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How to be great at independent study

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For some of us, the benefits of independent study are endless: working at your own pace, and studying in your own time. But for others, the freedom can be intimidating.

So, how can we truly make sure we’re getting the most out of our independent study time?

Thinking about thinking

Metacognition is an important concept when it comes to learning, especially if you are studying at higher levels - or on your own.

Cognition refers to the mental processes that help you gain knowledge and learn. These processes include the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information.

Meta on the other hand means ‘higher than’ or ‘overarching’. Put the two together to mean something that sits above learning. It’s often described as ‘thinking about thinking’ or in this context ‘thinking about learning’.

Working smarter, not harder

When you spend a lot of time studying, thinking about the way you learn might feel pointless. But this concept falls under the heading of working smarter, not harder.

As mentioned, cognition is about mental processes, storage, and retrieval. This relates to memory, manipulation, the shifting of attention, and changing of perception etc. But the meta aspect creates distance, allowing us to become aware of what we are doing.

It allows us to stand back and observe how our perception has changed. This reflection is a high-level skill that many believe is unique to humans.

It means we can take control of how we learn. We can plan tasks, change strategies, monitor the approaches that work and evaluate the whole process.

How to apply Metacognition

Firstly, keep it simple.

It’s easy to overcomplicate metacognition. In some ways it can be little more than asking a few basic questions, to make you more aware of how you’re learning. This can help you identify what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some examples as to how you might do this:

  • Talk to yourself. Ask questions at each stage, ''Does this make sense? I have read it several times. Maybe I should try writing it down'.
  • Ask 'Have I set myself sensible and realistic goals?' Don't'set yourself up to fail.
  • Maybe shake things up and try a different approach. For example, mind mapping. But remember to reflect on how effective it was or wasn't.
  • Ask 'Do I need help from anyone?' This could be a fellow student or try VideoBank or OnDemand, which are great ways to find explanations in a different format.

Clearly these skills are helpful for all students, but they are especially valuable when studying on your own - on a distance learning programme or in large periods of self-study.

Benefits

There are many reasons for investing some time in this area.

  • Growing self-confidence – by finding out how you learn you’ll discover your strengths and weaknesses. Confidence isn’t about being good at everything, but understanding your limitations and working around them.
  • Improves performance – research has shown that students who actively engage in metacognition do better in exams.
  • Gives you control – you are no longer reliant on the way something is taught; you have the ability to teach yourself. Being an autonomous learner is also hugely motivational.
  • The skills are transferable – this knowledge will not only help with your current subjects but all that follow, not to mention what you will need to learn in the workplace.

It will take some time initially but metacognition is part of learning, it’s an essential component that can enable you to know more about yourself. So why not do it sooner rather than later?

For more information on Metacognition, there are many materials and sites available.

The Learn Better blog is a series of evidence based stories from the world of education, with a common theme - to inspire and motivate students. They are mostly based on original articles/blogs by Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith.

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