Independent Learning

  Project Work
  Problem-based Learning (PBL)
  Selected Bibliography

In a knowledge-driven society where life-phased and just-in-case learning are no longer adequate, students must learn to learn on their own so that they can remain viable with lifelong and just-in-time learning. Paradoxically then, good teaching is that which ultimately makes the teacher redundant; the good teacher enables the learner to become independent. This can be done through various—possibly all—teaching activities, provided the goals impelling the ‘thinking schools, learning nation’ vision is kept clearly in mind and informs the philosophy and envisioned outcomes of education.1

Indeed, if learning is individual meaning-making, then every act of learning involves the learner doing it for himself or herself. Perhaps the issue here is a matter of degree: some modes of learning are more independent than others and are more likely to develop autonomy in the learner. The traditional lecture mode tends to be didactic, though strategies can be employed to make it more interactive and involve the learner in a greater degree of responsibility for his or her own learning. In contrast, learning from resource materials, through open or flexible learning modules, project work, laboratory work, writing a dissertation or working in problem-based learning groups, is by its very nature more inclined to be learner-led and less teacher-directed. The learner has more control over pace, place, time and learning approaches.

At NUS, various forms of independent learning are practised. Here, project-based and problem-based learning will be considered in some detail, the former because it is probably most common to all faculties, and the latter because it is a mode that—in theory at least, though it is increasingly proving its worth in practice—is very consistent with learning for a ‘chaotic’ world. By placing learners in the active role of problem-solvers confronted with an ill-structured problem which mirrors real world problems, learners learn to define and make sense of the problem and to work out solutions.

What follows are intended as general guidelines. As such, some of them may be applicable to all, or all of them may be usable for some, but they can scarcely all suit everyone. Ultimately, decisions will have to be discipline, department or course-driven, taking into consideration institutional policies, resources, possible constraints and other pertinent factors. Within these broad parameters, the individual reflective practitioner will explore and fine-tune effective methodologies in the sustained effort at adding value and quality to the teaching and learning process.


  1. ‘The Desired Outcomes of Education’, a paper produced by the Ministry of Education, Singapore, defines the national standards which includes the ability “to think, reason and deal confidently with the future, have courage and conviction in facing adversity” and “to seek, process and apply knowledge”. A version of this paper is available at http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/. (Last accessed: 26 June 2008).