Chapter 5

Flipped and self-directed

A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.

Thomas Carruthers


This chapter is about two related inclusive approaches: flipped learning and self-directed learning. Flipped learning can promote inclusivity, for example by supporting both neurotypical and neurodivergent learners. Self-directed learning provides students with agency – this could be from the micro level of student choice of activity within a lesson to the macro level of pathway choices.

About the case studies


In the printed/ebook edition, there are three case studies about various ways of using flipped learning: (1) in conjunction with a classroom blog; (2) through the use of instructional videos; and (3) within the teams-based learning approach.


There are three case studies about a variety of self-directed pedagogical ideas and approaches: (1) about personalised learning and advocacy; (2) about ‘choose your own adventure’; and (3) about students designing their own course.

1. In the printed/ebook edition, the first contribution, by Erin C. King (USA) about ‘Personalised learning and advocacy’, discusses how the teacher sets up negotiated learning enriched by a call to action. Watch the author discuss the implications for practice in adopting a more personalised learning and advocacy approach.

2. In the printed/ebook edition, the second narrative, by Seanna Takacs and Arley Cruthers (Canada), shows the rationale behind the redesign of a ‘Choose your own adventure’ course. The authors made use of UDL principles and they included a readiness for learning check.

3. Here below, a third case study by David and Carole Baume (UK), entitled ‘Students, each designing their own course’, is a provocative narrative about enquiry-based learning, challenging us academics to create at least some opportunities for students to step out of the directed and siloed modularised learning they often experience at university.

Students, each designing their own course

By David and Carole Baume (UK)

· Paul really wanted to join the course. But he didn’t have the A-levels. We had a quota of non-A-level-qualified admissions. The quota was full. Every day he rang. “Has anyone dropped out? Is there a place for me?” Eventually, we offered him a place anyway.

You have seen Paul many times on television, explaining – clearly, calmly, concisely – how some recent change in government policy will affect your life.

The course included Paul.

· Jaquira looked upset. 

“What’s up, Jaq?”, her fellow students asked. 

“My tutor has given me this essay. The title is “Discuss – [some aspects of social work]”. How can I have a discussion with myself? Discussion means conversation!”

One of us was about to launch an explanation of academic language when Brian and Ash moved in. 

“Well, Ash, I think this economic explanation of how people get into difficulties … is obviously right …” 

“You have a point, Brian. But social and cultural factors obviously play a big part too … ”

Jaquira  took notes. After a while, she smiled. Now she could see how to ‘discuss’ in an essay.

Her fellow students included Jaq.

· Students studying the widest imaginable range of things – including C++ programming, Egyptology, commercial fishing technology, wind power, the history and practice of clowning – came together each week to share their learning and their questions.

They included, supported, each other. Some weeks we tutors had little or nothing to do. 

This is a composite account of life at the School for Independent Study at North East London Polytechnic from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s. Names have been changed. The programmes by independent study were created in a rush of optimistic enthusiasm in a new Polytechnic, and killed off some 20 years later by the tsunami of enforced incoherence called modularisation. Each student designed their own course; not assembling existing bits, but writing their own course, learning outcomes, learning methods, forms of assessment.

We both taught there. We also met there.

Forty years on, we are still in Christmas card contact with several of our students from those days, cards and news coming from as far away as the Falkland Islands. Still included, still including.

How can we make a 21st-century version of this? It will be hard. Student:staff ratios are now much higher than they were then, so students would have to do much more for themselves and for and with each other. But the world-wide-web makes this possible.

And, working with independent students, you can spend the time you would otherwise have spent teaching them getting to know them, working with them, helping them to learn, and learning with them.

The London Interdisciplinary School, described in Section 1, has some of the revolutionary feel of the School for Independent Study.

But modularity, as usually currently implemented, is a huge obstacle to real independent study. It requires a fragmentation of learning, which is unhelpful. We’d love it if someone can show us wrong! Maybe a student-designed module each semester, which runs alongside the rest of their studies, a place where they work together to plan, integrate and make sense of the rest of their studies, to make it their own?

The elements are there. Students are co-creating individual modules. And students are Choosing Their Own Adventure (as discussed in the previous case study), within a module, or more broadly by selecting modules to form their own programme, their own learning adventure.

But this is often choosing, assembling existing large components. It is not making. The kind of freedom and responsibility that independent study offers probably isn’t currently much available until postgraduate level. Our fear is that, by the time students get to postgraduate study, if they do, they may have become even more skilled at learning through being taught, in silos of instruction and content. They may not have developed the capability, the passion, for independent learning that the world, whatever else it needs, will surely need of them. 

Independent may sound almost the opposite of inclusive. It isn’t. Each independent study student finds their own way to be cooperative, to be interdependent, to be effective, and, necessarily, to be inclusive and be included. 

How close can you get to independent study, within a modular framework, with 2020s’ student: staff ratios, and 2020s’ technologies?

Some suggestions: Use projects. Use project modules. Do anything you legitimately can to get students working on their passions, their enthusiasms, building on their capabilities, achieving their own goals, rather than simply being compliant students.

Rather than giving students assignments, establish and share the criteria for what would make a satisfactory assignment. Then, encourage students to devise their own assignments that meet these criteria; an idea from the School for Independent Study, have a formal process of recognition / validation of the project plans; and then support them to do their own assignments, again to follow their passions.

Such approaches are scary, for you and your students. But they will lead to some brilliant student work, and help students develop capabilities and confidence that they will never develop simply through being taught.

A gray heron is taking off from a lake.

Image: Help students take flight


Robbins, D. (1977). A degree by independent study. Higher Education Review, 9(3).

Stephenson, J. (2008). The experience of Independent Study at North East London Polytechnic. In: D. Boud, ed., Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, 2nd ed. London: Taylor and Francis, pp.211-226.

Inclusivity note

It seems intuitive that students creating their own course must be the ultimate inclusivity approach. Although that is certainly the case for students who are cognitively and academically ready for the challenge, for some this approach can be counterproductive. We need to know our students and carry out a contextual analysis as explained in Section 2 to provide the right level of scaffolding and challenge to each. It might be that we need to have a fast-track totally independent option for those ready for it, and a more supported and scaffolded option for those who need it, with the aim of gradually letting go so students can still achieve learning autonomy.

In this provocative case study, we are challenged to provide students with real academic freedom, stepping back from direct instruction and letting them create their own course, even if this is only possible on a relatively small scale, such as on elective modules. You may be in a position to offer or set up elective modules or other projects that truly put students in the driver seat.