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Developing Learner Autonomy

Developing Learner Autonomy

There are many different ways to think about our goals as teachers; what it is we hope to achieve with our students. We can talk about learning objectives for each lesson, about curriculum targets, or we can talk about grades. We can even talk about the non-academic goals we have for developing our students as members of society.

Ultimately, though, the most important thing that we as teachers should be aiming for is for our students not to need us anymore. If we have done a good job, then our students will be able to go off into the world after they leave school and survive and thrive by themselves. In order to maximise this independence, it is essential that we spend time and effort in our lessons to develop learner autonomy.

Learner autonomy is your students’ ability to learn by themselves, to take it upon themselves to develop their understanding without relying on the teacher, either for motivation or for easy answers. If we don’t make efforts to develop learner autonomy then our students will struggle when they leave school and find that they have to face the world themselves and solve problems without the support of an ever-present aide.

The good news is, there are many ways to develop learner autonomy, from the way you arrange independent and group activities to the amount of time you dedicate to task-based learning and problem solving. In this article, I am going to talk about something that might seem small but is often overlooked by teachers and can have a significant impact on your students’ whole approach to learning as well as improving the effectiveness of their learning at the time.


The Danger of Small Questions

One of the overlooked instances where learner autonomy is often ignored is in the case of the small questions that students ask while they are working on completing a task or activity. I refer to these as hurdles. Hurdles are what happens when a student is working on something and they come up against an obstacle because they don’t know, for example, what something means.

When facing a hurdle, many students’ automatic instinct is to ask the teacher for help. “What does inconsistently mean?” they might ask. They’re asking this question because the word ‘inconsistently’, in this example, is not immediately a part of their task, it is not directly related to the “answers”, but it is preventing them from completing the task. If only they knew what the word meant, they could go on and finish the activity they were set.

Sometimes hurdles are things the student have never learned before and do not know yet, and sometimes they are things that students have learned before but have forgotten. Either way, how teachers respond to these hurdles is very important. Students are looking for a quick answer because the problem is not really important to them, it is just a hindrance to their completion of the task—a hurdle. However, teachers should not see it that way.

Giving a quick answer to the student’s question, such as a definition—or worse, a translation—for the word, does not help them over the hurdle, it bypasses it altogether. The analogy of the hurdle is a useful one because bounding over a hurdle requires effort and skill and the more you do it, the better at it you become. If you remove the hurdle every time the runner approaches one, then he or she will never learn how to get over the hurdles they encounter in the future without you.

Coming back to the classroom, it is important then that we do not simply remove the hurdles, thereby removing the opportunity for learning. Instead, we should make our students work for the answers to even the small questions, have them make the effort. It is not just about them finding the answer to the question they’re asking now; it is about learning how to find answers to questions they might have in the future.


Encouraging Student Autonomy

Giving your student the answer to one of these short questions does not really teach the student anything. Most of the time, they don’t really even learn the new information that you give them there and then. They’re not really interested in “what the English word for x is”, they just need it so that they can move on. And as soon as they have it, that’s exactly what they do: move on. They don’t absorb the information or learn it for the future. The reason for this is that there is no effort, no engagement, and no cognitive process.

In order to ensure that a) the student truly learns the information they are asking about and b) they are better equipped to answer the question alone in the future, you need to make them work for it. Instead of giving the answer away for free, prompt the student to think about it carefully, to see what they are capable of working out themselves. To do this effectively, there are a few stages to go through.

The first response is to simply tell the student to think for themselves. This might at first appear dismissive, but the reality is many students will automatically ask the teacher the moment they come to something remotely taxing, especially if they have a teacher or school environment that endorses such behaviour with quick answers. By simply putting the onus back on the student, it might be enough to make them realise that actually, it’s not so difficult after all and with just a little thought, they can answer their own question. This is as simple as asking, “Take another look. Think about it. What do you think x might mean?” or perhaps, “Remember, we learned this before. You already know this.”


Understanding from Context

This reflection of the question will work with surprising frequency. But when it doesn’t, it’s time to guide the student through some thinking processes to get to the answer. The first of these is understanding from context. This is a skill that a lot of native speakers use with their native language quite naturally, but it does not come so automatically when dealing with foreign languages. As teachers, it is our responsibility to develop this skill for our students.

We start by asking the student to read the sentence and see if the context provides clues as to the meaning. If they understand the gist of the sentence already, then they should be able to work out something about the meaning of the word in question. Sometimes, the sentence is not particularly helpful. An example I like to give is the word divorce in the following sentence:

The rate of divorce has risen 14% in America since 2010.

In this sentence, there is no way that a student could work out the meaning of the word divorce from the information given. A statistic like this could be about anything. From this context, divorce could be a crime, it could be a type of death, it could be many things. We could not expect a student to work out the meaning from the sentence given, but we can provide a new sentence:

Bob and Sue used to be married, but now they are divorced.

