Fostering Learning Autonomy & Creating Autonomous Learners

What is Learning Autonomy?

Holec (2001:48), writing on language teaching and learning, defined learning autonomy as “the ability to take change of one’s own learning”. Dickinson (1987, cited in Gardner & Miller,1996:6) defines autonomy as a “situation in which the learner is totally responsible for all of the decisions concerned with his or her learning and the implementation of those decisions”. Whilst, Bound (1988) suggests that autonomy is “an approach to educational practice” that emphasises the learner’s independence and learner’s responsibility for their learning. Kenny (1999:431) states that autonomy is not only the freedom to learn but also “the opportunity to become a person”.

These definitions on learning autonomy focus on learners in taking greater responsibility for what they learn, how they learn, and when they learn. More clearly, Littlewoods (1999:71) identifies autonomy should include the two features:

1. Students should take responsibility for their own learning.

2. Taking responsibility involves learners in taking ownership (partial or total) of many processes which have traditional belonged to the teacher, such as deciding on learning objectives, selecting learning methods and evaluating process.

In practical terms, learner autonomy focuses on whether the learning is controlled by the learner: in autonomous learning, learners take their own responsibility for goal-setting, materials selection, learning activities and/or assessment, instead of a teacher or self-study materials being in overall charge (Benson, 2001)

Benson (1997) distinguishes three broad ways of talking about learner autonomy:

· a ‘technical’ perspective, emphasizing skills or strategies for unsupervised learning: specific kinds of activity or process such as the ‘metacognitive’, ‘cognitive’, ‘social’ and other strategies identified by Oxford (1990);

· a ‘psychological’ perspective, emphasizing broader attitudes and cognitive abilities which enable the learner to take responsibility for his/her own learning;

· a ‘political’ perspective, emphasizing empowerment or emancipation of learners by giving them control over their learning. (cited in Palfreyman & Smiths, 2003, p. 3) According to Yan (2012) the main reasons educators might focus on cultivate autonomous learning is that it lays the foundations of lifelong learning and fosters high degrees of creativity and independence. I think we might consider whether autonomous learning and the drive to create autonomous learning is also an appropriate response to some of the moral and political challenges posed by ‘critical pedagogy’: autonomous learning, on the face of it, is the opposite to the “top-down” approaches of bygone eras and may avoid some of the ideological socialisation implied by such approaches. Palfreyman and Smiths (2003) put forward several arguments in favour of developing autonomy in learners: for example, that autonomy is a human right; that autonomous learning is more effective than other approaches to learning; and that learners need to take charge of their own learning in order to make the most of available resources, especially outside the classroom. One could add that the advent of the information age only adds further impetus to focus on the autonomous learning skills best suited to life-long learning in a digital age of unprecedented information abundance.


Misconceptions About Autonomous Learning

Misconception 1: Autonomous Learning is Synonymous with Self-Instruction and/or PBL

“Self-instruction refers to the situation in which a learner is working alone without the direct control of the teacher”. ( Dickinson 1987, p.5, cited in Jones 2003) and in the narrow sense, self-instruction is a “deliberate long-term learning project instigated, planned and carried out by the learner alone, without teacher intervention”.( Benson 2001, p131, cited in Jones 2003). Whilst self-instruction focuses on whether learning is carried out alone or in lessons, learner autonomy focuses on whether or not the learning is controlled by the learner. (Yan, 2012)


Misconception 2: Autonomous Learning Makes Teachers Redundant

Autonomous learning is by no means "teacherless learning" (Thanasoulas, 2000). As Sheerin (1997, cited in Thanasoulas, 2000) succinctly puts it, teachers have a crucial role to play in launching learners into self-access and in lending them a regular helping hand to stay afloat.

Whilst some may (quite understandably) dream of a scenario where teachers can sometimes get on with marking books whilst their students autonomously fill their heads with vast amounts of knowledge: this is not the intention behind the concept of autonomous learning nor is it a realistic goal to expect to achieve! The teacher plays an important role in the autonomous learning project. The two basic roles of any teachers, as defined by Wright (1991) are still required in autonomous learning:

“1. to create the conditions under which learning can take place: the social side of teaching.

2. to impact, by a variety of means, knowledge to their learners: the task-oriented side of teaching.” (Wright 1991:51) Others have classified the roles of teachers, generally speaking, into the following categories: teacher as manager and organiser; teacher as facilitator; and teacher as counsellor. (Richards and Rodgers 1986, p.77). Yan (2012) explains what this means in terms of the teacher’s role during the autonomous learning process.


Misconception 3: Autonomous Learning is Only for Second-Language Education

Much of the recent research has focused on language teaching and learning and the concept of 'autonomous learning' seems, based on a review of research literature, to have been almost entirely "claimed" by researchers, educators and pedagogy experts who work in the field of second-language education!

