Independent learning: Student perceptions and experiences

Liz Thomas Associates (LTA) and the National Union of Students (NUS) have been awarded a research contract by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) to explore the perspectives and experiences of students in relation to independent learning in higher education. This new study builds on the research on directed independent learning previously undertaken by Liz Thomas Associates for the HEA and QAA (to be published at the end of February).

Aims of the study

The aims of the research are two-fold:
a) To explore students’ conceptions and experiences of directed independent learning, including how they were made aware of its role in higher education, how they were prepared for it within the context of their discipline, and how they have approached it; and
b) To disseminate the findings in order to assist disciplines in developing or reinforcing effective practice.

Research questions

In pursuit of these aims, the project will explore the following research questions:

1) How do HE students understand, approach and experience directed independent learning in the context of their disciplines?
2) How are HE students introduced to and prepared for different forms of independent learning in the disciplines?
3) What do students consider to be effective directed independent learning practice?
4) What examples of effective disciplinary practices do they identify?
5) What aspects of directed independent learning do students find most challenging and why?
6) What do students feel would help them become more effective independent learners in their disciplines?
7) In what ways can the findings from this study inform the development and use of directed independent learning in the disciplines?
8) What forms of communicating and disseminating these findings will develop and reinforce effective practice in directed independent learning?

Research design and methodology

We have designed a mixed methods, in-depth qualitative study, which involves students as partners at each stage of the research (design, implementation and analysis). It is intended to provide genuine insights into students’ perspectives and experiences of independent learning, and inform practice across the higher education sector. Key features of our methodology include:

• A review of academic literature in relation to student and disciplinary perspectives on independent learning and in particular, directed independent learning.
• Qualitative diaries from 100 students across the four disciplinary areas namely Hard/Pure; Soft/Pure; Hard/Applied; and Soft/Applied.
• Recruitment, training and support of 16 peer researchers from participating higher education institutions to conduct interviews with their peers.
• Follow-up interviews with approximately 80 students who have completed diaries, to tease out how expectations of learning in higher education were shaped and informed, and how these compared with their experiences at different levels in higher education, and learning from their experiences.
• Facebook Group to provide wider engagement with the issue of students’ experiences of independent learning.
• Participatory workshops for students to explore the interpretation of the research findings, and how independent learning can be better communicated to students to enhance their preparation for and experience of independent learning.
• Participatory workshops for academic staff to consider how the findings can be used to develop or reinforce practice and how they can be most effectively disseminated.


The main output will be a research report, delivered summer 2015.

Further information

For further information please email

Information for students  >

Student experiences of independent learning

Information for students

 We're conducting a UK-wide research study in partnership with the NUS on independent learning in higher education. The study will be looking at what students such as you think about all of the learning that you do when you're not in lectures, seminars or classes: when you're working on course-work, doing assignments, reading in the library, and all of those other things you do in your course when you're not being directly taught by someone. Finding out what people like you think about this will help improve students' experience of higher education.

We are very keen to hear about your views and experiences. And if you take part we will give you a payment of £30 in total to show our appreciation.Before you can begin - and receive your first payment - you need to complete the on-line registration form . It's easy to do and should only take a few minutes.

More information about the project is available here and you can watch a short video about the project here

A sample diary can be viewed here.

Thank you very much: we really hope you'll agree to get involved in this study.