Creative Teaching & Learning

Cultivating Skills Associated With Independent Learning

Why do so many students default to simple formulaic steps when asked to complete an extended project. Andrew Shenton says they need to be taught the deeper skills of using methodologies, not just research tips.

Dilemmas and Problems

For decades, it has been a matter of much debate in education as to how the skills required to tackle independent learning projects are best taught.

One approach lies in seeking to develop the relevant abilities through a particular study, with the students introduced to research processes in relation to a certain topic that forms the focus of the outcome of the work. Whilst offering a real world basis for skills acquisition, its been criticised because. when students are faced with future assignments, they may not transfer the techniques they are expected to have learnt.

Some, it would seem, cannot separate the methods from the context in which they first practised them and either are unable to see their wider utility or struggle to apply them in appropriate situations.

An alternative course of action lies in delivering the teaching as part of a diverse study skills programme that might include such areas as revision techniques, reading strategies, analytical thinking, time management and library user education. Here the criticism is that, since the skills are not tied to an actual curricular project, they lack a proper context and the work is likely to be seen by students as no more than a sequence of somewhat artificial exercises.

The teaching strategy – whether project-based or exercise-oriented – has been determined, the educator needs to consider another key issue that is frequently overlooked. We should aim to inculcate within students an appreciation of the need to adopt an overarching mind-set in addition to training them in a series of skills.

We can understand the difference in terms of a distinction made by many experts on research. They separate methods and methodology, despite the fact that, in popular parlance, the words tend to be used interchangeably.

The former refer to discrete techniques. We think, for example, of sampling methods, data collection methods, and so on. In relation to data gathering, the methods may be focus groups, one-to-one interviews, questionnaires, observation, experiments, etc. Methodology, on the other hand, can be defined as the philosophy upon which the research is based.

It is a higher level rationale that forms a foundation for the application of the chosen methods. An analogy is the relationship between strategy and tactics. In an independent learning context in secondary schools, it is not necessary to provide students with any kind of deep, semantic discussion as to the difference between the two words. Even so, learners should at least think of accepting a guiding methodology, as well as employing individual methods.

Important work by Marland3 and the National Council for Educational Technology,4 among others, has for decades encouraged students to ask themselves a succession of generic questions when finding and using information. More recently, the Digital Literacy Fluency Model can be seen to take a similar stance.5

It is easy, however, for these overall concerns to be obscured if teachers devote more time to covering the minutiae of methods, and methodology receives scant attention. There may, in fact, be no carefully conceived, rigorous methodology in the teacher’s head at all or perhaps one does exist but it is not clearly communicated to students.

Exemplar Methodology (1)

It is possible to develop methodologies which counter specific problems commonly encountered by students or provide a way forward in particular circumstances they find challenging. This territory forms the principal concern of my article.

In a previous piece for Creative Teaching and Learning, I reported how, as a supervisor of Sixth Form Extended Projects of many years’ standing, I have long faced the task of helping learners to overcome the motivational issues that typically arise when they have been working on their studies for some weeks yet they remain far from completing.

Since the EPQ is intended to involve independent learning, there are strict limits on the guidance I can offer. I must not, for example, recommend named sources, nor read and comment on a first draft of any developing essay. For some while, I have advocated generic methods that personal experience told me would be advantageous. Students could, for example;

  • pursue sources cited in the references lists of the items they have already read;
  • repeat this footnote chasing strategy across successive “generations” of sources so as to establish a chain;
  • go to citation indexes in order to see where already familiar materials have themselves been referenced;
  • seek related items via Google Scholar once the details of a useful document have been retrieved;
  • focus their forthcoming information-finding efforts by employing, as search terms, subject-specific vocabulary and the names of key figures who have come to their attention during their early reading;
  • note classification numbers that signify pertinent information in one library and look under similar shelfmarks when searching the bookcases in another.6

In time, I began to recognise that, whilst each of these methods was sound and the learners with whom I worked found them highly effective, there would be benefits if I could unite them within a coherent methodology that might provoke students’ own ideas as well. Eventually, I was able to realise this.

Taking my lead from a form of sampling that is popular in qualitative research, I dubbed it my “snowballing methodology” and encapsulated the thinking behind it in one sentence – snowballing allows us to exploit the potential, as intermediaries, of items we have seen early in the investigative process to provide inspiration for the later exploration of sources, authors and issues. At the heart of it is the question, how can I use what I have learnt already in the project to provide impetus for the information-seeking work that lies ahead?

Exemplar Methodology (2)

Many of my students are keen in their EPQ study to make some sort of comparison between one event or creative work and another but very often they struggle to devise a coherent plan for researching their essay effectively. As a demonstration, I formulated the research question, “How are the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the television series, The Prisoner fundamentally similar as landmark works of drama?” and set about explaining to the EPQ candidates the ways in which one may begin constructing a response.