Whilst it is reasonable to assert that autonomous learning might be more suited to some subjects rather than others: there is no good reason why autonomous learning strategies and the general goal of fostering autonomous learning styles cannot be made manifest in all school subjects. The usefulness of autonomous learning styles has been evidenced in most school subjects and at all age ranges.

Given the importance of learning autonomy as an essential life-long learning skill it is important that it is cultivated across the curriculum and in all school subjects: there is no reason why it cannot be!


What is the Role of the Teacher in Autonomous Learning?

According to Yan (2012) the role of the teacher in autonomous learning is:

1. Teachers as Managers and Organisers of the Autonomous Learning Process

a. The teacher is responsible for organising various kinds of activities and games which are appropriate, effective and relevant to the classroom teaching and which will best meet the students‟ needs and expectations

b. The teacher should aim to respond to the students interests and abilities so that they will be highly motivated to perform in each stage of classroom activities

c. Teachers should give clear instructions as to what is to be done because most learning activities depend on good organization and on the students knowing exactly what they are expected to do

2. Teachers as Facilitators of the Autonomous Learning Process

a. As facilitators, teachers are responsible for providing psycho-social support: the capacity of motivating learner, as well as the ability of raising learners’ awareness. This may include, for example, managing disruptive behaviours, refocusing group discussions and inspiring engagement.

b. As facilitators, teachers are responsible for providing technical support: helping learner to plan and carry out their learning, helping learners to evaluate themselves, and helping learners to acquire the skills and knowledge. Additionally, as a long-term strategy facilitators should be hoping to imbue learners with the metacognitive and self-regulated learning skills and behaviours that gradually shift the responsibility towards the student.

c. As facilitators, teachers need to do all the efforts to help make the learning easier and motivate learners to play to the best of their potentials, which includes:

i. helping the learners to plan and carry out their independent learning

ii. helping learners to acquire the knowledge and skills and motivate learner to learn actively and autonomously

d. In the process of facilitating, it involves teachers’ encouragement and assistance. Teachers encourage learners’ motivation and commitment, helping them to get rid of the uncertainty and anxiety and overcome the obstacles.

e. Facilitators are also resource guides: in autonomous learning teachers should provide learning resources and materials, should be capable of selecting the materials which can best arouse learners' interest and cater to their learning level so that this ensures the learners’ progress, motivation and confidence.

f. Finally, as a facilitator of the autonomous learning process: your role in evaluating and assessing work in vital. Teachers should focus on students’ success or progress so that a success-oriented learning atmosphere could be created: this also helps students to be more confident in autonomous learning. Obviously, this doesn’t exclude the importance of self-assessment and peer-assessment in the autonomous learning process: it is widely accepted that teacher-feedback and guidance is required for effective self and peer assessment in schools.

3. Teachers as Counsellors during the Autonomous Learning Process

a. Teacher should give advice and help learners so that they can achieve more efficient learning. Teachers should foster metacognition and self-regulated learning by helping learners to engage in the self-regulated learning cycle of planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating their learning processes.

b. Teachers should guide and counsel their students towards the fulfilment learners’ aims and needs, as well as give feedback and support learners towards the target of autonomous learning

c. Richards and Rodgers (1986, p.78) writes: “The teacher-counsellor is expected to exemplify an effective communicator seeking to maximize the meshing of speaker intention and hearer interpretation, through the use of paraphrase, confirmation, and feedback.”

Little (1991) stressed that learner autonomy and teacher autonomy are interdependent: teachers wishing to promote greater learner autonomy need to "start with themselves", reflecting on their own beliefs, practices, experiences and expectations of the teaching/learning situation. However, learner autonomy does not imply that the teacher becomes redundant abdicating his/her control over what is transmitting (Thanasoulas, 2000).


What Constitutes An Ideal Autonomous Learner?

As Omaggio (1978) states there seem to be seven main attributes characterising autonomous learners:

1. autonomous learners have insights into their learning styles and strategies [i.e. metacognitive knowledge]

2. take an active approach to the learning task at hand [i.e. are self-regulated learners]

3. are willing to take risks, i.e., to communicate try to answer questions they might get wrong

4. are good guessers and not afraid to make ‘guestimates’

5. attend to form as well as to content, that is, place importance on accuracy as well as understand what appropriate responses to learning activities are and what is expected

6. develop vocabulary and conceptual learning relevant to the context

7. have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the topics being studied

Since one of the primary aims here is to equip learners with life-long learning skills, I think it is also important to teach students critical-thinking skills and essential research skills (e.g. identifying suitable information sources vs “fake news”). Moreover, the ability to self-evaluate, set targets for improvement and regulate future approaches to learning and working is something Omaggio’s above list of attributes may neglect.

