Independent study

Guidance and resources to help you make the most of your independent study time, including specific advice on setting goals, staying motivated and organising your work.

Students with laptops in library


At university you will need to make use of a wide range of core skills that are essential in a variety of different situations.

Some of these skills you'll find easy, while others might require a bit more effort. But it's important for you to develop effective independent learning strategies.

In an environment in which nobody will hold your hand or tell you precisely what you should be doing and when, the art of managing and meeting personal deadlines – both social and academic – must be mastered sooner rather than later.

Studying your way

Some people like to plan things early in fine detail so that everything is ready in plenty of time; others positively thrive on the pressure of meeting a last-minute deadline.

Whichever kind of person you are, you will need to keep on top of a range of different tasks at the same time, so you will need consciously to manage your time and hit key deadlines one way or another.

301 Recommends: 

Our Academic Skills Refresher workshop explores your experience of learning over the past 12 months to help identify strategies that have worked for you and put new strategies in place as you begin a new academic year. 

Our Independent Study interactive digital workshop will provide you with ideas and strategies to develop your independent learning skills to help you to get the most out of your study time.

Being organised

Organise your space

Whilst it may be tempting to study from the luxury of your bed, there is strong evidence that it is a good idea to maintain a clear divide between work and leisure space.

According to Crosbie and Moore (2004) home workers emphasise that this is important in order to maintain a sense of being at work for your own benefit and to send a signal to those you live with.

If you do not have a dedicated study space available, this may be as simple as setting up a 'pop-up office' on your kitchen table or putting on headphones to block out distractions. 

Organise your work

Go into the study space of different students and you will soon realise that there are many different ways of organising the resources you need to work with.

The crucial thing is that you develop systems for planning your time, organising and retrieving resources that work for you. 

Equally important is knowing when to stop organising your resources and to start working on them instead. Organising resources can be a work-avoidance strategy, but it is nevertheless a crucial step in any piece of academic work.

The system you develop also has implications for what you do whilst you study, from the way you make and file your notes to the way you manage your time.

Building self-confidence 

Many of us don't focus on developing our own self-confidence because we spend too much time thinking that everybody else is more prepared, independent and self-assured than we are.

Universities can be intimidating environments; everybody seems to have a firm view, to understand things immediately and without difficulty, and to know where they are going and why.

The reality is often different. Universities are in fact - and should always be - places for asking questions, for uncertainty, for trial and error, and above all for conversation and dialogue.

So: ask the questions and make the mistakes you need to in order to develop. You will find that your self-confidence grows with your understanding.

Staying motivated

Understanding motivation

When you are strongly motivated, it is easier to stay focused, to keep to the task, to work long hours; however, it is natural to lose some of your motivation when a project lasts as long as a degree.

It is therefore important to be aware of what motivates you to complete a degree, reminding yourself of what you have to gain. There are two basic (and overlapping) categories of motivation:

Extrinsic motivation

  • Desire to do something to earn a reward or avoid punishment

  • Works when the task has a clear set of rules with a clear solution

  • Can provide a useful short-term stimulus

Examples of extrinsic motivators: studying hard for exams because you want to achieve a good grade or a scholarship; researching your dissertation thoroughly to meet parental expectations; working hard on a lab report out of a fear of failing.

Extrinsic motivators can be powerful drivers of action, particularly in the short term. Use them by identifying rewards and incentives to encourage you to make progress on a task.

Intrinsic motivation

  • Stems from genuine interest and ambition

  • Assumes no reward

  • Desire to do something because it is enjoyable, it matters, it is interesting, it is relevant to life and the world, or it is part of something bigger

  • Deep motivation closely linked to independence and autonomy

Examples of intrinsic motivators: studying for a degree because you love the subject; choosing a dissertation because you find it challenging, interesting and exciting; completing a degree to achieve a personal goal/sense of accomplishment.

Extrinsic motivators can help you to stay on track in the longer term. Reminding yourself of your intrinsic motivators can help you to overcome challenges and stay positive. 

