Learner autonomy problems and solutions

Although parts of language teaching like teaching grammar are sources of endless controversy and cycles of becoming fashionable and unfashionable, the idea that learner autonomy (that students should take responsibility for their own learning) is a good thing seems nearly universal and to never go out of style. While I can hardly argue with the idea of students becoming less dependent on the teacher and being able to access lots more learning opportunities, I have had and heard of other teachers having many problems with putting those ideas into practice. Here are some of those problems, along with the ideas I have read or come up with when trying to cope with them. Most of these tips also work for students who are repeating the same level or even the same textbook.

1. The keen get further ahead
As you can expect, students who are naturally more motivated and studious are much more likely to take advantage of suggestions for extra work outside class than students who have less energy or are going through a period of feeling hopeless about their level of English improving. This can then increase the difference in level between those two types of students, affecting their confidence further and leading to a virtuous circle for one and a vicious circle for the one you probably most wanted to help. Alternatively, the keen student could get bored in a class that has a level they are rapidly leaving behind and also lose motivation to come.

With the keen students who are leaving their classmates behind, the best option is to promote them to a higher level class. If you know this is not possible in your school, you can try and avoid this problem when level checking students by trying to guess how fast they will progress from clues like extra practice outside class, previous language learning experience (including other languages), lots of passive knowledge, and generally being studious and academic. It is then possible to take this into account (along with their present level) when deciding what class they should start in.

Another approach with keener students is to give them extra work that is not directly connected to the language you will cover class. As the idea is not to give them irrelevant language just to slow them down (!) this should ideally be language and skills that they need more than other students in the class, e.g. lots of practice on their particular weakness or something connected to a present or future need that is not really covered in the syllabus of the course such as emailing, travel English, pen friend letters or academic writing.

With the less keen students, one approach is to give suggestions for extra work to the whole class that you know will particularly appeal to them, for example research projects on particular interests, watching a football match with English commentary, or reading comics in English. Another is to give self-study suggestions directly connected to the language and skills practised in class to the less keen so they at least keep up with that, while letting keener students follow their fancies outside class.

2. Doing the readings and listenings before the class
In my experience, keener students quite often read the texts or tapescripts before class. Reasons for this include it being the only book in their bag and more interesting than the grammar exercises, and students who are used to being the class swot and so understanding everything being uncomfortable with being asked to pick out a few facts from a quick reading or listening as you ask them to in class. This can be a problem as it might again make the class even easier for the students who are already getting ahead faster. It might also mean than some people can answer all your prediction questions (having already read the text) and that skills training meant to make them guess vocabulary from context etc isn’t working that way because they have already looked up all the words in a dictionary. Whilst you don’t want to be stopping them doing extra work at home just to avoid these effects, I do ask my students not to read ahead. You can phrase this more subtly by suggesting that they use previous listening tapescripts for pronunciation practice etc but avoid ones that haven’t come up yet, so putting everyone on an even footing and also suggesting extra work to keep them busy without needing to read ahead. Any other similar work you can give them to make sure they have other sources of practice can also be useful for this, e.g. lending them graded readers that are even more interesting than the texts in the book and are thin enough to carry around in their bags all the time.

If you suspect that students are still reading ahead, the solutions are to work on their coping skills (e.g. picking out important information and prediction skills) so that they don’t feel they have to read ahead to cope in class and to bring in extra reading and listening texts that they haven’t had a chance to read before.

3. Some already know all the language
This is similar to the two points above- what can you do if the class is about adjectives of personality or the Present Perfect Continuous but the keen students, or even all of them, have already studied it at home and know it all? Solutions include brainstorming extra vocabulary or example sentences, covering some topics that aren’t in the textbook, concentrating on production of the language rather than explanation or grammar practice, and using authentic texts (maybe with easy tasks).

4. They’ve actually done the textbook exercises
Like many of the situations here, this is as likely to occur with students who have already taken the level as it is with students who are desperately looking for extra work or who feel nervous coming to class without knowing it all before. Solutions include making a few extra photocopies of the textbook pages for those students to use, asking them to erase or tippex out all answers the week before, getting them to share with someone who hasn’t already filled the answers in, putting a copy of the textbook page up on the board with an OHP or IWB (interactive whiteboard), or getting them to cover the part of the book with the answers written in. You could also train all the students to write their answers in their notebooks instead, which is useful for everyone as it means they can do the same exercises again for homework and they can maybe sell the book on when they have finished with it.

5. Extra work for the teacher
Possible extra work for you produced by trying to make the students more autonomous includes: trying to find suitable online practice for them; finding, photocopying and giving out extra worksheets; giving out and taking back in graded readers and other books; keeping abreast of recent self-study books and where they are available so that you can recommend the right one; marking any extra writing they do; and answering any questions they have that came up in the extra work they did. Solutions include working together with the other teachers who are teaching the same level, and encouraging the students to share their own recommendations with speaking activities about study tips or a class wiki or similar site.

6. Recommending something that turns out to be unsuitable
For worksheets, this could be because it deals with aspects of a grammar point that you didn’t want to cover at that level, such as exceptions to rules. With graded readers there could be issues of topics that aren’t suitable for reasons of age etc, and this can also be an issue with websites or at least sites that the site you recommended link to. The obvious but time intensive solution is to make sure you check out all material carefully before you pass it onto students or recommend it to them. To try and put all that hard work to extra use, you could turn it into a list of recommendations for all students that use that book, study at that level or have that need for the language. These lists can then be shared with other teachers in your school or online, hopefully meaning that you get further recommendations back. Alternatively, you could write reviews of the materials and publish those. An easier way of making sure materials are suitable is to find a few sources that are always reliable and stick mainly to content that can be found on them- maybe the ones you examined in detail when you reviewed them, books only by the big international publishers, or materials by very well known sources such as radio stations, TV stations and newspapers.

