What Does a Successful Institution Look Like?

Independent learning is often key to academic success. But, how can you foster an environment that facilitates independent learning? Find out here.

5 min readPublished: 9 Apr 2019

You may have met Jodie, our ideal independent student. If so, you’ll have seen the behaviours and attitudes associated with the skill in higher ed. But what we haven’t explored is the kind of environment that facilitates independent learning.

Given that creating lifelong learners is a fundamental objective of higher education, we think it would be useful to sketch out what this might look like through Van Zandt University, Jodie’s alma mater.

Van Zandt University

Van Zandt University is a medium sized, 4-year college in the Midwest. It has a full-time student population of 7,540, with around 800 of these students registered with Disability Services.

Disability Support

Despite the number of students accessing support, those working in Disability Services suspect there’s a significant number entitled to accommodations that aren’t registering with them. In the past couple of years, they’ve publicized their department’s work much more visibly on campus, which is having a positive effect on registration.

They’ve also expanded their range of tools, accounting for more and more barriers that students might be facing. Screen-readers, smart-pens, note-taking software, anxiety reducers, 1-1 support and responsive classroom arrangements are all now part of Disability Services’ inventory. It means that it’s much more likely for students to get the support that they need to engage fully in class and with their course.

Retention rates are steadily climbing (now above the national average), and reliance on traditional forms of support such as peer notetakers is easing. The reduction in admin burden this has created allows for more direct contact with students.

Classroom Experience

Van Zandt isn’t tied to age-old tradition in education. They’ve embraced a mix of lecture instruction, online learning, group-work and collaborative learning. But at the heart of the 100+ courses they offer is student choice; rigid knowledge transmission and examination is hard to find. This has allowed a student like Jodie, who has ADHD, to learn in a way that plays to her strengths while developing specialization within her field of study.

Faculty and AT

Faculty regard themselves as facilitators lending their expertise to help guide students towards independent, lifelong learning. Despite some initial concerns about recording, they’ve bought in to technology as a solution for students in a way that hasn’t happened in some other institutions. Much of this is down to proactive efforts from Disability Services to put these tools into context. But, perhaps more importantly, the focus on independence and engagement has meant that staff are really starting to understand the value these tools can have.

Where previously traditional accommodations were provoking a lack of engagement among those dependent on them, the wide range of technology now available has led to better presence in class and improved GPA among the majority of users.

Is this achievable?

Van Zandt, though fictional, represents the kind of institution we encounter on a fairly regular basis. Many of the colleges we work with are seeing the value in an approach to disability support that puts student independence at the forefront, recognising the importance that a balanced AT toolkit has in achieving this objective.