Autonomy is one of those words that can be used in various aspects of life, and its meaning varies widely according to the context in which it is found. In psychology and politics, autonomy means the “ability to make informed and uncoerced decisions”. At work, having autonomy might mean you have a certain degree of freedom to make your own choices. What about the language classroom? Why has learner autonomy become such an important concept?
What is an autonomous learner?
Throughout the years, several authors have come up with definitions of what it means to be an autonomous learner. Henri Holec, who coined the term, says that an autonomous student is an individual who understands and takes responsibility for their own learning, is able to reflect upon the process they go through and is aware of actions, strategies and techniques they can use to enhance their learning.
All this might sound a bit obvious for those who live and breathe language learning and teaching. However, these processes are not automatic and unconscious - they need to be developed and practiced with students from the beginning of their learning path. The more teachers facilitate this process, the more likely students are to develop the competencies required to reach independent and autonomous learning.
Amongst the characteristics displayed by autonomous learners are the abilities to be motivated, self-directed, responsible, self-aware and independent. They also show awareness of some behaviours that reflect positively on their learning, which we'll describe below.
Skills of the autonomous learner
Identifying and managing goals
When we meet our students, one of the first questions we ask is: “Why are you learning English?”. Although most learners can generally say the reasons why they need to know a language (applying for a scholarship, advancing career prospects, travelling abroad), these tend to be very broad and general. In this sense, we can say that the learner is thinking about an end result that is more dream-like than realistic - they are already imagining themselves proficient enough in the language to reach the life goals they are aiming for.
This is a good sign: having a real-life, meaningful goal to speak a language plays a key role in learner motivation and their desire and willingness to keep on studying. However, to make this happen and avoid frustration, an autonomous learner should be able to identify specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely goals (by the way, we wrote about goals SMART goals in our post about lesson aims)
In order to help students set their own goals and raise awareness of the usefulness of this practice, it is important to encourage them to assess their current knowledge of the language, understand how far they would like to go (and establish a timeframe for this) and reflect on when the learning will effectively start making a difference in the student’s life. The ability to set goals will probably prevent the learner from establishing far-fetched objectives, and through constant reflection, the learner will be able to reassess and re-set learning goals throughout their language learning life.
Developing knowledge of learning strategies
Now that students know where they would like to get to, it is vital that students learn how to learn. Knowledge and understanding of strategies for learning might enhance the student’s performance, impacting directly on the quality of their production and output. Learning about and managing strategies takes time - some say that this should be at the heart of the teaching instruction, as much as the language itself.
Learning strategies can be divided in these three groups:
Cognitive learning strategies: these are the strategies that the learner employs to address a task, activity or material. For example, if the student is watching a YouTube video, they can use strategies such as: inferring meaning of words from context, paying attention to connected speech and understanding word boundaries, paying attention to keywords, listening for the general idea, etc. Cognitive strategies vary from skill to skill, and learners should be encouraged to develop a repertoire they can retrieve and access strategies from when they are needed.
Metacognitive learning strategies: metacognitive strategies are the ones used to make sure the cognitive strategies are achieved. Think about this as thinking about how to think. If we take the same example, the YouTube video, metacognitive strategies would include reflecting upon the effectiveness of what the student did to reach understanding (or not) of the video. This is an opportunity for the learner to reflect upon which cognitive strategies worked, which didn’t, and how they can improve their listening comprehension (or any other skill) in the future.
Socio-affective learning strategies: these are used to help the student cope with feelings like stress, frustration, anxiety, motivation and fear when learning a new language. The importance of these strategies are based on the belief that a positive environment is essential for learning, and an effective learner is able to manage their emotions regarding the learning process. The challenge for most teachers is to make the development of these strategies explicit. To help students develop socio-affective learning strategies, the teacher can encourage them to monitor their level of anxiety when approached by a certain task, for example. Another practice that might work is to encourage collaborative work and ask students to reflect upon how working with peers help them in their own learning process.
Reflecting upon and evaluating their own learning:
Autonomous learners should be able to self assess and identify their strengths and weaknesses in language learning. Teachers can help learners self and peer assess by providing them with opportunities to use a number of self-assessment tools. These might include:
- Creating and keeping of portfolios for speaking and writing
- Using self-assessment questionnaires
- Using checklists for students to monitor their learning aims
There are several self-assessment tools available online - ideally, you can encourage your students to produce their own self-assessment tool to ensure it is appropriate for them, both in terms of the content of what they are assessing but also the approach used by the tool.
Understanding the purpose of what they are doing
Doing things without knowing why can be very frustrating - this is true in life and in learning as well. That’s why one of the fundamental things to foster learner autonomy is to share with students the reasons why they are doing what they are doing, the rationale behind the activities in class, and provide them with choice - autonomous learners should participate in the decision making process when it comes to their own learning.
Teacher’s role and practical ideas
Encourage peer support as an alternative to students’ overreliance on the teacher. Learner autonomy does not mean that students need to do things alone - it means that they are capable of finding other sources of help and support.
Encourage investigation and discovery to make learners better able to learn by themselves (e.g. using dictionaries and other learning resources)
Provide choice instead of deciding on lesson aims and activities yourself
Give students time to think about what and how they are learning. Make these moments during your lesson formal - you might even include them in your lesson plan.
Help learners keep organised and encourage them to keep track of learning strategies. A useful idea is to motivate them to keep a notepad where they take notes on useful strategies for reading, writing, listening and speaking, as well as other learning strategies to help them with pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
Thank you for reading! I hope this post was useful. Please leave your impressions and feedback in the comment section below.
Borg, S. et al. 2012. Learner Autonomy: English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices. London: British Council.
Irie, K, & Stewart, A (eds.). 2011. Realizing Autonomy: Practice and Reflection in Language Education Contexts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan
Smith, R. 2008. Learner Autonomy. Key Concepts in ELT. ELT Journal 62/4 October 2008.
Andreia Zakime is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Barcelona. She is a Cambridge CELTA tutor and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?