ve mentioned above, you might choose to brush up on your metacognitive skills as part of your independent-learner strategy.
Somebody who is said to have strong metacognitive abilities is great at organizing and controlling their own thinking, learning and actions. They know, with certainty:
- What they want to achieve
- What they are going to do
- How they are going to reach their goal, step-by-step
- How to monitor their progress (or lack of)
- How to evaluate the outcome of their actions (they live and breathe being SMART)
To find out how you already score, you could take a free cognitive-ability test.
Be steadfast. Do not give up on achieving what you set out to do as an independent learner. If you were realistic with your goal setting and put in place a sensible plan, you will succeed.
If you need a visual reminder of the steps you are taking, you could print out your SMART plan. It’ll help to keep you focused.
This is probably a little easier for students to do than an individual looking for better job prospects, but try buddying up with another independent learner. It does wonders for motivation and will even create a little healthy competition.
You may find that your study buddy is stronger in some areas and you are in others. The point is, in the absence of a tutor, you can help guide each other.
You may also share the cost of some resources, especially if you have app subscriptions or textbooks to purchase.
Never underestimate the power of self-reflection. It’s the key to self-awareness and knowing exactly where you are as an independent learner. If you can, it helps to step back and objectively look at the progress you’ve made.
Are you struggling with a specific subject? Is the learning style right for you? Is your learning where you’d expect it to be when charted against your plan?
Being self-aware will help manage your expectations too.
If your self-reflection points to a problem with your learning, try not to shy away from it.
Instead, consider a different technique. Just because you enjoyed success learning one subject in a particular format doesn’t mean it’ll work every time.
The average independent learner will draw on a wide range of resources, from e-learning courses and certified digital programs to Open University degrees and even internships.
The point is, you need to experiment a little and don’t be afraid to switch things up if a method isn’t for you.
Most self-directed courses will have a preferred reading list to help students supplement their studies.
While it’s important to know these and read them cover to cover, it’s also helpful to read additional material. Just remember to make sure the author is credible.
It can be lonely being an independent learner, so it’s important to ask for help when you think you may need it.
If you have a study partner, you could ask them. If not, you could try the authors of the learning material or even a peer-based message board.
You’ll be surprised how willing people are to help. Who knows, by the end of your studies, you may find yourself returning the favor.
The most important thing to remember is to enjoy life as an independent learner. It can be hugely liberating to learn something new and have a profound sense of ownership over your journey.
Imagine how amazing you’ll feel telling your family that you’ve landed your dream job or that you’ve been awarded a PhD scholarship.
Every action you take, no matter how small, is a step towards achieving that goal.