We can summarise by concluding that an ideal autonomous learner has well-developed metacognitive awareness, knowledge and skill as well as a capacity for self-regulated learning both in relation to specific learning activates and long-term learning strategies. Their capacity for self-regulation should also extend towards attitudes, emotions and motivation so that they maintain an authentic and consistent drive towards learning. They are open-minded and inquisitive yet have sufficient critical-thinking skills and self-awareness to protect themselves from misinformation and illogical thinking.


How to Create Autonomous Learners: Strategies & Approaches

In simple terms, fostering autonomous learning in your lessons might involve:

(1) Giving students greater freedom to select content and choose between learning activities

(2) Fostering self-regulated learning behaviours ( whereby students are involved in planning, monitoring, evaluating & regulating the learning process) and metacognition

(3) Giving students the opportunity to evaluate their own progress in line with their own learning objectives

(4) Giving learners the opportunity to activate their knowledge outside of the classroom

(5) Allowing students to create their own learning activities and assign their own tasks


Writing on the language-learning environment, Kumaravadivelu (2006) holds that meaningful autonomy can be promoted in the classroom by, among other things:

· encouraging learners to assume the role of mini-ethnographers to investigate and understand how, for instance, language as ideology served vested interests

· asking them to reflect on their developing identities by writing diaries… related to the social world

· helping them in the formation of learning communities where they develop into unified, socially cohesive, mutually supportive groups seeking self-awareness and self-improvements

· providing opportunities for them to explore the unlimited possibilities offered by online services and bringing back to the class their own topics for discussions, and their own perspectives on those topics. (p. 178)

Kumaravadivelu’s (2006) approach, focuses on ideological and political goals inherent to autonomous learning and emphasises the need for critical-thinking skills and self-awareness in the autonomous learning process. For some subjects this will be perhaps less relevant: should a Mathematics Teacher, for example, discuss the "vested interests" and ideologies that are being served through Mathematics lessons...? I'll leave that for you to decide!


Thanasoulas (2000) also outlines three ways of fostering learner autonomy:

(1) Self-Report a. Thanasoulas advocates the use of two types of self-report: introspective and retrospective. The main goal of the first, introspective self-report, is help learners become aware of their own strategies, and in the latter, retrospective self-report, students are asked to think back to retrospect on their learning.

(2) Diaries and Evaluation Sheets

a. The purpose of this method is to alter learners' beliefs about themselves by showing them that their putative failures or shortcomings can be ascribed to a lack of effective strategies rather than to a lack of potential.

b. It is through diaries and evaluation sheets, students cab plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning, identifying any problems they run into and suggesting solutions

(3) Persuasive Communication [e.g. Discussions & Debates, Persuasive Essay Writing]

a. Encourages students to engage with ideas and concepts

b. Fosters vocabulary development

c. Gives students a sense of “having a stake” in the issues being discussed

d. Fosters critical-thinking skills


Rao (2003) advocates the use of portfolios in the assessment process: “as an assessment device, portfolios not only encourage students to participate in the process of evaluation, but also motivate students to improve their English learning in a comprehensive way. In addition, portfolio evaluation takes individual differences into consideration and involves everybody in the assessment process, including students, teachers, and peers. Most importantly, portfolios connect learning, assessment, and instruction and stress improvement, effort, and achievement. With the use of portfolios, students can document the planning, learning, monitoring, and evaluation processes. This can help raise students’ awareness of learning strategies, facilitate their learning process, and enhance their self-directed learning.” (p. 120)


Final Thoughts: Motivation & Emotional Self-Regulation is Essential for Creating Autonomous Learners

McCombs & Whisler’s (1989) research should give us pause for thought, they write:

“The propensity of learners for autonomous learning is a function of the development of cognitive and metacognitive abilities for (a) processing, planning, and regulating learning activities; and (b) controlling and regulating affect and motivation. […]

If learners are to apply processes necessary for autonomous learning, they must generate positive affect and motivation toward the learning task and toward applying the mental effort required. In turn, for positive affect and motivation to be generated, students must believe that their effort will lead to learning success and will contribute to meaningful personal goals. They must also be able to positively evaluate their personal competency and ability to take personal control over the demands of the learning task.”

The importance of emotions and motivation is at the core of autonomous learning: recent work one the importance of “resilience” and “grit” in students points to a need to focus on the emotional and motivational factors that underpin learning.

It is our view that the emotional and motivational component of self-regulated learning is, therefore, something we must focus on in the classroom. All in all: learning must be felt to be rewarding before learners will pursue it autonomously! Perhaps this is the greatest challenge of all…



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Dickinson, L. Autonomy and Motivation: A Literature Review . Gardner &Miller, 1996

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Little, D. (1991). Learner autonomy: definitions, issues and problems. Dublin: Authentic.

McCombs & Whisler (1989) The Role of Affective Variables in Autonomous Learning, Educational Psychologist, 24:3, 277-306, DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep2403_4

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