The Value of Independent Study

By Carol A. Twigg

Sequence: Volume 30, Number 4


Release Date: July/August 1995

An underlying premise of Educom's National Learning Infrastructure
Initiative is that increased demand for higher education requires us to
develop new instructional models in order to serve students at a reasonable
cost. Put another way, the traditional model of one professor teaching 25
students per class, three times a week for 15 weeks, will not scale to meet
this increased demand because it is too expensive.

Recognizing the financial implications of relying solely on the traditional
model, colleges and universities have made significant use of the 200-seat
lecture hall, graduate student teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and the
like to control costs. Few would argue that these approaches improve the
quality of student learning. If the 25-student/one-professor-per-class model
costs more than we can afford and the 200-student lecture model sacrifices
educational quality, new models of instruction are needed. These
cost/quality limitations apply equally to on-campus, face-to-face forms of
instruction and their distance learning counterparts. If we merely apply
technology to traditional models-e.g., computer-based course models or
television-based lectures-we face comparable scaling problems.

To me, the solution to this dilemma lies in encouraging and supporting
greater student independence in the learning process and taking advantage of
technology to do so. Approximately 80 percent of the costs of colleges and
universities are attributable to personnel costs; consequently, controlling
costs means reducing the direct, personal intervention of faculty where
possible in the teaching and learning process. By lessening the need for
direct faculty intervention and increasing the ability of students to find
and use learning materials on their own, we can create more cost-effective
instruction. Not only is independent study more cost effective, it is the
key to higher quality. As I said in a recent Educom Review article:

Tomorrow's students will resemble today's research faculty and will possess
qualities of increased independence and self-reliance. No longer will
students be passively taught by teachers who organize the learning
experience for them. Students will learn how to find and use learning
materials that meet their own individual learning needs, abilities,
preferences, and interests; they will learn how to learn. Faculty will
encourage and guide students to use the rich information resources available
to students and to work collaboratively when appropriate.

Several readers took issue with me on this point:

One reader, Andy Palmer, wrote: "I fundamentally agree with your thesis that
we need to shift from a teacher-centered environment to a learner-centered
environment. I was, however, disappointed by your lack of emphasis on the
potential role of collaborative learning in this new environment. The
ability to take risks with peers in a collaborative environment is key to
learning valuable interpersonal skills as well as the traditional
curriculum. These collaborative skills are highly valued in our
information-based economy and thus I was surprised that they did not receive
more emphasis in your article. I was also somewhat shocked by your statement
that őphysical contact will be less important to students, except perhaps on
residential campuses designed explicitly for 18-year-olds.‚ I think physical
contact will become more important as teachers assume facilitator roles."

Another reader thinks that I am hopelessly confused. How can I advocate
student-centered learning that is not based on group interaction? Joel
Rabin, wrote: "First you say that you want students‚ needs and concerns to
be the focus of our educational system. Group-based learning,
project-oriented learning and faculty members as mentors are all great
ideas. In order for this to happen, however, there needs to be either more
mentors or less students. In the future, you correctly identified the fact
that there are not only more students but also a more diverse student body.
In order to support such a group, the most effective educational system
would be one in which students learn more from computers and video tapes
than from interactions with professors. This type of education is the
antithesis of group-based mentored learning. I have nothing against
technology as a tool, it's just that it can create a very impersonal
atmosphere. Quality learning comes from interaction and participation with
other students and knowledgeable people."

These comments are based on the commonly held assumption expressed so
emphatically in the preceding sentence-that quality learning is acquired
from interaction with other people-an assumption that implies that people
can't learn on their own. But the majority of a student's learning time,
even in traditional group-based classroom study, is spent independently,
outside of class: the standard ratio is two hours of study outside of class
for every one spent in class. As part of his discussion of the myth of the
lonely long-distance learner, Tony Bates of Canada's Open Learning Agency
says, "There is an even greater myth that students in conventional
institutions are engaged for the greater part of their time in meaningful,
face-to-face interaction. The fact is that for both conventional and
distance education students, by far the largest part of their studying is
done alone, interacting with textbooks or other learning materials."

Even if we believe that in-class hours consist primarily of interaction
between faculty and students or among students themselves (and who believes
that!), why do we assume that students must spend 45 hours in the classroom
in order to master the subject matter of every course that is taught in
college? Why not design studies so that students spend 22.5 hours in the
classroom, or 10 hours, or perhaps, God forbid, none? Much of our discussion
of these issues is clouded by confusion: we confuse the need for student
support or structure with the need for interaction. We confuse face-to-face
contact with interaction. (Interaction can occur while not face-to-face;
interaction can fail to occur when face-to-face; there is no necessary
relationship.) How much interaction is enough? Is it the same for every
student? For every course?

