Students’ knowledge acquisition and ability to apply knowledge into different science contexts in two different independent learning settings

Mutlu Cukurova, Judith Bennett, Ian Abrahams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Recently, there is a growing interest in independent learning approaches globally. This is, at least in part, due to an increased demand for so-called ‘21st century skills’ and the potential of independent learning to improve student skills to better prepare them for the future.
Purpose: This paper reports a study that explored the effectiveness of two different independent learning approaches: (i) guided independent learning and (ii) unguided independent learning with independent research, in enabling students in an undergraduate Macromolecules course to acquire knowledge in one chemistry context and apply it successfully in another.
Sample: The study involved 144 chemistry students commencing their first term of undergraduate study at a northern university in England. Students completed pre- and post-intervention tests containing 10 diagnostic questions, of which 4 measured students’ knowledge acquisition in one context and 6 measured their ability to apply it in another.
Design and methods: Diagnostic questions had been identified using a Delphi approach. Paired t-tests and chi-square tests were used to analyse the significance of any change in students’ responses to the diagnostic questions and the number of responses evidencing misconceptions, respectively.
Results: Whilst guided independent learning settings were found to improve students’ knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge in novel situations, unguided independent learning had no statistically significant effect. Unguided independent learning was also linked to a statistically significant increase in the number of student misconceptions in one of the diagnostic questions. Conclusions: The results of this study show that guidance in independent learning activities is a key necessity for effective learning in higher education. This paper has strong relevance and high significance to tertiary STEM education, especially in the light of increased importance of teaching, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK, and shifts to more independent learning activities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-34
Number of pages17
JournalResearch in Science & Technological Education
Issue number1
Early online date2 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2018


  • independent learning
  • knowledge acquisition
  • ability to apply knowledge
  • misconceptions

Cite this