Promoting Learner Autonomy in English Language Learning (Part 1)

24 November, 2023

The idea of student autonomy has gained significant traction in the modern era with the introduction of eLearning on LMS, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when educational institutions must switch to online learning. The development of learner autonomy strategies would be beneficial in an EFL environment like Vietnam where students depend heavily on teachers. 

Learner autonomy (LA) plays a vital part in learners’ success. Today’s era entails learners being more autonomous in their study. Researchers and educators have done a lot of research in the field of LA and how to promoting LA. How about students’ viewpoints on LA, particularly in their English language learning, which has become ever more progressive in the era 4.0? What elements do students consider important in enhancing their autonomy in English language learning?

The concept of LA 

Over the past 40 years, a substantial amount of literature has been devoted to learner autonomy in an attempt to define the concept, classify approaches, propose training models, and explore the applicability of learner autonomy in various educational contexts. The foundational definition of learner autonomy was formulated by Holec (1981, as cited in Little, 2007, p.15) as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning”. According to Little (2007, p.26), learner autonomy is “the product of an interactive process in which the teacher gradually enlarges the scope of her learners’ autonomy by gradually allowing them more control of the process and content of their learning”. Various research (e.g. Benson, 2003; Benson & Voller, 1997; Dickinson, 1987, 1992; Holec, 1981, 1988; Little, 1991; Pemberton et al., 1996) has indicated an ongoing interest in different aspects related to learner autonomy.

Promoting LA

There have been a myriad of studies attempting to provide pedagogical implications for promoting learner autonomy in language teaching around the world (e.g., Benson, 2001; Breeze, 2002; Chan, 2001; Cotterall, 1995; Dam, 1995; Jing, 2006; Lo, 2010). Prominently, Littlewood’s (1997) proposed a model of autonomy involving three dimensions of language acquisition, learning approach, and personal development. These dimensions reflect an individual’s autonomy as a communicator, a learner, and a person, i.e., a social member. In this model, autonomy as a person is regarded as a higher-level goal.

Little (2007) proposed three principles for successful second and foreign language teaching: learner involvement, learner reflection and target language use. The principle of learner involvement requires that the teacher draw learner’s attention into their own learning process, making them share responsibility for setting the learning agenda, selecting learning activities and materials, managing classroom interaction and evaluating learning outcomes. Teachers must provide suggestions and procedures, cultivating a classroom dynamic that constantly lifts them to new levels of effort and achievement. The principle of learner reflection requires ‘reflective intervention’ as a key feature of the teaching-learning process. Planning, monitoring and evaluating learning entail explicit reflection on the process and content of learning. The principle of target language use entails that the target language is the medium through which all classroom activities are conducted, organizational and reflective as well as communicative. The effective use of group work and the appropriate use of writing such as posters, journals, and various kinds of written text as the output of group projects are considered as the key to successful implementation of this principle. 

Likewise, Benson (2007) pointed out five principles for implementing autonomous learning: active involvement in student learning, providing options and resources, offering choices and decision-making opportunities, supporting learners, and encouraging reflection.

In addition, Pino-James (2015) proposed six factors for improving student engagement behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively. The six factors are composed of making it meaningful, fostering a sense of competence, providing autonomy support, embracing collaborative learning, establishing positive teacher-student relationships, and promoting mastery orientations.

LA research in Vietnam

A lot of research has been carried out to explore learner autonomy in Asian countries such as (Aoki, 2001; Aoki & Smith, 1999; Chan, 2001; Chan et al., 2002; Cotterall, 2000; Dickinson, 1996; Lo, 2010; Sakai, Takagi, & Chu, 2010; Thanasoulas, 2000). In Vietnam, learner autonomy has been receiving considerable attention, especially in tertiary education.

A few studies have explored teachers’ perceptions of learner autonomy in the higher educational context in Vietnam such as Nguyen (2008), Nguyen (2011), Nguyen (2014), and Nguyen (2016). Some studies have demonstrated that although being regarded as passive learners, Vietnamese learners are keen to adopt autonomous learning practices (Littlewood, 2001; Nguyen, 2011; Thai, 2015). 

Other research has focused on developing learner autonomy in the training program, using intervention case study like Le (2013), Nguyen (2009), and Nguyen and Gu (2013). These studies have identified certain obstacles to promoting learner autonomy in Vietnam like the exam-oriented educational context, a stringent syllabus, and contextual constraints of Vietnamese culture, which places reliance on the teacher. Traditional cultural learning values as a hindrance to learner autonomy are also mentioned in Thai (2015).

Furthermore, Nguyen (2019) studied learner autonomy of 1,258 undergraduate English-major students. The research showed students’ desire to share responsibility equally with their teacher. However, they expressed a preference for their teacher playing a greater role in some activities, such as choosing resources or selecting assessment options. Overall, students were autonomous at a moderate level. ICT and CALL were perceived as crucial components in a blended environment of classroom learning and out-of-class learning. The autonomous behaviours within the classroom were of reactive nature. On the other hand, these students tended to be more autonomous and proactive in learning outside the classroom through part-time jobs, social activities, and hobbies.

