How Do Students Develop Independent Learning Skills?

6 min to read
An elementary student in a blue plaid shirt works online to become a better independent learner.

Amazing things happen when students take ownership of their education: 

  • They strive independently to understand concepts and the ways in which they’re connected—not just memorize facts and details. 
  • They accept the responsibility for what they learn, how they learn it, and when.  
  • They are self-motivated to achieve their academic potential by sticking with problems until they solve them and asking for help before frustration sets in.  
  • They develop a growth mindset and challenge themselves to improve their academic and life skills. 

Self-motivated learners flourish academically. They also become efficient time managers, critical thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and can efficiently hone other skills that are essential to success in school, college, and careers. 

Academic and life skills can be taught, learned, and developed over time, and students can start understanding how to become independent students as early as middle grades. 

“By the time she was starting high school she was completely independent.” — Online school parent 

Parents who have enrolled their children in online schools such as Connections Academy®  have a pivotal role in helping their kids become highly motivated, highly dedicated lifelong learners. Here are a few things you can do to help your student thrive as an independent learner: 

1. Becoming a Learning Coach and Teaching Independent Learners

Online schools may give parents the option to become more deeply involved in their children’s education by serving as Learning Coaches.   

Through their active support, Learning Coaches are part cheerleader, part mentor, and part guide. As a Learning Coach, you can prepare your student to become an independent learner early in their online education journey by instilling basic organizational skills in them. Those can include: 

  • Sorting by subject. Show your student how to manage hard-copy and computer folders, set goals, and maintain schedules to achieve them. Make them responsible for tracking their work and progress and keep an eye on it until they can do it on their own. 
  • Planning ahead. Previewing the week’s learning objectives gives kids a head start on thinking about what they know, what they want to learn, and setting goals. Planning time is also a chance to learn about deadlines and time management
  • Ending the day on a positive note. Encouragement, especially after a tough day, is crucial to developing a self-motivated learner. Explain why struggle is part of learning. Talk about what stumped them and why they got stuck and remind them they’ll get another crack at solving the problem tomorrow. 

Keep in mind that effective Learning Coaches help students do things for themselves and don’t do it for them. If you need help adjusting to online school, talk to your student’s online teachers. They are dedicated to helping your child succeed. 

An online student in yellow sitting at a desk on a laptop participating in an independent learning activity

2. Embracing Struggle as a Critical Independent Learning Activity

ASCD, a teaching resource featuring leading educators in K–12 education, calls productive struggle “a learner’s sweet spot.” 

It exists in a region that academics call the zone of proximal development — the space between giving learners too much help too early and not giving enough when needed.   

Students who struggle productively motivate themselves to persist in solving problems. The satisfaction of working through difficulty by themselves builds their confidence to seek out and overcome new challenges. They also learn that coming up short one day creates opportunities to learn the next. If they’re still stumped, they know how to ask for help.   

“If they excel in a certain subject, they can work ahead. If they are struggling with a subject, they can take extra time to make sure they fully understand what is being taught before moving on to the next lesson.” — Online school parent 

Why Do Kids Have to Struggle in Order to Become an Independent Student?

Productive struggle is a balancing act. Giving students too much help before they get in their zone produces boredom and reliance on others to do their work. If you don’t step in when the task starts to overwhelm them, the struggle is no longer productive, and they can lose control of their emotions and give up. 

But when you guide them into their “sweet spot,” and they trust they’re not alone, they become successful independent learners. 

Online schools are a great place to let your student stretch their wings and test their independence with you being just close enough to step in if they need support. In online school, students learn how to be resourceful, adaptable, and resilient, which builds the skills they need to find success later in life.

3. Encouraging Note-Taking by Hand

Learning how to study by yourself is an essential skill for independent learners. 

The quality of studying depends on the quality of your notes, and one way to improve both is to go analog instead of digital: In other words, taking notes by hand instead of by computer.

Computers are highly effective learning tools. They are great for research, communication, and collaboration. But students who use them tend to transcribe lectures rather than process the information through note-taking.  

Research has found that digital note-takers capture a lot of facts, which is great for rote memorization. On the other hand, students who write their notes out by hand learn how to listen to the information (a critical skill in and of itself), and absorb, digest, and interpret it.  

“So, what does old-school note-taking get right that its digital counterpart lacks?” The research concludes, “It is quite simple: quality over quantity.” 

Taking notes by hand has other benefits. Students can use charts, tables, mind maps, and other visualizations to organize information. That supports conceptual understanding and connections, which in turn develops critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. 

Why Do Independent Learners Preview and Review Notes?

Critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills are vital to self-motivated learning. Self-motivated students don’t wait to be told to preview notes—whether handwritten or digital—from previous lessons to prepare for the next. And, after each lesson, they take time to review their notes to reinforce what they’ve learned and ensure they’ve captured the important parts.  

What Are Some Ways to Give Students Ownership in Education?

Students who take responsibility for their academic success have a personal investment in their academic success. And, over time, students who have a voice in creating their educational experience reap rewards such as confidence, inspiration, and independence. 

Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar schools with their regimented teaching and curriculum, Connections Academy provides opportunities for parents of even the youngest learners to own parts of the process through: 

  • Flexible school-day scheduling, which allows parents to take control of their students’ prime learning time, including when to take breaks and accommodate extracurricular activities. 

“Some kids work better in the morning and others after they relax a little. Some might even be night owls... It’s OK to let them work at their best time! "" —Online school parent 

  • Personal learning spaces, which give kids and their parents a chance to create a welcoming, inspiring learning space for their online studies. 
  • School-supply lists that include student-selected motivational posters, paint and color schemes, and kid-sized furniture to create a space they’ll enjoy working in every day. 

Becoming an independent learner takes time, but self-motivated students know how and when to ask for help. If your student continues to struggle with certain concepts or begins to fall behind, it may be time for a tutor. Many online schools offer varying degrees of tutoring services to support your student. Here are some ways to tell if your student needs a tutor.  

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