The methodology may be stated thus: beginning with the premise that we can learn from first-hand experience and the recorded knowledge of others, we should

  • a) look for insights that we gain personally from watching the two creative works;
  • b) consult appropriate and high quality information relating to the individual productions;
  • c) draw on comparisons of them that have already been made by authors.

Whilst (a) and (b) need little elaboration, (c) merits greater consideration in order to render more concrete a somewhat unspecific plan of campaign. As with the snowballing situation, it is important to think at the strategic level and a more operational one that will isolate specific practices which may, in this case, help the writer of the assignment to track down relevant comparative material. They could, for example;

  • search for information on each production in the index of a generic book dealing with, say, innovative film and television in the 1960s, then pay particular attention to the pages where 2001 and The Prisoner are both mentioned;
  • enter the two names – linked by “and” – into an information retrieval system such as Google Scholar or Access to Research and scrutinise closely the documents to which the user is directed;
  • look for references to 2001 in books and other sources devoted to The Prisoner;
  • look for references to The Prisoner in books and other sources devoted to 2001.

Ultimately, though, students should appreciate that these methods are subservient to the more fundamental methodology from which they are derived.

A Composite, Cross-disciplinary Methodology

It is possible to formulate methodologies that unite ideas associated with different types of scholarly inquiry.

In publicising his new book, Rob Eastaway has drawn attention to the power of estimation, and advocated the use of benchmark numbers that the individual already knows in order to answer questions which might otherwise seem completely beyond them. In the author’s own words, the technique is based on “having the power to take knowledge that you’ve got to figure out something that’s in the right ballpark”.7

In principle, this practice is similar to the skill of inferential information-seeking (IIS), which I have championed myself in the past few years.8 IIS involves finding information about one situation with a view to increasing our understanding of another that forms our true interest.

The appeal of both estimation and IIS is that, in different ways, they are strategies to reduce uncertainty and their commonality means that it is possible to unite them in an overarching cross-disciplinary methodology which highlights the importance of each. The methodology can then be taught to older secondary schoolers. In linking Eastaway’s ideas and my own, I was reminded of the work of Wilson on consilience – or the “jumping together” of knowledge.9

This convergence is generally understood with respect to subject-based content but my emphasis here lies more on the skills-based dimension, i.e. process. My overall methodology combines the strands of mathematical estimation and IIS, and can be summarised as follows: in addressing matters about which we are uncertain and are problematic to research, we can use what we already know or are able to find out in terms of related issues to make helpful calculations or draw pertinent inferences.

Application of Methodologies

By following an approach that emphasises methodology as much as method teachers can help students make progress in two ways. The third methodology is different in nature and merits separate

consideration. On a fundamental level, most students with whom I have used methodologies one and two have been able to remember at a later date some of the techniques I have suggested and employ them to their advantage in other independent learning situations.

In addition, I originally hoped that the more cognitively advanced Sixth Formers would appreciate the transferability of the broader principles underpinning the methodologies in order to work either more autonomously or more effectively. They would view the methods that had been highlighted as mere exemplars, rather than a step-by-step sequence of instructions for finding information successfully.

Encouragingly in terms of snowballing, there have been situations in future assignments where youngsters have made, without prompting, their own beneficial connections between, on one hand, the actions they have already taken to find information within their project and results they have gained and, on the other, what still has to be done.

All too often, students are prone to take a formulaic perspective when tackling an independent learning assignment, going through a series of familiar steps quite mechanically. An approach that incorporates teaching an umbrella methodology, as well as an array of methods, offers exciting possibilities, not least of which is that of promoting a more creative attitude to finding and using information.


1. Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book, 10th ed. Edited by R. Prytherch. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

2. Eisenberg, M.B. and Berkowitz, R.E. The Definitive Big6TM Workshop Handbook, 3rd ed. Worthington, Ohio: Linworth Publishing, 2003.

3. Marland, M. (ed) Information Skills in the Secondary Curriculum. London: Methuen, 1981.

4. National Council for Educational Technology. Information Skills in Action. Coventry: National Council for Educational Technology, 1993.

5. Heine, C., Barr, D., O’Connor, D. and McNabb, M. 21st Century Information Fluency: Assessing Students’ Knowledge and Skills. National Educational Computing Conference Post Session, 2006. URL: (accessed: 22 January 2020).

6. Shenton, A.K. and Wood, M. “Snowballing” as a method for finding research sources. Creative Teaching and Learning, 9 (3), 2019, pp. 46-56.

7. Eastaway, R. Tips to help you impress people doing hard maths in your head. Radio 4 in Four, 2019. URL: (accessed: 22 January 2020).

8. Shenton, A.K. Inferential information-seeking. Library Review, 58 (5), 2009, pp. 353-61; Shenton, A.K. Promoting inferential information behaviour. Creative Teaching and Learning, 2 (3), 2011, pp. 14-17.

9. Wilson, E.O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

10. Shenton, A.K. Information literacy and scholarly investigation: a British perspective. IFLA Journal, 35 (3), 2009, pp. 226-31.

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