Studying at university level requires a different mindset and set of skills than when you studied at a lower level. You must become an independent learner if you want to avoid the dangers of university learning, and kick butt instead.

In this blog post you’ll discover:

  • What is an independent learner? Why should you want to become one?
  • The 4 dangers of university learning: why it’s so different to previous education
  • 10 things you can do to become an independent learner and achieve university success.


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What is an independent learner?

An independent learner takes responsibility for their own learning. They are self-motivated and accept that frustration in the present is worthwhile to achieve future success. They are curious and they engage in what they’re learning.

Independent learners take initiative. They are good problem solvers but they also know when to seek help. Independent learners think about and plan for the future. They are intentional with their study and choose the right methods to fit their course. They manage their time and are dedicated to self-improvement.

Ultimately, an independent learner understands that they are responsible for their own education. They take charge of their life and accept that no one will hound them to put more effort or time into their own achievements.

Shift in responsibility

You may start university and study in the exact same ways as you did at school. If you don’t realise the differences between these levels of education, you may fall behind.

At university, there is a shift in responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

At school you will be reminded about due dates and you may be granted leniency if you miss them. At university you are given your due dates and expected to stick to them.

In school, your teachers will notice if you’re falling behind or if you’re making the same mistakes. They will probably step in and try to help you. But at university, your tutors are assigned many more students and they deem your learning your own responsibility. If you want help you need to ask.

The 4 Dangers of University Learning

1. More control over your time

You have to manage your time effectively and know the difference between spare time and time where you should be studying independently. You can fall behind if you spend too much time socialising and relaxing and not enough time studying. But you also need to allow for proper sleep and ‘me time’ so you don’t burnout by studying in every spare moment.

2. More choice about WHEN and WHERE to study

Your productivity will suffer if you study with distractions around you. You need to take responsibility for your own success and work out the times of day and the places where you’re the most effective. For most students, a dedicated study space in a distraction-free environment is necessary.

3. More choice about HOW you study

You can’t just use the same study methods as your friends and hope for the best. Everyone studies in different ways and each subject or module may suit better techniques. You need to test various study strategies to find what works for you.

4. More responsibility for your own success (and failure)

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their learning abilities and study skills. Take responsibility by identifying ways of improving your own study performance. Seek and learn from your tutor feedback otherwise you’ll repeat your mistakes instead of improving over time.

Becoming an independent learner will allow you to deal with these dangers and shift in responsibility.

10 things you can do to become an independent learner

1. Study even when you don’t want to

Independent learners understand that present frustration is worthwhile to achieve future success. So rather than procrastinating and watching an entire season of House of Cards in one day, they know that starting their essay now will benefit them next month. Or that beginning revision early (when they could be relaxing) will help them later and should get them a higher exam grade.

Procrastination is natural and everyone does it. But independent learners have learned how to control it. I’ve created two other blog posts to help you: discover 15 ways to overcome procrastination and learn how to study even when you don’t feel like it.

2. Believe you can become more intelligent

Fixed mindset is the belief your intelligence is unchangeable. You’re either smart or you’re not. You’re either ‘an exam person’ or you’re not.

On the other hand, independent learners have or are developing a growth mindset – the belief that your level of intelligence can be improved.

They believe that they can become smarter with hard work, perseverance and the right study techniques.

Check out this post to find out how you can develop a growth mindset and achieve higher grades.

3. Don’t be afraid to read outside the course material

Sometimes you’ll come across a concept in your textbooks YOU.JUST.DON’T.UNDERSTAND.

But this doesn’t mean you should skip it and move onto the next chapter. There were times in my study that my textbook just didn’t explain a theory well enough for me to understand. So I found the full reference and researched the theory online until I could understand and apply it in my studies.

When you reach a barrier it may seem sensible to just turn back. But an independent learner tries to find another explanation. They dig deeper and look at other sources. Often this fills in the blanks and they’re able to understand the idea and continue on their journey.

