Learner autonomy

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What is Learner Autonomy?

Learner autonomy, the term was first coined in 1981 by Henri Holec, the "father" of learner autonomy. Many definitions have since been given to the term, depending on the writer, the context and the level of debate, educators have come to. It has been considered as a personal human trait, as a political measure or as an educational move. This is due to the fact that autonomy is seen either (or both) as a means or as an end in education.

For a definition of autonomy, Dimitrios Thanasoulas quotes Holec (1981: 3, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 1) who describes it as 'the ability to take charge of one's learning'. On a general note, the term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 2):

  • for situations in which learners study entirely on their own;
  • for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning;
  • for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education;
  • for the exercise of learners' responsibility for their own learning;
  • for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.

Students take responsibility for their learning and work in partnership with tutors and other students. It involves risk taking by all concerned. Learner Autonomy is about learning to learn and developing assessment for learning (seelearner assessment). Students reflect on their experiences and are able to create their own meanings and challenge ideas/theories. It requires tutors to trust students' abilities and to promote the use of student-directed learning.

Characteristics of an autonomous learner include
  • Critical reflection and thinking
  • Self-awareness
  • Taking responsibility for own learning
  • Working creatively with complex situations
  • The ability to create own meanings and challenge ideas/theories.

Learner Autonomy Video. It is hard to define what Learner Autonomy is in words so the researchers in Sheffield Hallam University have interviewed members of their CETL team and asked them what Learner Autonomy means to them.

what caracterise autonomous learners?

Rousseau ([1762] 1911, cited in Candy, 1991: 102) regards the autonomous learner as someone who 'is obedient to a law that he prescribes to himself'. Within the context of education, though, there seem to be seven main attributes characterising autonomous learners (see Omaggio, 1978, cited in Wenden, 1998: 41-42):

  1. Autonomous learners have insights into their learning styles and strategies;
  2. take an active approach to the learning task at hand;
  3. are willing to take risks;
  4. are good guessers;
  5. attend to form as well as to content, that is, place importance on accuracy as well as appropriacy;
  6. develop the target language into a separate reference system and are willing to revise and reject hypotheses and rules that do not apply; and
  7. have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language.

Related concepts

Many terms have been coined to refer to a concept to which we referred to as learner autonomy. Practically, all these synonymous terms such as learner independence, self-access learning, self-paced learning and distant learning emphasize a shift of attention to learner-oriented approach to language learning. In this approach, learners take the responsibility of their own learning, learn at their own pace and use their own strategies. According to the (CIEL Handbook, 2000, p. 5): “Learner autonomy indicates a number of dimensions in which learners move away from dependence on the teacher and:

  • Take responsibility for their own learning and learn to learn;
  • Develop key transferable skills (e.g., study, time-management, IT, interpersonal skills etc.);
  • Actively manage their learning; seeking out learning opportunities and using appropriate learning strategies;
  • Involve themselves in an interactive process in which they set short and long term learning objectives, reflect on and evaluate progress.”

In addition, autonomy for the language learners has been described as “a process that enables learners to recognize and assess their own needs, to choose and apply their own learning strategies or styles eventually leading to the effective management of learning” (Penaflorida 2002, p. 346).


MSLQ (the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire)
  • a self-report Likert-scaled instrument designed to assess the motivational orientation and learning strategy use of college students and based on a social-cognitive view, has been under development since 1986 at the National Center for Research on Improving Postsecondary Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan. Pilot testing resulted in refinements incorporated into a final version of the MSLQ designed to be given in class in 20 to 30 minutes. To test the utility of the theoretical model and its operationalization, MSLQ responses were gathered from 380 midwestern college students over 14 subjects and 5 disciplines. Results suggest that the MSLQ has relatively good reliability, and confirmatory factor analysis supports the validity of the general theoretical framework and the scales that measure it. Three general factors of student motivation are identified. In addition, the predictive validity seems reasonably good. The MSLQ seems to be a useful, reliable, and valid way to assess motivation and learning strategies in the classroom.
  • The motivation scales tap in consist of three broad areas:
  1. value(intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientation, task value)
  2. expectancy (control beliefs about learning, self-efficacay)
  3. affect (test anxiety)
  • The learning strategies sections consist of nice scales which can be distinguished as cognitive, metacognitive, and resource management strategies:
  1. cognitive strategies: rehearsal, elaboration, organization, critical thinking
  2. metacognitive strategies: planning, monitoring, and regulating
  3. resource management: managing time and study environment, effort management, managing time and study environment, help-seeking
MSLQ in on-line learning environment
  • As an instrument designed to ascertain classroom self-regulation skills, MSLQ has limitations to assess online self-regulated learning . Because the instrument was design to reflect self-regulation in traditional classrooms, it does not relate well to online self-regulated strategies. Whip and Chiarelli (2004) found that students’ online and face-to-face learning strategies are different. Researchers have been carrying on a research in University of Missouri. They intend to predict what extent each MSLQ factor predicts students’ achievements and they will identify each MSLQ factor’s internal validity. This study is a preliminary step to developing an online self-regulated learning instrument-under construction.

