Independence in College

Independence in College:

Can Independent Learners in College Still Make Good Grades?

In a traditional college, students generally depend on their professors to tell them what textbook to buy and what chapters to read each week. They listen to the lectures and do their assignments without ever considering that  they could make decisions about what, when, and how to learn.

red brick college buildingThere are a few colleges that are almost the opposite of this. Students must choose what to read, and what projects to do by themselves. They can even design a special  major for themselves.

Some people even believe that to get a good education, to be a truly independent, one must be entirely self-educated. They might agree that you should go through the first several years of school to learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but after that, these self-educated students take complete charge of what they learn. They list people like Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison as self-educated learners.

Now, we might point to students who dropped out of college to start innovative high-tech computer companies as “self-educated.” Think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Dell. They knew what they wanted and were in a hurry to get started.

But it certainly is NOT necessary to drop out of school to be self-educated or to be an independent learner. Most students, whether they realize it or not, find themselves somewhere in between the two extremes.

Five Levels of Independence in Learning

Students who take only the required classes and who do not find any of the interesting, students who study only to make the grades they need to graduate are NOT independent learners. They really aren’t learners at all. They “learn” only what they have to learn to pass their tests and nothing more. They soon forget the information they memorized and they really don’t care. In spite of their lack of interest they might improve their skills in reading and writing. They might pick up some skills they will use in their field of work. But they never get an education. These are the dependent students.

No one believes any more that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes. The truth is that school don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. — John Taylor Gatto

1. The Highly Motivated Learner

But there are other students who take the same classes, do the same assignments, and take the same tests who are more independent. This is because they love those classes. They are eager to learn. Their goals, written or unwritten, are a close match to the goals of the professor. What they are required to learn is exactly what they want to learn.

This isn’t all that unusual. I felt this way about all my Biology classes. Every lecture was exciting. The textbooks were filled with information I really wanted to learn. I greeted each term paper as an opportunity to learn more about this subject I loved. I’m not sure what John Gatto would have to say about me. I certainly could have learned this information on my own but I appreciated having the professors guide me in my study.

Another way this kind of student acts independently is by taking classes that are not required, sometimes simply sitting in on a class, with the permission of a professor, learning the material but not receiving credit. As an eager learner, I frequently sat in on classes just because I wanted to learn more. I also sat in on classes where I needed to  re-learn the material but couldn’t register because I already had credit for the course. About fifteen years after I took calculus, I began taking physics classes but had forgotten everything I learned in calculus. I sat in on a class for the entire year and certainly understood it better the second time through.

Did I work to make good grades? Certainly. I worked hard and made A’s in the classes I loved, including those where I was only sitting in. I settled for B’s in classes I had to take but didn’t love as much. To me, grades weren’t that important as learning what I wanted to learn. It was my education and I wanted to do it my way.

2. The Partially Independent Student does Independent Study related to some classes.

Seth – the psychology student who decided to study Psychological Testing on his own – was Partially Independent.

It is a good idea for all students to find one or more topics in every class that they find interesting. You can put extra time and effort into studying that topic. This increases your control over what you are learning and you will be more highly motivated. It also will help you develop a good relationship or even friendship with your professor if you discuss the topics you are studying.

3. The Moderately Independent Learner

These students are dependent in some classes, learning only what they need to make decent grades. In other classes, they go beyond what is required. And occasionally, they work totally independently.

they are Many schools offer credit for Independent Study in a particular area. You might, for example, do an independent study in Physics, or History, or Literature.  You might check to see what the requirements are. You would need to select a topic  appropriate for a one-semester study. You should also find a professor who will encourage you to design your own study, rather than telling you what you should read or learn. In these classes, you might write one or several long papers to receive credit for the class, but would not need to take a test.

There are other classes that appear to use independent study. These allow you to get credit for a class by passing a test. You still need to read the same textbook, but you won’t need to attend classes or lectures. At the end of the semester, you need to pass a test on the book. This allows you to manage your own time, but does not give you a real experience in independent learning.

4. The Truly Independent Learner

These students start by setting goals. They decide what they want from their education. They don’t complain about required courses, but instead find material in most of their classes that will help them reach their educational goals. When they are required to write a paper, they see this as a wonderful opportunity to improve writing skills and to explore a topic that is interesting and important to them.

At times, either as an independent study (for credit) or completely on their own will explore a subject, often taking good notes, organizing the material, thinking about it and using several ways of remembering the material, hoping it will stay in their long-term memory for a very long time.

Certainly they could do this sort of independent study without attending college, but the resources including the libraries and labs that are available can be wonderfully helpful. The student might even have serious conversations with professors in the field.

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. The only function of a school is to make self-education easier; failing that, it does nothing.   —  Isaac Asimov

Most of these students do the work needed to get good grades and earn their diploma because they understand that graduation is required for most jobs. Then, in addition to taking their classes, these students begin working independently to study the subjects they really want to learn.They don’t do this just for one or two classes. They pursue independent goals all through several years.

One student might have begun research on finding a cure for some disease while in high school and continues this research in college. Another might have decided to be a writer. In addition to the assignments for a creative writing class, she might have begun work on their first novel. This student might be interested in the history of a particular tribal group. While this isn’t included in any history classes, he might spend a great deal of time and effort with the help of the librarians, to collect information. He might spend summers visiting elders in this tribe to record their memories.

5. The Totally Independent Student who has no interest in graduation

Some students don’t see a need for a diploma. I know a young man who wants to be a web designer. He knows he can work in this area without graduating from college as long as he has experience and skills in the area.  He chose not to take any of the general education classes. He is taking only classes that will help him reach his goals. He will also look for internships, paid or unpaid, where he can work in the field to get the experience he needs.

This is my favorite quote about independent learning, partly because it ties in so well with the image on the home page comparing learning to eating and digesting our food.

Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.    — Leonardo Da Vinci

For more information:
The Strange Journey from Independent Learning to Lifelong Learning   Lifelong Learning

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