We also confuse independence with isolation. My own point of view is
admittedly biased in favor of independent study: I spent 16 years at SUNY
Empire State College, an institution that offers baccalaureate degree
programs almost exclusively through guided independent study. More than
25,000 SUNY-ESC graduates, 50 percent of whom go on to graduate school, can
testify to the virtues of independent study. Group-based learning is one way
of learning-very effective in many circumstances-but it is not the only way.
The point is to guard against "one-way" thinking-that we need to replace the
lecture with collaborative learning. Why not add to the lecture not only
collaborative learning but independent study? Many subjects can be learned
independently and do not require collaboration. Many courses can be broken
into segments of lecture/presentation, independent study and collaboration
as appropriate and where necessary.

Another reason for encouraging independent learning is that adult students,
the majority of today's college students, have scheduling constraints that
prohibit an over-reliance on time-dependent forms of education; a model that
relies heavily on students gathering together in one place can often create
obstacles for them. Physical contact works well for residential students,
but clearly residential education is not a growth area for higher education.
Of course, asynchronous collaboration provides a creative solution to this
problem.

Some of the more interesting examples of effective uses of technology in
instruction involve greater student independence in the learning process.
UC-Davis is in the process of redesigning its introductory physics course.
The design of the new course follows the current understanding of how
students learn and create their own understanding, referred to as the
constructivist theory of learning. Operationally, UC-Davis physicists are
de-emphasizing and partly eliminating the lecture while increasing
individual student exploration and learning through discussion-laboratory
experience. RPI has also similarly redesigned its introductory mathematics
and science courses, reducing the contact hour requirement from four per
week to two.

Steve Ehrmann of the Annenberg/CPB project recently wrote about an example
of using technology to support the transition from face-to-face interaction
to greater student independence. Bob Gross, a biology professor at Dartmouth
College, became impatient over a bottleneck in his teaching. It was taking
him two class hours to teach about a complex series of interactions in
biochemistry-"48 blackboards' worth," as he put it. He would draw the
molecules, talk, erase some, draw some, and talk some more.

Gross wanted to speed up the process and make it more effective. In several
weeks of work with an undergraduate student, he created an animation that
enabled him to teach the same material in half an hour. The students could
also study the computer-based animation outside class, frame by frame if
need be. "I was initially disappointed," he told Steve. "There was very
little excitement or discussion when I showed it in class. But later, when I
gave them my regular exam on the subject, they did better than any previous
class."

Greater independence does not rule out student-to-student contact. Ehrmann
also relates how Karen Smith, a Spanish professor at the University of
Arizona, asked her students to write to one another using a form of
electronic mail called computer conferencing. Smith suggested some topics,
e.g., the film the class had just seen, reviews for upcoming quizzes.

Other topics came from the learners, e.g., an upcoming party and one
student's existential angst. Students were pleased because computer
conferencing was more accessible than a language lab; they could participate
from any computer at any time. More important, as several put it, "I'm using
Spanish for the first time." And they didn't need to feel self-conscious
about speaking quickly or with a good accent. All they needed to do was take
the time to interpret what had been said (i.e., written) to them and then
decide how to express their replies. Surprisingly Smith's study showed that,
relative to a class taught using a traditional language laboratory, the oral
performance of these students excelled.

In an effort to differentiate this desired move toward greater independence,
Ed Barboni suggests the following distinction between the activities of
beginning and graduating students:

* First-year student Fourth-year student
* Much help and direction Independent inquiry
* Practice = repeated trials Practice = creative work
* Discovery in constructed environments Discovery as practitioner
* Models created by instructor Models created by students
* Relationships illustrated by instructor Relationships independently
discovered and created

Barboni believes, as do I, that higher quality learning equals less contact
with faculty and more independence on the part of students. Our Ph.D.
programs place their highest value on student independence; why not do the
same at the undergraduate level? We need to create new structures for
student learning and new roles for faculty in creating these structures.
Let's stop concentrating on classroom appearances and start preparing
"knowledge navigators," let's design an educational system for the future.

Carol A. Twigg is vice president of Educom.

© 1995 Educom.
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