How to help your students achieve learning autonomy

How to help your students achieve learning autonomy

Every teacher wants to inspire their students. Helping them take charge of their learning with activities that enable them to independently develop their knowledge and their skills is part of the job. But it’s often easier said than done. What does learning autonomy look like...


Every teacher wants to inspire their students. Helping them take charge of their learning with activities that enable them to independently develop their knowledge and their skills is part of the job. But it’s often easier said than done. What does learning autonomy look like in practice? And how can you motivate students to stop relying on others to teach them?

Let’s explore what it looks like to help students learn with lower levels of external support.

What do we mean by learning autonomy?

When we think of independent learners, we know what it looks like but we often can’t describe it. Educational researchers have found that independent learning has five components:

1. Making informed choices about their own learning: also known as metacognition. Students should be aware of their own abilities, strengths, weaknesses and bad habits. They should be able to reflect on their own thinking and recognise their strengths and weaknesses. They should also be able to take action to improve their weaknesses, and also know when to take advantage of their strengths.

2. Taking responsibility for their own learning: including the concept of executive function. This is the brain’s ability to select the appropriate behaviour for a particular situation. For example, sitting down to study rather than playing video games.

3. Having the motivation to learn: this has been defined as the process by which activities that work towards a goal are sustained. Students should not give up when things get difficult,

4. Feeling confident enough to make decisions about learning and act on them: related to metacognition, self-confidence is defined as a student’s awareness of their own abilities in a positive way, which gives them the ability to act on opportunities to guide their own learning without self-doubt.

5. Reflecting on learning: finally, and also closely related to metacognition and a key component of formative assessment, is a student’s ability to critically and honestly reflect on their own learning. They should have the skills and confidence to appraise their progress independent of any external feedback.

The key to success in education and beyond

It goes without saying that being an independent learner is key to success in education and throughout students’ professional careers. Employers often state that they want their new starters to ‘hit the ground running’, or be able to master a new role quickly and confidently, with minimal support. This does not mean that an independent learner never asks for help – only that they do so when they are sure that they need the help and cannot perform the task themselves.

By focusing on methods to encourage these five traits amongst students, teachers can help to develop their independence, confidence and well-being.

How to encourage your students to become independent learners

In general, encouraging autonomous learning is an ongoing process, done through repetition and structure. Time should be made in class for students to reflect on their performance, and they should be given the space to act on their self-evaluations, to experiment and put their reflections into practice.

They should also get used to evaluating others collaboratively. It is often through others that students learn about themselves. Students should know what they are aiming for when they learn to be more autonomous. They should have a mental image of an ideal self that they can strive towards. They should keep a learning plan with a long-term goal for themselves, with meaningful short- and medium-term steps for how this goal will be reached.

Three teaching approaches and activities to build your students’ learning autonomy

1. Be the example

This can be an effective method to get students to both respect and listen to you, but it can also be challenging. You and your colleagues should be visibly on a process of continuous improvement, which students can see and emulate. In a recent study, the quality of teacher-student relationship was seen to be positively correlated with learner autonomy.

There are many ways in which teachers can build positive working relationships with students, but one of the most powerful is to appear to be confident in their and your own abilities. After students have performed a task successfully, reflect on what it feels like to learn something new, both from their point of view and also from your own.

2. Peer review

A study at the University of Strathclyde has found that to enhance learning, students need to be engaged in the process of making academic judgements on each others’ work. By having students work together to evaluate each others’ performance, their strengths and weaknesses, and suggest methods for improvement, researchers found an improvement in critical analysis of their own work. They also saw a greater willingness to change their learning based on feedback. This was over and above feedback given by teachers. However, problems were encountered with the quality of students’ feedback, with some treating it as something to be done with minimal care.

For this reason, teachers should make sure that the criteria for how feedback is given are controlled. Students should be coached through the process of giving feedback over a period of time.

3. Learning plans

Although many see them as time-consuming and bureaucratic, learning plans can be a powerful tool if used well. By setting out students’ goals on paper, they can learn to be accountable to themselves.

If a learning plan of bulleted text would not be motivating for students, how about making it more visually appealing? Or perhaps your students want to create a vision board instead. Vision boards are like learning plans, but expressed through drawings, cuttings, images and as much colour as students want. The vision board should be kept somewhere that students will see it every day. They should always be thinking about how the plan can be achieved, modified and improved upon. Studies have found that vision boards can be particularly motivating for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, making them powerful tools for students who are often hard to motivate.

Setting students on the path to lifelong learning

In summary, becoming an independent learner can set students up for lifelong learning. Whichever approach you take, try to make sure that students can see the benefits from it and don’t be afraid to change your approach early if you don’t see any long-term benefits for students. Developing independent learning skills is a long journey for everyone, and it is your responsibility to guide students along it.

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