7. Keeping to their bad habits
Although your aim in getting students to choose their own self-study materials and learn how to fit them in with their lives and use that language is to improve their study skills, when they do sit down with Harry Potter there is quite a strong chance that they will look up every unknown word with their monolingual electronic dictionaries, just as you have forbidden them to do in class. This could theoretically make them lose all those skimming and scanning skills that you have been trying to drum into them, but it is more a problem of lost opportunities for further practice. As well as training students to study well, you could start the year by telling them how to do each self study task and then let them decide on their own chosen approaches more as time goes by. A more sensitive way of doing the same thing is to give them a way of approaching the self study material as an experiment, getting their feedback on how it went for them in the next lesson.

8. Questions in class not everybody is interested in
I always encourage students who are picking up language from outside class (hopefully at least partly because of my encouragement and learner training) to ask questions about it at any time “because everyone else probably has the same question or maybe can help you with your question”. I’m always thrilled when students do get in a habit of using me as a resource like that, but there are occasional difficulties in making it work. Problems could include: specialist vocabulary that the other students really have no interest in; grammar that you can’t or don’t want to explain until they are three levels higher; one student dragging out a topic that you want to move on quickly from; long question and answer sessions or difficult to understand explanations ruining the dynamics of the beginning of the lesson; classes becoming more teacher centred and explanation heavy with less practice and pairwork; or simply running out of time for other things. One solution is to make yourself available for student questions at other times by providing your email address and office times or hanging around in class before and after the lesson. Another is to take questions in that class but to keep the answers and practice of the language that comes up for future lessons (although this could cut down on the motivation to ask questions). A small change that can make a difference with timing and making sure you include a warmer is to move the question and answer stage to the end of the lesson. A mixed approach is to take all questions at the beginning or end of the lesson but deal with them at a variety of times- then and there, after the lesson with the person who asked the question in person or by email, or in a future lesson- all depending on the relevance, interest and difficulty of the point being raised.

9. Distracting from the most important stuff/ Not being able to prioritize
There is a slight chance that students will get so carried away with the graded reader you have lent them or Simple English Wikipedia that you introduced them to that their homework gets totally forgotten. I would generally consider this a success (at least they weren’t distracted by their Wii Fit like usual!) but in some courses like exam classes and some cases like vital preparation for the next lesson you’ll need to make sure they know what is absolutely needed and what is a nice little optional extra. The same thing holds true for things students enjoy but aren’t so useful for learning or at least aren’t focused on the particular language or skills they need.

10. Interfering with more important things in their lives
There is also a small chance that all the optional extra work that you have given them doesn’t seem so optional to students who have never come across that concept before or are obsessively focused on improving their English level, and that this could interfere with their work/ life/ study balance. It’s hard to know what you can do about this while still treating your students as responsible adults, but I have cut down my suggestions for extra study with a few students when they were seeming to find it overwhelming.

11. Feeling guilty for not doing extra work
This is connected to the point above, and could be because of cultural reasons, because of the students’ personalities, because of emotional pressure from previous teachers or parents, or because someone else is paying for their course. This is again a very difficult one to cope with, but you should at least make sure that what is really homework, what is suggested and what is entirely optional is clearly pointed out. You can make this even clearer by always checking their homework, occasionally asking if they found the recommended stuff useful, and never mentioning the totally optional stuff unless they bring it up. Alternatively, you could set things like reading graded readers instead of the workbook rather than as well as.

12. Never feeling like they’ve finished their homework
Even students who aren’t prone to feelings of guilt might miss the feeling that they’ve totally polished off all they need to do with English for another week. The main idea I have for this one is to have some weeks where you don’t suggest any extra work. Another idea is for them to set themselves (realistic) aims for this week, term or year in class so that they have a feeling of achievement when they have reached it.

13. Having their lack of motivation pointed out to them/ Reinforcing a feeling that they are bad students
One group of people who are particularly susceptible to the kinds of feeling discovered in the tips above are people who think of themselves as “wasters” who have messed up their previous education experiences through lack of motivation. With such people the last thing you want them to think is that the same experience is about to start again. One way of avoiding this danger is to give different self study suggestions to different people. Another is again to set realistic goals with each person and only check the progress with these rather than comparing them to each other.

14. Tiring them out
Even for students who don’t have any psychological issues with motivation and learning, too much study or too much thinking about it could make their spoken English worse in the next class simply because it has tired them out. This is particularly a problem with getting too much input of new language, which tends to set back students’ fluency and accuracy in the short term. One way round this is to make sure that the suggestions you give them for self study are finely graded (e.g. graded readers rather than authentic listening and reading sources) and at least as much focused on skills as on language presentation and practice.

15. Making teachers unemployed or useless
I don’t know if anyone really thinks that making their students self sufficient is likely to do them out of their purpose in life or even a job, but this is often mentioned as an issue when people write about learning technology. Looking back, as training students to become more self sufficient I have taken on becoming an expert in that as a larger and larger part of my role, and being able to tell students where to find suitable materials and how I and previous students have managed to learn languages without much help has taken the place in my role and feelings of usefulness of giving grammar explanations. Talking about how students should study is also a rare chance to show off your knowledge of SLA (second language acquisition) in class.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net March 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Maggie says:

    Interesting! Nevertheless, what should a teacher do when students are only intereated in passing a national English test,that is CET4, as in China, instead of any practical usage of it ?

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