Action: Identify your motivators

On a sheet of paper, try noting down your main motivations under two headings: 'Intrinsic' and 'Extrinsic'. Think both big and small. Stick your motivations on the wall above your desk and look back on them whenever you find yourself drifting off task. 

Setting goals

Setting goals is an important part of the learning process. What do you want to achieve this week, this semester, or this year? 

To make sure that your goals are as achievable as possible, be sure to make them SMART:

  • Specific: what exactly is it that you want to do?
  • Measurable: How will you know that you have achieved the goal? What are the anticipated outputs?
  • Achievable: What makes your goal realistic? How will you meet it?
  • Realistic: How does the goal fit in with your longer-term plans? Does it meet the marking criteria and requirements of the course?
  • Timely: What is your end deadline? What are the interim deadlines?

For example, compare the following goals:

'Revise for my upcoming exams.' 

This is a great aspiration, but it is not a SMART goal. How will you know when you have done enough revision? What exactly will you do on a day-to-day basis?

'Create a set of flashcards based on my lecture notes from the module MDL110 by 20th January.'

This is a much SMARTer goal as it narrows down your task, identifies a concrete output with a realistic timescale. You can complete this goal and feel good about it!

Watch our short video about SMART goals and use our SMART goal planning template to set yourself goals for your work.

Working together

Independent study doesn't necessarily mean that you need to be studying on your own. It is independent in so far as it is your own time that you are in charge of and it is up to you how you use it to your advantage.

For some students, independent study will mean working together to share ideas as part of a peer network; for others it will mean adopting a proactive approach to their own work.

However you prefer to work, the ideas outlined below should help you to get a head start and make the most of your independent study time.

Peer networks

Making the most of a network of friends or peers on your course can be a good way to maintain your motivation and to keep your approach to university study on track.

Informal or formal study groups can help to provide structure and encourage you to commit to planned study time. It can also be helpful to share information within the group to make sure you stay on top of deadlines and important course-related updates.

View this workshop on Setting Up a Study Group and visit our Peer Learning webpages to find out more. 

Top Tips

  • Organise your space - this can help to maintain a divide between leisure and study. See also a list of quiet study spaces provided by the University

  • Establish regular patterns for independent study. Develop a weekly timetable with scheduled slots for undertaking different tasks, balancing these with other activities you do. You can find examples in our Study Skills Online Time Management resources. 

  • Reflect on how you prefer to learn for different tasks or under different circumstances. Watch this short video to understand more about your preferred ways of learning and for ideas on other possible approaches. 

  • Read the guidance provided by your department in programme and module handbooks. This will help you understand what to prioritise for your independent study. Engage with the reading lists for your modules. These materials have been identified by your tutors as important for your learning on the module and engaging with them will put you in a good position for success. 

  • Independent study and wellbeing are closely related. A range of factors including physical health, social health and emotional health heavily influences performance of any kind, including academic. Balancing your overall health and wellbeing and safeguarding regular time to do this will increase your resilience to stress and support your overall academic performance.Take a look at the guidance available on Academic Skills for Wellbeing

  • The approach you take to your independent study will need to develop over time. What works well for you in the first year might not lead to the same success in year two or when you move into the final year of your programme when you may be working on a dissertation or final-year project. You may find it helpful to access the Study Skills Online: Reflective Practice resources to support you in reflecting on your academic progress.  

If you are still unsure about how to structure and approach your independent study, speak to your personal tutor and consider booking a 1:1 study skills tutorial.

Further resources

The Summer Skills Spark: 5 weeks to ignite your research skills promo image

The Summer Skills Spark: 5 weeks to ignite your research skills

Are you working on a dissertation or research project this summer? 

The Summer Skills Spark offers workshops to support you through every step of the process. You'll have opportunities to plan your projects, develop your research skills, explore dissemination techniques, and consider a future career in research. 

Collaboration between 301 Academic Skills Centre, the University Library, Digital Learning, and the Careers and Employability Service.

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