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3 Steps to Teaching Students Independence

The transition into college or university life can be particularly daunting for students, especially those that come from a regular routine and schedule. Many new students are unfamiliar with keeping their own schedules or organizing their time; having previous been used to an environment that offered very specific structure or check-ins from parents, family, friends, or bosses to see  commitments were being following through.

At first, the freedom can seem like an exciting, new adventure for students, but it can quickly turn into a series of disappointments if a student does not begin to engage in more independent behavior. We all know as instructors that independence and accountability are incredibly important traits and typically are directly relate to overall student success. But thinking realistically, how can we, as instructors, nurture independence in our students, who may be chronologically adults but less so in practice, while still tackling everything else that needs to be covered in class?

  1. Make Sure They Understand The “Why”

Simple truth: students that clearly understand why they are in college or at a university persist better than the students that do not. Having an end goal – even if it’s not 100% outlined – can help students work harder and think more independently about how they can meet their goal.

Sometimes students can forget their “why”. Reframing tasks, assignments, classes, etc. as part of a larger goal can help a student understand why it’s important to do well and how assignments or activities can help them down the road. Essentially, putting things in perspective, preferably in the context of learning, can yield big results. Of course, students who’s “why” is “my mom and dad think I should be here” probably need to rethink their overall reasoning, as no clear goal rarely leads to more independence.

  1. Give Them Time to Work on a Solution

This is a semi-tricky one for many instructors: don’t respond.

All instructor, of course, want to help their students, but the simple fact is people rarely take steps to solve a problem unless they’re forced to. So, slow down on answering every question in order to encourage students to figure out the answers for themselves. After all, many students rush to email instructors before even trying to look or research an answer for themselves. It’s a common refrain for many instructors that the answer is already listed in the syllabus, LMS, book, etc.

Whenever I can I encourage students to find answers for themselves, even when it would be very easy for me to quickly respond with the answer. We take the time to create and provide students with an abundance of resources, so it seems fair to ask them to use those resources in finding their answers. Hopefully that ability to find information and answers for themselves is something that will carry them even beyond their higher education degree.

  1. Maintain Deadlines and Consequences When Appropriate

On occasion, there are special circumstances that warrant an extension but more often than not with proper planning and by not procrastinating, students can meet their deadlines. Hold them to it. Maintaining deadlines and enforcing consequences teaches a valuable lesson and sets the standard that they will be treated like adults.

I do try to incorporate smaller, lower stakes deadlines at the beginning of the semester as to encourage students to be successful at turning in their materials independently before the larger stake’s assessments show up in the course. But ultimately, it is important that we hold students to these deadlines. The consequences that they face in higher education are typically not going to be as impactful as what will inevitably happen to them in the real-world, so this is a great low-stakes way to make independent behavior stick.

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer Grewe is currently a Lecturer with the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. Dr. Grewe has taught and mentored thousands of undergraduate students via the undergraduate psychology program at Utah State. Dr. Grewe is the co-advisor for the local chapter of Psi Chi and is the Department Honors Advisor. She is an active member of the Connections (first year student program) Faculty Advisory Committee and Department of Psychology Undergraduate Steering Committee. Dr. Grewe is a regular supporter of undergraduate student services programs and is regularly asked to serve on various faculty panels. Dr. Grewe enjoys working with undergraduate students in all levels of their career.

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