Despite an abundance of studies in learner autonomy, there has been little research on students’ views of the efficacy of specific activities in fostering learner autonomy. This research addresses this gap in empirical study of the specific practices in promoting learner autonomy in the new era of educational technology. 

Research methodology

The purpose of the research is to explore students’ preferences for the teacher’s methods and their needs for promoting LA. The research aims to answer two questions:

  1. What teacher’s practices for improving learner autonomy in English language learning are preferred by students?
  2. What do students need for successfully promoting learner autonomy?

The subjects were non-English major students (n=375) at UEH taking their module 2. A 2-part questionnaire on 5-point Likert scale was utilized to investigate the students’ perspectives on the teacher’s practices that enable them to be autonomous in their learning. Part 1 has 7 items for the learning activities and part 2 has 14 items covering four main aspects: learning resources, learning activities, student involvement in content selection and grading, and teachers’ support. An open-ended question was included to solicit the students’ ideas for improving their autonomy in English learning.


Students’ preferences for promoting learner autonomy

With regard to the students’ preferences for the activities that enable learner autonomy, most of the students exhibited appreciation for all of the surveyed activities. The students showed the most enthusiasm for offering suggestions on learning assessment (Mean = 3.87). On the other hand, the students highly valued the teacher’s provision of a wide range of reference materials and they liked project-based learning.

Table 1. Students’ Preferences of the Activities for Promoting Learner Autonomy (N= 375)

Activities M
1     Project-based learning  3.68
2     Group works  3.45
3     Group presentation  3.34
4     Assignment of a lot of homework  3.20
5     A wide provision of reference materials 3.86
6     Students’ participation in learning content selection 3.76
7     Students’ participation in suggesting how to assess learning 3.87

Students’ needs for promoting learner autonomy

When it comes to the students’ needs in promoting learner autonomy, the results from Table 2 highlighted the students’ drastic desire for the teacher’s counsel on learning methods (Mean = 4.24). In addition, the students indicated that they needed constant encouragement and support (Mean = 4.05). Meanwhile, they also required that the teacher regularly monitor and remind learning. The third most important commitment that the students sought was a diverse range of resources for references, just after teacher’s counsel and encouragement as well as support. 

Table 2. Students’ Needs for Promoting Learner Autonomy (N = 375)

Activities       M
1     Provision of exercises and answers for self-study on LMS, only questions are addressed in class 3.55
2     Project-based learning 3.49
3     Implementation of lots of group activities 3.37
4     Group presentations with topics assigned by teacher 3.11
5     Group presentation with topics chosen by students 3.53
6     A lot of homework 2.86
7     A diverse range of extra resources for references 3.96
8     Students’ participation in choosing learning contents 3.74
9    Students’ involvement in assessment process 3.76
10  Teacher’s support for technical issues  3.91
11  Teacher’s counsel on learning methods 4.24
12  Regularly monitoring and reminding learning  3.60
13  Constant encouragement and support 4.05
14  Students’ frequent reflection on their own learning 3.93

Additionally, they stressed the necessity of teacher’s support for technical issues. On the other hand, the students emphasized the importance of engaging in regular reflection on their own learning (Mean = 3.93). They addressed the significance of the involvement in assessment process and participation in choosing learning contents. 

Students’ suggestions

In the open-ended section, the students paid lots of attention on implementing a wide variety of learning activities. Besides presentations, they suggested doing projects like dramatization, interviews, or challenges for each day with reflection at the end of the day. Blog writing for reflective activity about the learning process and achievements was also suggested. They proposed extracurricular sessions with students from other schools as well.

Regarding learning contents, they underlined the importance of practical knowledge for their real life. Particular emphasis was placed on the lesson’s appeal with games and the teacher’s teaching method to stimulate students’ interest. As one student expressed: “I think that in learning a language, the most important thing is to find interest in order to be more autonomous and more effective.” They also stated that the teacher should inspire students to learn English as a process of learning the language and the culture.

In addition, the students stressed the importance of creating a close-knit, friendly learning environment with lots of interactive activities. They wished praises and encouragement from the teacher and claimed that receiving bonus marks would greatly motivate them to learn.  

Meanwhile, the students addressed the significance of exam-oriented learning. Additionally, they suggested that the teacher make it clear to students the importance of English and guide them in setting learning goals. 

With respect to learning resources, the students liked a wide variety of formats for learning materials as well as extra resources like platforms, websites, videos, infographic, English films with subtitles. They preferred materials with instructions and keys.  

Please refer to the full paper “Promoting Learner Autonomy in English Language Learning” HERE.

Author: Le Thi Tuyet Minh, University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City (UEH)

This is an article in the series of articles spreading research and applied knowledge from UEH with the “Research Contribution For All – Nghiên Cứu Vì Cộng Đồng” message, UEH cordially invites dear readers to look forward to the upcoming Knowledge Newsletter ECONOMY No. #100.

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