Defining Learner Autonomy And Understanding Its Different Perspectives

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Learner Autonomy is one of the most important elements in learning a foreign language. However, defining learner autonomy might be a challenging issue. There are different perspectives of what learner autonomy means.

2.2.1 Holec's definition

It is common to first mention the definition of learner autonomy cited by Holec (1981). The author stated that learner autonomy can be defined as the ability to take charge of one's own learning. According to Holec, the theory of learner autonomy has consequences not only for the way in which learning is managed but also for the kind of knowledge that is acquired. Holec describes the fact that learners should be responsible of their own learning. Also, the author stated that teachers should help learners achieve their linguistic and communicative goals on the one hand and to become autonomous on the other (Holec, 1981).

2.2.2 Scharle's and Szabo's definition

They defined autonomy as the freedom and ability to control one's own affairs, which also involves the right to make decisions. Responsibility may also be understood as being in charge of something, but considering the fact that one has to deal with the consequences of one's own actions. According to Scharle and Szabo, autonomy and responsibility both require active involvement, and they are very interrelated (Scharle & Szabo, 2000).

2.3 Learner Training and Learner Autonomy

Harmer (2007) explains how learner training is associated with learner autonomy and together with activities they link to taking responsibility. When we train or encourage learners to be autonomous, we need to try to ensure that both we and they are hearing the same thing. Moreover, when we train the learners to be autonomous, we should offer them choices in learning strategies (Harmer, 2007). According to Harmer (2007), it is possible that some learners will be eager to take responsibility for their own learning and what they do. Teachers should help learners in thinking about how they learn and how their learning can be made more effective. This author states that "What may feel appropriate from the teacher's point of view may not seem so appropriate for students. What is appropriate for one student may not be appropriate for all" (Harmer, 2007: 396). Therefore, teachers should be patient enough when they help their students become autonomous, because they cannot become independent learners immediately.

Moreover, an independent learner can be described in some roles such as: 'the good learner' (Harmer, 2007), 'the responsible learner' (Scharle and Szabo, 2000) and 'the aware learner' (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

2.3.1 Learner Autonomy and 'The Good Learner'

It is accepted for most areas of learning that a good learner needs to go through a phase that will help him/her become autonomous learner. According to Harmer (2007: 100-104), there are five distinct stages that teachers should take into consideration when training learners become autonomous, such as: affect, achievement, attitude, activities, and agency.

Affect has to do with students' feelings, and we as teachers should be very careful with this issue. Moreover, students are more likely to be motivated if they think that the teacher is helpful and takes into consideration their learning needs. Also, it will be appropriate for both teachers and learners if there is a good relationship between them. However, if teachers show little interest in students then students won't be encouraged and remain motivated (Harmer, 2007: 100).

Achievement has to do with students' motivation. If students are motivated then they are more likely to be successful, but if they are not motivated then they won't have success in their learning. Moreover, it is the teacher's duty to deal with this issue, because accessing the students' success is important, as this has a deep impact on their motivation which leads to learning. However, being successful is not that easy, as Harmer claims "If everything is just too easy, students are likely to lose their respect for the task of learning. The same is true if success is too difficult to attain." What students need is a real achievement, which will help them acquire success in their learning. Part of a teacher's job is to engage students by doing some challenging activities. This means setting tests that are not too difficult or too easy, and involving students in learning tasks in which they can do well. If teachers want their students to be successful, then they need to show their students how to get things right (Harmer, 2007: 101).

According to Harmer (2007), gaining the students' confidence is one of the most important aspects in education. However good teachers are, students are not likely to do what is asked of them unless they have confidence in teacher's professional abilities. Students need to believe that teachers know well what they are doing. Furthermore, this confidence might begin from the first time the teacher enters the classroom. The students' perception considers the teacher's attitude such as the way they dress and the way they talk to the class. In general, students need to know if teachers know about the subject they are teaching and if they are prepared to teach English in general. Moreover, one of the main reasons why classes become noisy is because teachers might not be quite sure what to do next. When students have confidence, they are more likely to remain motivated. If they lose that confidence, then it is difficult for them to stay motivated, which will lead them to failure (Harmer, 2007: 101-102).

