But first, learning…
All research is necessarily limited in scope in some way - funding, time, research tools, the need for specificity, and the complexity of concepts are examples that can create limitations. This book is no different. By choosing to deeply examine the ILE, other forms of learning are excluded. Even, paradoxically, a deep examination of learning itself is outside of the bounds of this book. Learning, and what it is and maybe what it is not, is a huge area that is being researched across multiple disciplines in both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary manners. This leads to different understandings and definitions which all may have “practical utilities” (Barron et al., 2015, p. 405), but may also appear quite different in focus. The understanding of learning itself that underpins the work in this book is perhaps most clearly represented by Driscoll (2000) who has defined learning as “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential... [which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world” (p. 11).
This is a wide conceptualisation that may serve to some degree as an “umbrella concept” (Barron et al., 2015, p. 405) for multiple definitions of learning.
What is independent learning?
As the independent learning experience is the central focus of this book, what follows here is a more detailed approach to its conceptualisations and definitions. The definition put forward and used in this study is that independent learning is
the act of learning without (or with less) external direction, guidance and evaluation, in volitional and non-volitional contexts
In this book, independent learning first refers to a ‘mode of learning’. The use of mode here refers to the manner in which learning is undertaken. As well as learning undertaken independently, other examples of modes of learning would be online learning, modular learning and directed learning.
One of the first issues here is to be clear about what independent learning, as a mode of learning, refers to. This is somewhat complicated by the literature in the area having many definitions, and also by the use of other terminologies - autonomous learning, self-directed learning, and self-regulated learning - that are often used interchangeably with independent learning, but sometimes used differently. It is not always clear in what manner a particular terminology is being used. For example, in looking to clarify the concept of self-directed learning (SDL) as it is used in medical education literature, Ainoda, Onishi, and Yasuda (2005) examined all the literature on the topic between the years 2000 and 2004, discovering that only 5% of articles had an explicit and concrete definition (Ainoda et al., 2005). In this chapter, terminologies often related or used synonymously with independent learning are discussed, explaining how and why the different interpretations of what constitutes independent learning are relevant, and clarifying the decision to define independent learning as “the act of learning without (or with less) external direction, guidance and evaluation, in volitional and non-volitional contexts”.
Self-regulation and self-regulated learning
The terms ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-regulated learning’ derive from the work of Vygotsky (Whitebread et ah, 2009) and Bandura (1986), which “helped to shape the direction and development of self-regulation” (Dinsmore, Alexander, Sc Loughlin, 2008, p. 394). Table 2.1 summarises some common definitions of self-regulation and self-regulated learning.
There are those who differentiate between the terms ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self- regulated learning’ (Alexander, 2008; Dinsmore et ah, 2008) and others who use them interchangeably as we can see in Table 2.1. These definitions have also sparked debate about what is self-regulated learning and what is metacognition (Alexander, 2008; Azevedo, 2009; Dinsmore et ah, 2008; Lajoie, 2008; Pintrich, Wolters, Sc Baxter, 2000; Schunk, 2008; Sperling, Howard, Sc Staley, 2004; Veenman, 2007; Winne, 1996).
Self-regulated learning sometimes describes how students undertake tasks or homework by themselves, and work in educational environments that may still be very teacher-centred, and other times describes learning where students make all the learning choices. Zimmerman’s (2002, pp. 55-56) delineation of self-regulated learning in Table 2.1 as a ‘self-directive process’ and as a form of activity that learners “do for themselves in a proactive way” is suggestive of a mode of learning that may be synonymous with independent learning in certain ways. However, it is also evident from a review of the definitions that self-regulation and self-regulated learning are more widely considered to be a meta-level process of learning linked to metacognition rather than a ‘mode of learning’ (such as independent learning). It is also clear from a review of the definitions that metacognition is considered by some as an overarching framework that encompasses self-regulated learning and as a sub-element of self-regulation or self-regulated learning by others. While more researchers see metacognition as subordinate to self-regulation, where metacognition is clearly considered one elemental part of self-regulated learning, some researchers see the opposite.
12 Independent learning
Table 2.1 Definitions of Self-Regulation and Self-Regulated Learning
“SRL (self-regulated learning) involves actively constructing an understanding of a topic/domain by using strategies and goals, regulating and monitoring certain aspects of cognition, behavior, and motivation, and modifying behavior to achieve a desire goal” (Azevedo & Witherspoon, 2009, p. 321).
