What does it mean to be an independent learner?

Studying at university involves a lot more independent (self) study than in secondary school. Dr Marc Fabri, project lead for Autism&Uni, shares his expectations of students working as independent learners at university.

Photograph of Marc Fabri

Studying at university involves a lot more independent (self) study than in secondary school. While subjects involving a lot of practical sessions can lead to very busy timetables, for many courses there is relatively little contact (teaching) time and a lot of reading and note-taking to do outside of lectures.

The amount of learning material is much larger, it has to be mastered in a shorter period of time and it is not repeated as frequently as it was in school or college. Outside of tests, assignments and exams, nobody will be checking whether or not you understand what you are learning. That’s both interesting and challenging – sometimes school can feel like you’re just doing what you’re told and ticking boxes of doing all the work only doing as much work as you need to so you can pass exams. At university, you’re in control of what work you do, how much and when.

You have to learn how to quickly and effectively extract the most important elements from what you read and hear and to make a distinction between types of source (librarians can help you with this, and often run sessions on how to work more effectively and become information literate). While your course will have a reading list, you’ll also need to work out which are the most important items on the list and read beyond that. Some course teams will separate reading lists in to essential and supplementary/suggested reading which may help with prioritising but if not you can ask your tutor to assist with this. There is no expectation that you read absolutely everything on the reading list.

On top of that, you have to manage your time – when you get up, when you eat, leave for teaching sessions, do all the other work, go to any appointments you have booked, have a life outside study, go to bed…

“Modules are moving too fast, and I do not have time to learn all the things I would like to. I am slow at reading and hearing and my memory is bad. The speed of completing assignments and note-taking is also slow, as I tend to be a very neat and precise writer. There is no time to properly read books on the subject .” (current student)

All students take time to develop study strategies when starting university but there is help and support available, see below for additional information and links.

About Marc Fabri

Marc Fabri is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. He leads the Autism&Uni project and also the IMAGE project which aims to improve employability for autistic graduates. You can find out more about his research here.

Additional information and links

To help you prepare for university and understand what it means to be an independent learner, you can complete an introductory module called ‘Prepare to Learn‘ before you start university

When you start you will have an introduction to the library as part of your course induction. Here you will be introduced to your Academic Librarian who will be able to offer help and support with course materials and research at any point throughout your studies. If you miss your library induction or would like to meet with the Academic Librarian for your course on a 1:1 basis you can book an appointment with them via the subject guide webpage.

The Skills for Learning team is based in the library and offers a range of online resources, workshops and 1:1 tutorials to support academic development; from academic communication, to maths skills, to group skills, referencing and exam techniques. You can find out more here.