Independent learning skills

ADMINISTRATION             LEARNING & TEACHING   SUPPORT
(Not relevant to this topic)   Starting well with practical skills   Learning Centre & Counselling Service
    Motivation & Self-directed learning   Other resources for learning skills
        Student mentoring & PASS programs


Starting off well with practical skills

Many first year students may arrive at university without having acquired the skills necessary for university learning.They may tend to view their time out of lectures and tutorials classroom as 'free' time, rather than as time for independent study and research.

In order to transition well to university, first year students may require some help to develop practical study skills, and self-management techniques that will make their learning more efficient, and their learning experience less stressful and more successful.

Skills they may need to learn or improve include:

  • time management
  • ways to avoid procrastination
  • getting organised
  • effective note-taking and efficient reading
  • sourcing and analysing information for its relevance to their research
  • exam preparation.


Early intervention is important for students who may have difficulty in these areas. Design your unit of study (UoS) schedule with an assessment task that occurs early in the semester (before week 6) so that you can pick up on difficulties. See Assessment tasks for more information.

Learning Centre and Counselling Service programs

The Learning Centre offers a number of workshops, and the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offer Skillshops for students. These courses cover many of the skills students will need to acquire.

These are all free of charge and are offered at a range of times throughout the year.

The Learning Centre also has a Help Yourself resource to provide quick answers to common student questions, with links to more detailed information.

Independent learning

Student motivation and self-directed learning

In the transition from secondary school to university study, many first year students may not yet understand that becoming an adult learner involves developing the ability to direct their own learning.

Some ways to motivate students to self-direct their learning at tertiary level include:

  • designing relevant & interesting curricula – with clear descriptions of learning objectives, stimulating learning activities, and helpful assessments & feedback. See Unit of study design.
  • engaging students with active learning methods - see Active learning
  • setting clear expectations for independent learning, for example, defined tutorial tasks each week of the semester where the student is required to arrive at the tutorial with the tasks completed
  • designing assessment tasks that get students to refer to sources other than their text book and to think beyond what is required for the exam. Your UoS should emphasise that all the content is important and useful.
  • using online learning to create learning activities that supplement in-class work. This can help students acclimatise to self-directed learning, especially when you have large classes of students with diverse abilities. Articulate Presenter software can be an effective and interesting way to create online learning material. See Resources to assist with blended learning in our Blended (e)Learning section for more information on this particular software, as well as other suggestions.
  • clarifying the connections between your unit and the student’s degree program. This is more of an issue when first year students undertake foundational programs or service taught units of study in areas outside their chosen discipline. They may have difficulty being motivated, asking 'why do I need to learn this?', if they can’t see the unit’s connection to their discipline area. For some tips on dealing with this see Clarifying the relevance of your topic in Service teaching.
  • displaying enthusiasm for your topic encourages students to become enthusiastic about learning themselves. It also helps you give more positive feedback, thus further encouraging students, as discussed in this article: “Enthusiasm and Feedback: a Winning Combination”.
  • encouraging student involvement in the broader community, at the university and beyond, can also help them to feel part of a community of adult learners. See Learning community.


For more information on designing your UoS activities and assessment to foster student confidence in their own learning skills see: Strategies for improving student self-efficacy – narrative-centred learning and creative problem solving from the ITL bulletin Teaching @ Sydney.

Other resources on building independent learning skills

Enquiry based learning encourages students to develop their skills in independent learning and critical thinking, by encouraging them to ask their own questions, which will assist them in framing their own research interests in senior years. The Merlot Pedagogy website provides links to a number of resources and articles on ways to incorporate inquiry-based learning into your unit of study.

Student mentoring programs and Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS)

Mentoring and PASS programs can be of enormous help to students who may be struggling in their transition to university learning.

Among their many other benefits, these programs can assist individual students to develop and implement the necessary study skills. This is because hearing about the real-life experiences of senior student mentors or leaders, and seeing good study habits and attitudes modeled by their peers, is often far more meaningful to junior students than getting advice from academic staff.

Check if your faculty or department has either of these types of program in place and, if so, recommend them to your first year students.