“Self-regulated learning (SRL) refers to the setting of one’s goals in relation to learning and ensuring that the goals set are attained. Key components of SRL are cognition, metacognition, motivation, affect, and volition (Boekaerts, 1996)” (as cited in Anastacia Efklides, 2011, p. 6).
“Self-regulation represents the highest level of metacognitive activity. Changing cognitive skills and strategies in response to new or changing task demands is my own favorite operational definition of self-regulation (Butterfield & Belmont, 1977). Other labels used to describe orderly changes in cognitive processes and skills are self-control and executive functioning (Borkowski & Burke, 1996). Examples of regulatory activities include planning, strategy selection and use, and resource allocation” (Borkowski, 1996, p. 392).
“Self-regulation is not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather it is the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills. Learning is viewed as an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching. Self-regulation refers to self-generated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are oriented to attaining goals” (Zimmerman, 2002, pp. 65-66).
“more recently self-regulation is defined as a broader set of knowledge and skills, including domain-specific knowledge, cognitive skills, metacognitive knowledge and skills, and motivational processes (Boekaerts & Niemenvirta, 2000; Schraw, Bendixen, & Dunkle, 2002; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994)” (as cited in Veenman, 2007, p. 177).
“Self-regulatory skills may be conceptualized as the operational aspect of
metacognition, including the planning, monitoring, and evaluation going on during learning and problem- solving (Braten, 1991; Brown, 1987)” (as cited in Stromso & Braten, 2010, p. 92).
“Self-regulation of learning (SRL) arises from the constructivist framework and integrates educational theories with teaching-learning strategies. The model suggests that cognitive processes, such as stimulus-response and memory storage described by behaviourism and information processing, are supported, enhanced, monitored and controlled with the development of metacognitive knowledge and processes” (Kuiper & Pesut, 2004, p. 386).
Wenden (1998) defines the strategic component of metacognition as “general skills through which learners manage, direct, regulate, guide their learning, i.e., planning, monitoring, and evaluation” (p. 519). She goes on to say that “the deployment of these three strategies in learning is referred to as self-regulation in cognitive psychology” (Wenden, 1998, as cited in Cotterall 8c Murray, 2009, p. 35). This subordination of self-regulation to metacognition is somewhat mirrored in the ideas of Borkowski (1996) - “self-regulation represents the highest level of metacognitive activity” (p. 392), yet this is often the argument of the other side - that, as the highest level, self-regulation is a separate and super- ordinate concept.
Self-regulation or self-regulated learning is notoriously difficult to research (Zimmerman & Moylan, 2009) and to measure (Rovers, Clarebout, Savelberg, de Bruin, & van Merrienboer, 2019) and, as shown by the various definitions, equally difficult to conceptualise in a concise manner. Veenman’s (2007) examination of the literature notes that there is not agreement among researchers on what the components of self-regulation are or whether they are ubiquitous, spontaneous, or not (p. 182). Despite the different uses of terminologies, there are similarities running throughout the definitions of self-regulation. These ideas of “broader skills” (Veenman, 2007, p. 171) involving “self-directive” (Zimmerman, 2002, p. 66) actions that create “active construction” (Azevedo, 2009, p. 321) and “regulate activities” (Borkowski, 1996, p. 392) are common to all definitions. It is, however, when we move from the general to the specific in these discussions that we run into difficulty, particularly with the defining and separating of metacognition and self-regulation.
We can summarise this discussion by stating that the terms ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-regulated learning’ are not used to discuss learning in this volume because
- • There are different uses of the terms ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-regulated learning’
- • There is a lack of clarity about the components of the construct
- • There are disagreements in the available research about the separation and hierarchical relationship between it and the construct of metacognition
As the data collected in this research and presented in this volume illustrate metacognition to be central to understanding the process of learning in the mode of learning under investigation, these phenomena require clear and distinct separation.
Autonomous learning and self-directed learning
Autonomous learning was defined by Holec as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (1981, p. 3). Although not as widely used as self-regulation, it has taken a strong foothold in some fields, such as language learning and philosophy. According to Benson and Voller (1997) autonomous learning “has been used in language learning at least five different ways, namely:
- 1 for situations in which learners study entirely on their own;
- 2 for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning;
- 3 for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education;
- 4 for the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning
- 5 for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.”