Students' motivation rises when they do things they enjoy doing. It depends a lot on what teachers ask them to do. Harmer (2007) states that sometimes students enjoy activities that involve communication and other interactive tasks. However, students do not have the same preferences, every student has his/her own style of learning. While some may want to learn the English language by using songs and poems, others might be much more motivated through reading texts. Teachers need to take into consideration the students' needs, to figure out what they respond well to and what they feel less engaged with. In this way teachers can know that the activities they take into class might be useful to keep students engaged with the learning process (Harmer, 2007: 102).

According to Harmer (2007), agency means things done by the students. Most of the time, in some classes, students have things done to them, and this makes them passive in the class. However, when students have agency, they become autonomous learners and, as a result, they take some responsibility for their own learning. Students should manage their learning, so it is appropriate for them to tell teachers when and if they want to be corrected in their learning rather than deciding teachers always by themselves when correction is appropriate and when it is not. Moreover, teachers might allow students to tell them what words they find difficult to pronounce rather than supposing they all have the same difficulties. Additionally, the more teachers allow students to do things themselves and give them agency, the more likely they are to stay motivated over a long period, which makes the learners being autonomous (Harmer, 2007: 103).

2.3.2 The Responsible Learner

Responsibility in learner autonomy has to do with their freedom and ability to manage their own affairs, to be in charge of their learning and decisions, by taking into consideration the consequences and implications they might encounter with, even if they are positive or negative (Scharle and Szabo, 2000). Responsible learners are those who believe that their actions are essential for successful learning, who are eager to interact with the teacher and other learners, who are willing to manage their own progress, and try to use all their opportunities to participate in the target language and learning activities (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

In order to develop autonomy and be a 'responsible learner', learners must be motivated to learn. That is, they need to be able to recognize their learning goals and that makes them more willing to take responsibility for their own learning. Learners must believe that they are capable of monitoring their own learning (Scharle and Szabo, 2000). Learners focus on the process of their learning rather than the outcome. Additionally, this helps them examine their own contribution to their learning. Learners to develop their responsible attitude, they have to possess a level of awareness.

2.3.3 The Aware Learner

In order for learners to begin to monitor the learning process, they need to possess a certain level of awareness: awareness of their willingness or ability to cooperate and work as a community, awareness of their attitude and knowledge in the learning process and the awareness of their responsibility toward learning. The development of learner autonomy very much depends on learner's awareness (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

According to Scharle and Szabo 2000, 'aware learners' are those who can bring the inner processes of their learning to the conscious level of their thinking. Moreover, raising the level of awareness can be done through some activities, which are aimed at directing the students to new ways of thinking about their learning. Other activities help them to discover new aspects of learning. Raising awareness depends on learner's motivation and their skills.

The first group of activities 'Finding out about your students' summarizes the methods of collecting data about the student's attitude and knowledge. Realizing the information gathered about the students will help teachers identify the areas where awareness raising is needed. Additionally, this will make easy for learners to realize how they can contribute to their learning (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

Activities in the second group called 'Motivation' outline various techniques of how to give confidence and motivate students by emphasizing skills and knowledge they already possess. These activities also help students realize and make them aware that difficulties are part of learning (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

Next, in 'Learning strategies' there are some experiments to introduce learning strategies. This kind of activities help students understand that such strategies can help them a lot in their learning, which allows them to make decisions about their choice of strategies, and to figure it out what is to be learnt (Scharle and Szabo, 2000).

Scharle and Szabo 2000, outline the 'Community building' as another activity which demonstrates the importance of student-student and student-teacher cooperation. To help students learn about point of views they share with others in the group.

Last, in 'Self monitoring' teachers can find some examples of how to get students think about their learning styles, and make them aware that not all the students have the same preferences, they might use a variety of strategies (Scharle and Szabo, 2000). That is, the 'aware learners' are those who are responsible for what they learn and the way they learn in order to take charge or manage their learning.

Retrieved May 28, 2010