4. Know when to seek help

An independent learner knows the value in solving problems by themselves. Sometimes looking at a problem differently or taking a break and coming back to it will help you see a glimmer of a solution.

But if you’ve tried to work out a problem and you’re still struggling – ask for help. An independent learner understands that seeking support is a strength not a weakness. So contact your tutor if you’re struggling to grasp a concept or you can’t work out how to tackle your next essay.

5. Never be surprised by due dates

There is never an excuse for missing a deadline you didn’t realise existed. So don’t try to remember due dates. Instead, find a way to record every single practice test, essay due date and exam.

Independent learners plan their workload by their due dates. They work backwards from essay deadlines so they know when to start, when to have a first draft, and when to submit. They know when their exam or exam period is so they can plan when to start their revision.

6. Know where to find your notes and documents

At school I definitely didn’t have a system for my notes or documents. I remember I used to arrive to my Maths classes with a scrap of paper and I normally had to borrow a pen. Those class notes went in my bag and then just disappeared. When it came to my exams I had next to no revision notes and what I did have was completely disorganised.

Thankfully I’ve changed!

An independent learner uses simple but effective systems to keep their notes and documents organised, so they always know where to find them. Take time to set up a simple folder structure so you don’t lose your documents or waste valuable study time searching for them.

And check out this blog post to learn how to file your notes effectively.

7. Don’t fall behind by not spending enough time studying

It can be hard to find a balance between making time for studying, but also having a life. An independent learner knows they need to build studying into an everyday habit.

Look closely at how you’re spending your time for a week. Then decide if you’re committing enough time to studying. When you’ve got a big deadline coming up, adjust your schedule to make studying more of a priority.

But if you do fall behind, check out this post for ways to catch up.

8. Be willing to try new study techniques

It can be easy to always take notes or revise in the same way. But an independent learner understands that different subjects and modules may suit different techniques. They regularly re-evaluate what they’re doing for effectiveness and aren’t afraid to change.

When I started university I took notes by hand. Then I started a new module full of theories and concepts that would repeat throughout the material. So I re-evaluated and decided typed notes might be better so I could search them easily for specific terms. But then a few modules later I realised I wasn’t absorbing enough information so I switched back to handwritten notes which improved what I could recall.

Similarly, some exams require you to learn lots of definitions and small pieces of information so flashcards are vital during revision. But other exams have more of a focus on essay-type questions so practicing past papers becomes key.

Don’t get stuck in a studying rut with the same methods for your whole degree. Check out these posts for different note taking formats and methods and this post for info on different revision techniques.

9. Be intentional with your study time

Independent learners are deliberate with how they spend their time, whether it’s studying or relaxing.

You may spend 2 hours studying but half of it you’re reacting to notifications on your phone, having a quick scroll through Facebook or posting on Instagram. An independent learner would instead spend 1 hour studying with intention and then spend 1 hour relaxing guilt-free.

If you make every study session productive and distraction-free, you will have more time for what you actually want to do. So check out this post to make every session productive, making the most of your precious (and often scarce) study time.

10. Seek and act on feedback

Your university tutor’s aim is to get you through their course with a good grade. They should be giving you feedback on your assignments and test quizzes. I studied with the Open University where the comments were always quite detailed.

If this isn’t the case for your university – ask for feedback instead. This demonstrates you are motivated so tutors should be willing to help.

Then, you need to make sure you do something with this feedback otherwise it’s pointless. Independent learners understand they must act on their feedback if they want to improve their grades (and make sure they don’t repeat the same mistakes).

RECAP! You should now know...

  • University requires a different mindset and set of skills to your previous education
  • The 4 dangers of university learning that you can avoid by becoming an independent learner
  • 10 simple ways you can develop your independence as a learner and kick university butt
  • That my blog has TONS of resources for you to become an independent learner and improve your grades (but you already knew that, didn’t you?!)


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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