One of the most common claims from universities is that we train “independent learners.” As with so many other aspects of our instruction that I have discussed, the concept of the independent learner is a positive idea at its core. It conveys a sense of self-motivation and self-actualization where the student owns and takes responsibility for their learning. It also implies that students reach a point where they no longer need to rely on formal instruction for learning, instead becoming life-long learners that continue their pursuit of knowledge well after they graduate.

Unfortunately, we often equate the concept of the independent learner with the idea of “doing it on your own”—something that I argue no one actually does. While moments of self-reflection are certainly critical to the learning process, learning almost always involves interaction with others, either through direct cooperation or indirectly by reading or watching others’ works. Additionally, in the post-undergraduate world, academics and professionals rarely operate completely on their own. Most people operate as part of a team where they work collaboratively and use their individual strengths to meet the goals of the entire group. In many fields, an individual who struggles to cooperate with their colleagues will have a harder time finding professional success, regardless of how gifted they may be. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg; there are many other reasons why “doing it on your own” is problematic in post-undergraduate academic and professional settings. For example, adopting a lone-wolf mentality can breed unnecessary competition, negatively impact workplace communication, and create toxic work environments. Additionally, an individual that places all the pressure to complete assignments on themselves (rather than sharing the responsibility with colleagues) is more likely to suffer from the long-term effects of stress and burnout. 

Despite all this, the idea of training independent learners with an emphasis on “doing it on your own” drives many of our pedagogical approaches at the undergraduate level. And I argue that this focus does little to help our students become self-motivated, independent learners. So, if being independent is NOT the same as doing it on your own, what is a better way to define it?

In my opinion, being an independent learner boils down to learning to ask questions. From my own experience (both as a student and an instructor), I have found that a student’s ability to ask questions is what moves the learning process forward. In fact, the number one thing that I try to model for students in my physics courses is that the first step to answering a complex question is to ask questions about the question! This is not limited to STEM fields; when I reflect on my experience in humanities, social science, and art courses or listen to my colleagues in those fields, I realize that the starting point in these disciplines is also asking questions. While the types of questions, how they are asked, and the tools used to answer these questions can vary from field to field, the common theme is clearly learning how to ask questions. 

If we focus explicitly on teaching our students how to ask questions as the core element of producing independent learners, how does this impact the various aspects of the undergraduate experience?

First, shifting the focus away from “doing it on your own” to asking questions offers an exciting new lens for evaluating and highlighting group work. My best experiences of being on a team have been when all members are able to drive the work forward by asking questions! Yes, eventually the group needs to find answers and get certain tasks done, and sometimes there is stress concerning the level of effort and contribution made by different members. But if everyone starts from the perspective that the key contribution of each member is the questions they ask, it both normalizes the concept of having questions and brings everyone into the process in well-defined ways. 

Emphasizing the ability to ask questions also highlights a more realistic approach to academic integrity. In this way, academic integrity becomes less about the rather ill-defined concept of “doing it on your own” and more about the well-defined concept of “finding the answers to your questions and acknowledging the sources of those answers.” When you think about it, even on the traditional highly-proctored, closed-book exam, most student answers can be viewed as “plagiarism.” Students are generally using memorized information taken from their instructor, course readings, or classmates as the basis for the answers to exam questions. Despite the fact that the information they provide is derived from other sources, students are typically not required to cite these sources. It seems contradictory that memorized material recalled on a timed exam can be used without citations but references to outside material in essays and presentations must be cited in the name of academic integrity. Rather than basing academic integrity on this confusing determination, I argue that we should adopt an assessment process that (1) evaluates the student’s ability to ask questions that move an analysis forward and (2) assesses appropriate use of all sources of information in answering those questions with integrity. This would achieve many of the goals discussed in earlier blogs as well as help students become independent learners who act with academic integrity.

I would also argue that focusing on teaching our students how to ask questions provides a useful framework for understanding the value of active learning techniques. In my experience, asking questions plays an important role in almost every active learning approach that shows evidence of improving student outcomes. Understanding the role of asking questions in these practices points to potential areas of research and also helps faculty understand how active learning techniques can be used most effectively in training students to become independent learners.

Focusing on asking questions also has a direct impact on a student’s ability to navigate the information overload we face today. In a world where a quick search on the internet can offer thousands of sources, the skill of asking questions has become more important than ever. By teaching our students how to ask questions that investigate the credibility of sources and the validity of information, we can help them navigate a world of potential misinformation.

Perhaps the most important outcome of shifting our focus to training students to ask questions is that it highlights the critical role of inclusion in the undergraduate education process. When we mistakenly associate independent learning with the idea of “doing it on your own,” we risk becoming overly concerned with our own thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives. In this way, we lose one of the benefits of diversity—the leveraging of different perspectives to increase knowledge and understanding and to produce significantly better outcomes! When done correctly, encouraging students to ask questions exposes them to a diversity of opinions and insights. Also, elevating the value of having questions not only introduces lines of questioning that some students may not have previously considered, but it also serves as a natural way for students to participate in discussions centered around questions and to share their own ideas.

In the end, we need to realize that equating the important skill of being an independent learner with “doing it on your own” sets up a false understanding of independence. No one actually learns completely on their own, and there is always a balance between our self-reflective moments and our engagement with others. Reframing the development of independent learners in the context of training students to ask questions aligns with many elements of our undergraduate experience and provides a powerful framework for evaluating where we want our policies and practices to go! Given this perspective, I plan to spend the next few weeks in this blog to explore the question “Why do we teach the courses we do?” It may not be obvious how this connects—so stay tuned!