Skip to content

Introduction to university study: Independent learning

"taking responsibility for your own learning is ... likely to achieve better outcomes, such as higher marks and a better overall degree.”

Joan Turner, How to Study

At university, unlike at school or college, you need to take control of your own learning - that is, become an independent learner. This means taking responsibility for your own learning activities; having confidence to take your own informed decisions; staying motivated; and appreciating the value of reflecting on your learning to ensure it is effective. This page gives you some pointers in how to approach this transition.

What is independent learning?

You are expected to engage with academic work for approximately 30-35 hours a week whilst at university. You will not have this amount of direct contact time with lecturers and other teaching staff, so the rest of the time you need to work independently. This means organising your own time, finding and engaging with resources such as books, academic journal articles and online materials as well as working towards your assignments.

student alone

It is important to stress that independent learning does not mean working on your own. It is about working out what works best for you and acting on that knowledge. This may well include finding quiet, personal time, but equally sharing problems or difficulties with other people on your course or in your flat may be the best course of action. 

student group

Working with someone else, encouraging each other and talking through difficulties may be the most effective way of working independently. If you have a problem, explaining it to someone else can help to clarify issues for you. Explaining a concept to someone without shared background knowledge is a very good way of making sure you understand the full implications of the concept.

PASS logo

If you are lucky enough to have PASS (Peer Assisted Student Success) timetabled in your subject area then you have a ready-made opportunity for working independently with your peers. PASS enables you to talk through difficulties and share knowledge so that you understand the material more deeply (and can remember it more when it comes to exams). Even without PASS you can meet up with classmates yourself to do the same thing.

info icon

Independent learning is about about making informed decisions. It can be quite difficult to move from an environment where you are told what to do, to one where you are expected to find out for yourself. To be able to do this, you need to be aware of what is wanted of you and of where you can find that information. You also need to recognise what skills you need to improve and where to find help.

Skills for independent learning

Many of the skills needed for independent learning are represented in our SkillsGuides, particularly: 

All entries in the list above are linked to specific guides and pages to help you develop those skills.

In addition, the areas you need to develop may relate directly to your particular discipline. Here, any independent work will increase your confidence - which will help you learn more effectively.

Independent learning top tips pdf


Printable guide

A single page printable guide with our top independent learning tips.

Click on the link above or the image to download the PDF.

How to learn independently

Analyse your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

To be able to work independently, you need to know your own strengths, admit weaknesses, make the most of opportunities and recognise potential threats. Therefore, undertaking a SWOT analysis can be a really helpful start.

Strengths - What do you already know or really enjoy about your discipline? Also, look at the list of skills above - are there any that you feel confident with already? Other things like motivation and focus could be strengths too.

Weaknesses - Which of the skills above do you think you are weak at? Be honest with yourself. Admitting it is the first stage in seeking help and advice. This could just be looking online for help (as you are doing right now!), or it could be attending a workshop or making an appointment to talk to an adviser. You are not expected to be able to do everything straight away - but you need to develop these skills during your time at university. 

Opportunities - Being in control of your own learning can be a great opportunity as you have the freedom to develop your own interests and ways of working. Make a note of things you are looking forward to now that you are in control!

Threats - Being in control can also mean things don't get done - so identify those things that you may let slip if you are not careful. If you haven't had to manage your own time before you may find it takes some getting use to. Procrastination can be another issue if you do not have somebody nagging you to get on with something. Like with weaknesses, it is important that you are honest with yourself here.

Work out your priorities


Once you've decided what your weaknesses/threats are, you can draw up a list:

  • Which need to be addressed urgently?
  • Which need addressing but can wait?
  • Is there a natural, logical order in which to tackle them?

Whatever your subject, don't be afraid to return to the basics if necessary. It may give you more confidence in the long run to ensure you have a firm understanding of basic concepts and techniques.

Set aside time

It will probably pay you to set aside a specific time each week for your independent work and write it down in your timetable. Unless a time is allocated in this way, it's all too easy for independent work to be squeezed out by other activities, and good intentions can wither away.

Look at your timetable. Where could you usefully fit in some independent study? Is there an odd hour, for example between a lecture and a tutorial, which usually just seems to disappear? Could that time be regularly used for independent work? Organising and reading over lecture notes? Going to the library and reading a journal that you wouldn't otherwise get round to?

Work out a study plan

What goals could you realistically set yourself? Don't make them too ambitious but set small goals or targets that you know you will be able to achieve without having to spend a very long time working on them. How many hours will you need to achieve them? How will you know when you've achieved them? Try giving yourself clear aims:

"In the next hour I will read and make notes on 2 articles."

"This evening I will develop a strategy for planning any essay."

Keep a record of what you have done

This can help with further planning and also give a sense of achievement as well as provide something to include in a progress file. As time goes by you may surprise yourself with what you've been able to cover. This could motivate you to keep going, increase your confidence, and even improve your results!

Your record need not be elaborate - simply a series of A4 sheets, for example, with a column for the date, one for the work covered and one for your reflections on the work. Reflecting on what you've done can help you decide whether the activity was really effective, whether an alternative approach might be better on another occasion, whether you spent the right amount of time and whether you achieved the target you'd set yourself.

Once you've achieved the target, the process of planning can start again. Your needs and priorities may have changed, so think about them and then set yourself another target.

Independent learning can become a lifelong habit.