Learner Autonomy and Language Teaching and Learning

  • The topics of autonomy and independence play an increasingly important role in language education. They raise issues such as learners' responsibility for their own learning, and their right to determine the direction of their own learning, the skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning and capacity for independent learning and the extents to which this can be suppressed by institutional education.
  • Henri Holec, "the father of learner autonomy", believes that the autonomous language learner takes responsibility for the totality of his learning situation. He does this by determining his own objectives, defining the contents to be learned and the progression of the course, selecting methods and techniques to be used, monitoring this procedure, and evaluating what he has acquired. Objectives are specific to the learner, and the learner's communicative needs determine the verbal elements chosen. Learning thus proceeds from ideas to correct grammatical, lexical, and phonological form. The self-directed learner chooses the methods of instruction through trial-and-error. His selection is based on the objectives set and its applicability to internal and external constraints. The student evaluates his attainment through his objectives, and this evaluation helps him to plan subsequent learning. The concept of autonomous learning requires a redefinition of knowledge from an objective universal to a subjective individual knowledge determined by the learner. For teachers, it means new objectives which help the learner define his personal objectives and help him acquire autonomy. Several experiments in autonomous learning are described.

Learner autonomy and E-learning

  • Emmanuel Blanchard and Claude Frasson. (2004) An Autonomy-Oriented System Design for Enhancement of Learner’s Motivation in E-learnin0302-9743 (Print) 1611-3349 (Online) (This work is aimed at establishing a survey of motivation literature and proposing a Motivation-Oriented System Design for e-Learning.)

How to foster Learner Autonomy


  • Motivation
  • It contains over 700 items related to autonomy in language learning.[1]


  1. David Little. (1995)Learning as Dialogue: The Dependence of Learner Autonomy on Teacher Autonomy.[2]
  2. Dimitrios Thanasoulas.(2000)What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It be Fostered? the Internet TESL Journal, Vol.VI,No.11,November 2000 html
  3. Ema Ushioda. (2001)Tandem language learning via e-mail: from motivation to autonomy [3]
  4. Ernesto Macaro. (2001)Target Language, Collaborative Learning and Autonomy. Modern Languages in Practice. pdf file
  5. Gathercole, Ian, Ed.(1990)Autonomy in Language Learning. [4]
  6. Henri Holec.(1979) Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning [5]
  7. Hock Michael F et al. (1995)Training Strategic Tutors to Enhance Learner Independence. Journal of Developmental Education, v19 n1 p18-20,22-24,26 Fall 1995 [6] #Judy Ho, David Crookall.(1995) Breaking with Chinese Cultural Traditions: Learner Autonomy in English Language Teaching ISSN-0346-251X[7]
  8. Phil Benson, Peter Voller.(1996) Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning ISBN10: 0582289920 ISBN13: 9780582289925 [8]
  9. Pintrich, Paul R.; De Groot, Elisabeth V. (1990) Motivational and Self-Regulated Learning Components of Classroom Academic Performance Journal of Educational Psychology, v82 n1 p33-40 Mar 1990 [9]
  10. Paul R. Pintrich and Elisabeth V. De Groot. Journal of Educational Psychology.1990, Vol. 82, No. 1,33-40 Motivational and Self-Regulated Learning Components of Classroom Academic Performance pdf
  11. Teresa Garcia and Paul R. Pintrich.(1995) Assessing Students' Motivation and Learning Strategies:The Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire. pdf
  12. Sara Cotterall.(1995)Developing a course strategy for learner autonomy [10]
  13. Sara Cotterall.(2000)Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum: principles for designing language courses [11]
  14. Sara Cotterall. (1995) Readiness for Autonomy: Investigating Learner Beliefs.ISSN-0346-251X [12]
  15. Victoria Chan.(2004)Readiness for Learner Autonomy: what do our learners tell us? Teaching in Higher Education,Volume 6, Number 4/October 1, 2001 [13]
  16. W Littlewood. (1999)Defining and developing autonomy in East Asian contexts[14]
  17. Yang N.-D.(1998) Exploring a new role for teachers: promoting learner autonomy [15]
  19. Yoltan Dörnyei.(2001) Motivational Strategiess in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521790298 hardback ISBN 0521793777 paperback pdf
  20. Ciarán P. McCarthy. Learner Training for Learner Autonomy on Summer Language Courses.The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 7, July 1998.html