- (Benson 8c Voller, 1997, pp. 1-2)
They go on to note that independence and autonomy are used as synonyms by some authors, but as distinct by others, that associate the terms with individual learning and that further confuse the issue by discussions of whether or not the concepts are universal or “western culture-bound values” (Benson & Voller, 1997, p. 2).
A more comprehensive definition, and one that takes into account the cognitive nature of learning, comes from Little (1991), who describes autonomous learning as follows:
Essentially, autonomy is a capacity - for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action. It presupposes, but also entails, that the learner will develop a particular kind of psychological relation to the process and content of his learning. The capacity for autonomy will be displayed both in the ways the learner learns and in the way he or she transfers what has been learned to wider contexts.
(Little, 1991, pp. 3-4)
This capacity for autonomy in learning is not an absolute, but rather there are degrees of autonomy (Thanasoulas, 2004). Educators often speak of the continuum of learner autonomy that learners move along, moving up through stages of interdependence and independence as learning demands grow. This is a different conceptualisation to self-regulated learning as outlined earlier, in that its focus is on a capacity that learners possess to different degrees, and that they may develop by working through stages of interdependence with teachers, facilitators, and peers - that the stages of interdependence are an important learning aspect of becoming more autonomous.
Often central to the discussion of autonomous learning is the idea of volition or willingness, as Littlewood (1996) highlighted: “At the core of the notion of autonomy are the learners’ ability and willingness to make choices independently” (p. 427). Su and Reeve (2011) also relate autonomy to independent, volitional decision-making by learners, by stating that learners are autonomous “when they pursue their interests, study to satisfy their curiosity, and volition- ally engage themselves in schoolwork” (Su & Reeve, 2011, p. 160). With autonomous learning recognising volitional learning as independent learning, it excludes a huge range of learning endeavours that are undertaken independently, but where the initial impetus or decision to engage in the learning was not volitional, or perhaps where the content was predetermined. Some examples of non-volitional but independent learning would be in-class learning without step- by-step instruction, project learning, individual test preparation, thesis writing and some work-based learning (learning that occurs as part of our working lives - while adults often volitionally chose what and when to learn, this is not always the case in career situations where acquiring new knowledge, of, for example, a new computer system, is a requirement rather than a choice).
This argument also holds for the decision not to use the terminology ‘self- directed learning’ in this book. Knowles (1975) describes self-directed learning as a process in which individuals “take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18). The idea of ‘taking the initiative’ again relates to volitional learning and, as such, as discussed earlier, excludes a huge range of un-directed learning scenarios that we engage in during our learning lives.
While it is true that volition is also exhibited within the learning process when a learner is not responsible for the initial motivation for the engagement with learning, the fact the term ‘volitional learning’ is strongly linked to the political and ideological emancipatory philosophies of autonomous learning means that it is often implicitly understood or interpreted to include initial decisions to learn. As such, the terminology of autonomous learning is not suitable to describe the learning under investigation in this study.
Independent learning is defined by the Open University (Moore, 1984) as “working with increasingly less structured teaching materials and with less reliance on traditional kinds of tutor support” (p. 27). Forster (1972), as cited by Candy (1991), defines independent study as a philosophy, process, and method of education “in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for inquiry and critical evaluation” (p. ii) and further emphasises the role of freedom of choice, freedom of process, as well as increased learner responsibility in the achievement of learning objectives and goals within the mode of independent learning. One very important point of these definitions is that they fit with the idea of a mode of learning, and not an ability or a capacity for a way of learning, as is the case with, for example, autonomous learning (Holec, 1981; Little, 2001). What is under investigation in this book is what actually happens as students engage in a specific mode of learning - their capacity to do this is a question that comes after. The fact that the term ‘independent learning’ has been less used in the literature than the other terminology outlined in this section means that its discussion is less developed, and as a result, less disputed, and less likely to be confusing to readers. It is, in other words, a less ‘loaded’ terminology.
Unlike descriptions of learning such as self-regulated learning and autonomous learning described earlier, independent learning includes learning scenarios that are not necessarily completely volitional and as such can include a wider group of learning situations, included learning tasks and content that may be chosen by someone other than the learner, or learning that the learner might not personally choose to undertake based on personal preference. Rather, as it has been defined in this volume, it describes a more inclusive mode of learning, undertaken independently, that is not limited to (but is inclusive of) volitional, self-motivated or self-chosen learning.
