The concept of autonomous learning has gained most of its momentum in recent years, although the term was first used back in 1981 by Frenchman Henri Holec, largely regarded as the ‘father’ of learner autonomy. There have been – and remain – many definitions of the term but, in general, it means a student takes responsibility for their own learning.
The term is almost exclusively used and debated in the contexts of language learning (which was its origin), home schooling and higher education.
Autonomous learning shifts the focus from teaching to learning. It does not mean that the teacher becomes redundant, abdicating their control over the learning process, but it does mean the student makes decisions about what and how they learn. The teacher’s role is to provide support, encouragement and advice/knowledge when asked. They help the student accomplish things the student themself wants to achieve. It changes the relationship between students and teachers because the teacher becomes a useful resource in helping them to achieve their goals, rather than somebody who is going to lecture, judge and test them.
Students learning autonomously typically need a great deal of support, co-operation and often assessment from their peers. They must first identify what they need and want to learn, how they will learn it and how they will evaluate and use what they have learned. They need to have well-formed concepts of what learning means, apply a range of learning approaches and be disciplined, resourceful and organised. It (almost) goes without saying that they must be well motivated to learn!
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Within the context of language learning, old practices of language classrooms have given way to self-access learning centres around the globe, including SALC in Japan, the ASLLC in Hong Kong and ELSAC in New Zealand. Closer to home you’ll find them in universities including London, Bath, Newcastle, Reading and many more, with new centres popping up regularly.
At such centres students can access a myriad of reading materials in scores of languages; specialist software to help them with grammar, pronunciation, spelling, speaking and listening skills; exercise sheets and answers; and, very often, subtitled TV programmes in many different languages. The structure of these centres ranges from completely student-directed work to programmes which provide primarily tutor or instructor-guided work with self-study back-up.
Autonomous learning in higher education
According to Sheffield Hallam University, conceptualising learner autonomy involves two factors. Firstly, that an autonomous learner has developed the capacity to take at least some control over their learning. Secondly, that the learning environment must provide opportunities for each student to take control of their learning.
In addition to the rather more recognised skills needed by autonomous learners, the University insists that learning is a social activity, and socialising their learning requires students to recognise and understand the benefits of working with other learners and to be able to share and negotiate with them.
Meanwhile, The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) in London describes the seven pillars of information literacy as the ability to: 1. recognise a need for information 2. distinguish ways to address an information ‘gap’ 3. construct strategies for locating information 4. locate and access information 5. compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources 6. organise, apply and communicate information to others appropriately 7. synthesise and build upon existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge
Five tips for successful autonomous learning
1. Check your understanding. Ask yourself questions about what you have read or listened to with the book closed, the CD player off or your laptop lid down.
2. Paraphrase: recite what you have learned but using different words and expressions. It’ll make you think, rather than repeat by rote.
3. Embrace mistakes! They are not failures, they are opportunities to learn and to understand where you need to study more.
4. Try online tutors for areas you need particular help with: you can dip in as and when you need help as they’re more flexible than face-to-face tutors, who tend to work to regular sessions.
5. Maintain focus on the end result. Autonomous learners desire to increase their knowledge and skills, rather than purely pass exams. So keep your goals front-of-mind at all times to help maintain your motivations.
You’ll also find plenty of helpful information on this website. In particular, search through the ‘homeschooling’ blogs. If you’re learning a language, try connecting with a native speaker by using Skype or Facetime – see our blog.
Above all, enjoy your studies.