Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

How do you encourage independent and self-directed learning?

Vicky Ann Solah
School of Public Health
Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science
Curtin University of Technology


I am in my first year as Lecturer, Food Science at Curtin University of Technology. My fifteen years in cereal grain research with New South Wales Agriculture, The Bread Research Institute of Australia and Agriculture Western Australia means I have worked with and trained many people who have entered the work force straight from University. I have also sat on over twenty interview panels for scientific positions.

A technical position with the Academy of Grain Technology, which is the technical and scientific division of the Australian Wheat Board in Western Australia, stated that the " ... successful applicant will be expected to be self motivated, meticulous, pro-active and have the ability to work unsupervised". Obviously, the need to encourage independent and self directed learning is essential to the student if they are to compete in the employment market.

I set about researching how I could achieve this goal by joining the Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, 1996.

Discussion and Reflection through Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series

Through the Teaching Learning Group, I focused on helping students learn more effectively. Peter Radloff (Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, session three, 1996) presented the idea: I aimed to introduce the ideas of Radloff in the following ways:
  1. reinforcing verbal interaction;
  2. making sure the students knew any comment was acceptable and that no question was silly;
  3. encouraging student support of each other by having practical reports submitted in pairs;
  4. slowing down the lecture and reducing content;
  5. having students prepare one page flow diagrams of the procedure to be followed in the practical class. This was an assessment task.
The results were encouraging. Students asked progressively more questions as they got to know me. This often meant explaining a topic in a different way until everyone understood. A few students also spoke to me after class if they wanted more information. With the reduced pace of the lecture, students had more time to consider if they were understanding and think of questions during the lecture. The flow diagrams of the 'practical' meant the basic steps did not need to be explained and students had a small amount of background knowledge. As a result questions were more creative (exploring), critical and relevant. Furthermore the flow diagrams also encouraged independence.

Zuber-Skerritt (1992, p.29) states that:

... it is pointed out to students that one of the main goals of higher education is to develop a critical mind, rather than accumulate a vast amount of factual knowledge. Rather than memorising facts , students should try to look for key concepts or ideas and learn the methods of how and where to find the facts. They should be able to retrieve information and to transfer and apply it to new fields and tasks, to relate it to their personal knowledge and experience. They should try to understand, to reflect, to analyse, to interpret, to discover and eventually to create new knowledge.
With this in mind, a process adopted to encourage critical thinking, was to use the knowledge of students to provide relevant background information for the lecture. In class overseas students spoke informally about wheat products from their home countries. For example a German student spoke about sour dough bread fermentation and baking, a Bosnian student spoke about pretzel bread and a Chinese student also spoke about hand making noodles. The ideas presented expanded everyone's knowledge, including my own. Involving student in this way not only helped the self-esteem of overseas students but also help local students.

This was also extremely helpful to the class with relation to cross-cultural teaching. In the presentation Teaching in a Cross-cultural Context (Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, session eleven, 1996) the importance of local students realising the great contribution of overseas student in the food area was stressed.

In the final exam, a question was asked in class that related to the discussion on noodles and bread. Despite the usefulness of the students examples, not one student used the personal examples to answer the question. Most overseas student and a lot of local students simply reproduced basic information that I had included in overheads. Most did not discuss. I was surprised and dismayed that such valuable information was left out.

Creative, critical thinking and analytical skills are more effectively developed through discussion or exercise, workshops , problem solving and experience-based learning activities. (Bligh,1972)
In taking the ideas of Bligh on board, work will be needed to give students the skills to think, discuss and not just reproduce. Actually including personal experience in relation to food as practice exam questions, may help. This would reinforce that the knowledge already acquired, can be used to answer questions.

Teaching Strategies Developed from Reflective Practice

I began by taking a deliberate approach. In "Teaching at University" by Alex Radloff and Eamon Murphy you are encouraged to use a 'Teaching Portfolio' to record teaching experiences, help reflection and hopefully develop skills and knowledge about teaching.
Develop a teaching portfolio in which you describe any innovations and new developments in your teaching. Make changes to your teaching a part of action research and publish your findings or present them at appropriate meetings or conferences. (Radloff, A. and Murphy, E., Teaching at University, 1992, p.52).
As part of the Teaching Portfolio a diary as suggested by Susan Hall (Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, session one, 1996) was a most helpful tool. This allowed recording of good ideas during Reflective Teaching Practice sessions. The process of keeping a record also meant I would think about acting on these ideas and talk to others in the department about these actions. The supervisng Lecturer in Food Science was very supportive of new ideas that may improve the classroom.
... a university teacher who wishes to adopt a social constructivist perspective and work towards creating a communicative and reflective learning environment in her lecture theatre or tutorial classroom will need to develop important interpersonal skills.
A Questionnaire for Monitoring Social Constructive Reform in University Teaching by Peter Taylor, Darrel Fisher and Barry Fraser- Curtin University of Technology was a good starting point. (Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, session four, 1996)

To start working towards developing interpersonal skills I used the questionnaire to obtain valuable information about my teaching and the students. The results of the questionnaire were extremely helpful. Having the questionnaire completed by the students gave me reassurance that the classroom is a pleasant place to be, but identified that the students feel they need help in becoming better learners. Also discovered was the attitude that many nutrition and dietetics students thought food science had no relevance to their main study area.

In response, in every lecture I made a point of explaining why I thought the topic was relevant. For example high fibre white bread is an extremely interesting to both nutrition and food science areas because it is made from resistant starch not fibre.

New Developments

To further aid the process of encouraging independence a mentor scheme to place students in a real work situation has been started. Food science is a fairly new course at Curtin so it has been necessary to place students with one of my previous employers in the food area. Two student so far have been placed. They will be paid for their work so they are accountable. I help supervise their work giving my time to teach basics, and problem solve.

Other initiatives through teaching learning forum included up front communication with students on marking, changing lecture style and the idea of increased independence and participation. For example, setting ground rules for marking and discussions on how to stop the problem of continually chasing marks.

Many people gave helpful direction. For example the suggestion: "What about encouraging interaction and discussion with students about self-directed learning?" (Susan Hall, Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education series, semester two, session seven, 1996) I feel that making the students 'self-directed lifelong learners' is extremely important. Furthermore, employers want independent thinkers more now than ever. Some progress has been made in assessing and changing the class-room.

A real assessment of whether the student are independent and self directed learners will not be evident until they are in the work force.


Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1992). Action Research In Higher Education - Examples and Reflections.

Bligh, D. A. (1972). What's the Use of Lectures?

Radloff, A., Murphy, E. (1992). Teaching at University.

Taylor, P., Fisher, D. and Fraser, B. (1996). A Questionnaire for Monitoring Social Constructive Reform in University Teaching.

Please cite as: Solah, V. A. (1997). How do you encourage independent and self-directed learning? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p303-306. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/solah.html

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