If educators seek to develop the abilities for lifelong learning, this necessitates the practice of learning that can support learning with or without the direction, guidance, and evaluation of a teacher - “the over-arching goal of all teaching is to help learners act more independently within a chosen range of domains” (Littlewood, 1996, p. 428). Educators, who hold this viewpoint, pragmatically need to prepare learners for both learning that they will need to do and learning that they may choose to do, on their own volition, not only one or the other. The speed of change in modern society is now creating a situation where we also need to have the ability to learn across domains, within novel domains.
Volitional and non-volitional learning
There are two strong reasons for an understanding of independent learning to include both volitional and non-volitional learning. First, both forms of learning occur. All learners will, throughout their lives, engage in many learning endeavours, some prompted by external needs or demands, others undertaken as a result of intrinsic motivations. As such the researching of learning that is largely under the direction of the learner that excludes non-volitional learning leaves gaps both in the knowledge we can gain from research and in the knowledge we provide to learners about how to learn better. We will not have a full understanding of the learning experiences they are likely to have.
One example of the dangers of limiting research (and practice, which is often guided by research directions) to that of only volitional learning can be found in the field of self-access language learning, which is a relatively new field that has grown out of the area of learner autonomy. Alongside traditional language learning programmes, many educational institutions, particularly tertiary institutions, now have self-access language learning centres (SALCs), where students can continue and expand on their language learning and practice independently. One of the points of discussion in this field is whether or not the usage of such centres should be voluntary or not (Gardner & Miller, 2011), with perhaps more practitioners agreeing with the voluntary stance. There are good reasons for this - doing so creates a separation between such learning and classroom learning and homework, which can have very positive motivational effects for learners. It also places the responsibility on the shoulders of learners for engaging in such learning, which does move them in an independent direction, which is the goal of such centres. However, the situation is not that simple. Most SALCs, as they have developed, have not only administrative staff but also dedicated academic staff (often referred to as ‘learning advisors’). The reason for this is that independent learning is very difficult for learners (e.g. tertiary level students will generally, at that stage of their learning careers, have, to a large degree, experienced only more directed, guided forms of learning), and they need to be supported by educators. Given that we expect everyone to engage in lifelong learning, and that such learning will necessarily be more independent and less supported throughout learners’ lives, by simply having learners use such centres in a volitional manner, we have several problems.
Not all future learning will be volitional, so the experience of volitional learning, where high intrinsic motivation is present, will not mirror all future learning situations, for example, where independent learning is a requirement (e.g. the need to keep learning how to use more advanced technology platforms in the workplace). The experiences of choosing to learn and needing to learn (possibly needing to learn something that holds no personal interest) are very different. Second, by making such learning volitional, we are excluding learners from the learning experience who choose, for their own reasons, not to take this learning opportunity (Carson, 2012). This is limiting, in that it excludes those learners from gaining experience in a supported environment of learning to learn independently, even though this is a mode of learning they will have to engage with volitionally and non-volitionally throughout their lives.
The second reason, also pragmatic, pertains to the ‘researchability’ of elusive or less accessible areas of learning, such as independent learning. Zimmerman and Moylan (2009), highlighting this issue, state that “one of the most challenging issues that confronts educational researchers is explaining how students learn in self-regulated contexts, such as when studying or practicing on their own” (Zimmerman & Moylan, 2009, p. 299). By examining ‘non-volitional’ learning, it is possible for the researcher to create some degree of structure to allow for the accurate collection of valid data in independent learning, through, for example, setting specific learning tasks or choosing a specific ‘site’ for learning, without creating a ‘false’ or laboratory-type clinical examination. Information gained in such a context can then be used and built on by future researchers to research the even looser, less controllable learning scenarios of intrinsically motivated and self-chosen learning. This volume simply seeks to be one step on the stairs towards greater understanding of learning.
In light of the discussion here, the term ‘independent learning’ has been chosen to describe the mode of learning undertaken within this study and it has been defined for the purpose of this study as “the act of learning without (or with decreasing amounts of) external direction, guidance and evaluation, in volitional and non-volitional contexts”. This definition can accommodate the types of learning under investigation: learning where the control rests largely in the hand of the learner, whether required learning, volitionally chosen learning or the grey areas (comprising independent and dependent stages and elements) in between.