This sentence makes it very clear. There is little doubt what the word divorce could mean. We are told that Bob and Sue were married but are not anymore. We are told that Bob and Sue are divorced. This way, you’re giving your student help, but still making them think. They have to work to get the meaning; they still have to rely on their own deduction. That means that the answer has the potential to stick with them longer than it would if the teacher simply answered, “it’s when two people who are married break up and end their marriage,” for example.

If necessary, we can ask some prompt questions. Here is a brief interaction from one of my own lessons.

T: Are Bob and Sue married?

S: No.

T: How do you know?

S: Because it says, ‘used to be.’

T: Why aren’t they married anymore?

S: Because they are divorced?

T: That’s right. So what does divorced mean?

S: It means they are not married anymore.

This student has developed a real understanding of what the word means and how it can be used. If he encounters the word again, I am confident that he will remember what he has learned here.

Achieving Autonomy

There are three things that are happening here. The most basic thing is that, in the moment, real learning is happening. The student first asked the question, not with the intention of learning, but rather just to be able to move on with the activity. That would have got him the mark in the activity there and then, but would not have helped with future encounters. However, the teacher refused to let that happen and made sure instead that the student fully understood and truly learned the new word.

The second thing that happens here is that students realise that the teacher is not going to make it easy for them. The more this happens in the classroom, the more you will develop a new behaviour where students recognise that they cannot simply rely on the teacher for quick answers all the time, and they will eventually start to take their own initiative and try a little harder.

The third thing is that the teacher gave them the tools necessary to go on and take that initiative next time around. This is a genuine skill and the more the teacher leaves the students to work out meanings for themselves, the better they will become at it. Eventually, they will no longer need to ask the teacher their quick questions anymore; they will automatically look at the context and attempt to find the meaning. The more you practise this in the classroom, the more capable the students will be, so that eventually, they won’t need you anymore!

Is it ever okay to give quick answers to quick questions?

Of course, as with most things, some judgement is required here. In reality, we cannot afford the time to do this with every question our students ask. The main thing is that overall, we create the culture within the classroom that students should think for themselves first before asking. That means that you want to encourage students to work things out for themselves more often than not; certainly if you are newly applying the technique, as you want to establish that culture.

For the times when you don’t go to such lengths, particularly during a complex activity or where the question the student is asking is especially distant from the topic of the lesson, you should still aim for a somewhat cognitive process. The worst response is to give a translation—i.e. answer by telling the students the word in their first language. This causes the students to rely on the first language when they want to recall the second language.

Instead, always try answering with examples or demonstrations—physical actions, drawings, or real objects around the classroom. This helps the student truly understand the meaning, far more than a dictionary definition would, for example, and it also helps them attach the meaning to their own experience. One last option I fall back on, which I think is far more effective than a dictionary definition, is to offer a handful of synonyms and antonyms to give an idea of what the word means and how it might be used.

Whatever the approach, there is one final stage that is just as important. Every time my students encounter one of these hurdles, I make a note. Every quick question gets recorded, usually just by noting the word on the far right side of the whiteboard, which later gets copied to my lesson notes after I finish teaching. I then make sure to revisit these hurdles in future lessons to check retention and to strengthen the learning through recall.

What are some common hurdles your students encounter? How do you answer quick questions effectively? Share your ideas and any questions you have in the comments

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4 Responses

  • Nicola

    I love the way you break this down, the how and the why. So often teachers are given the how on training courses without the why and therefore never understand the value.


  • Karl Millsom

    Thanks for the comment, Nicola. I'm glad you found the post helpful. Certainly, my main goal when I write here is to make sure readers not only find new ideas but also that they understand the benefits of implementing them.


  • Erzsebet Bekes

    Hi, Karl, I really enjoyed your article and the thinking behind it. I mostly teach monolingual groups whose first language is Spanish and I was wondering what that may imply for helping students figure out meaning. I understand that you are against straightforward translations, but because there are so many cognates in English and Spanish, I think it would be a shame not to point out the systematic relationships (as well as the false friends). It is astonishing how students do not automatically recognize cognates unless you draw your attention to them. "Divorce" (divorcio) is a good example. I often present pieces of descriptive text in class (e.g., the sights in Cuenca, Ecuador) and make my students look for words whose meaning they could deduce once they took the trouble of recalling a similar word in Spanish. (Incidentally, there are 9 such words in the last sentence.)


  • Karl Millsom

    Thanks for the input, Erzsebet, you definitely bring an interesting insight to the discussion thanks to your use of a language so closely related to English. Indonesian is an interesting language because, while it's foundations are found in Malay and Javanese, it borrows quite liberally from English and Dutch as well, especially for more modern terminology. As such, there are a significant number of loanwords in Indonesian that closely resemble their English origin words. In the case of these, I agree that it is of value to bring the students' attention to them, but I still do it after the learning has been done rather than as a way to bypass the learning. In fact, I usually find that the students will make the connection themselves; it seems that after learning what the new word means, they try to find the Indonesian equivalent and then there is a moment of realisation as they notice the similarity. In line with the theme of the article, I believe that the extra work on their part and the extra process involved in getting there strengthens the learning.