Am I Really Helping Students Become More Autonomous?

Note: this post was written as an entry for the 41st ELT Blog Carnival on “Helping Learners Become More Autonomous”.

I talk about flashcards and corpus tools a lot to my students, but are they really listening? I show students the benefits of vocabulary journals, but do they really do it? I suggest sitcoms and movies for exposure to both language and culture, but do they take the time to watch it? These are some examples of how I show students the ways in which they can be autonomous language learners. However, promoting autonomy is not the same as influencing autonomy. For this blog post, and as my first entry into an ELT blog carnival, I’m exploring this question by looking at how students responded to a survey I gave them about my efforts to promote autonomy. But before that, I want to briefly discuss my conception of autonomy and give more details on what I do to promote it in the classroom.

What is autonomy?

Most people claim that you can’t learn a language in the classroom. If this were true, it would mean thousands of students, teachers, and researchers are wasting their time, falsifying their results and experiences in the name of some global educational-industrial complex conspiracy. I don’t think this is the case.

No, you definitely can learn a language in the classroom. But the thing is, you can’t learn it only in the classroom. This “only” presents a major difference between the former claim and the latter statement. The classroom can provide a conducive environment for explicit and intensive language study and even meaningful effective language practice. In fact, the classroom might provide the only opportunity for language usage in some contexts. All this being said, you do have to put in some effort outside of the classroom. This forms the basis of student autonomy – the idea that students interact with the language on their own intrinsically motivated accord. Autonomy, at least to me, is a rather broad concept that includes a spectrum of activities from grammar and vocabulary study to seeking out authentic interactional situations with native or target language speakers.

How I Promote Autonomy

The classroom and autonomy are not mutually exclusive spheres of language learning. In fact, as teachers, one of our responsibilities is to promote and influence student autonomy. Therefore, classroom experiences can feed directly into students autonomous language learning experiences. I don’t know how much I actually promote autonomy, and I don’t know if I do it as well as some, but I do promote it, mostly by recommending tools that students can use to study they language better. Upon thinking about it, I have two strategies for promoting autonomy.

First, I there are certain tools that I frequently use and demonstrate in the classroom, showing how students can use these tools on their own to study English. Lately, these have included StringNet, Word and Phrase, Learner’s Dictionary, Thesaurus.com, Lyrics Training, and Quizlet. Regarding the first two tools (which are corpus or data-driven learning tools), I bring these up a lot and students can see I am passionate about them. I also convert all our vocabulary into Quizlet sets in the hopes that students use them. I also demonstrated the purpose and methods of keeping a lexical / vocabulary journal.

The second strategy is to require usage of certain tools in order to get students “hooked” on using them themselves. For instance, I often require students to do homework using corpus tools at least a few times during the semester. And this semester, I regret not requiring lexical journals as a major project for assessment. I demonstrated lexical journals, but did not require it and therefore not everyone created one. I also didn’t do as many quizzes as planned from the Quizlet sets, which means students may not have been studying them as much as they could have. Despite all this, I do think requiring students to use certain tools is a good first step to autonomy. Students reluctance to use certain things is often based on their unfamiliarity with them. Requiring their usage is akin to a training period. If they found the tools useful and successful after being required to use them, they they would adopt their autonomous usage.

I also tend to suggest English media, and I find this to be another form of promoting autonomy. By taking the effort to watch, listen, and read authentic English media, students are exposing themselves to language, content, and culture. To understand what they are exposing themselves to requires students to practice and apply both linguistic skills (listening, reading, comprehension) and analytic skills (relating what they are seeing to prior knowledge about the culture, comparing to their own lives and cultures, etc). Because of this, I see exploration of English media as another form of autonomy.

The Survey

I didn’t want to find out how autonomous students were. Instead, I wanted to find out if they had been doing anything I had suggested. In other words, I wanted to know if I had any effect on their autonomy as language learners. I created a simple survey (through Google Forms) and sent the link to all my current students (56). I asked these 4 questions:

  1. Do you often use any websites or tools that I introduced to you?
  2. Have you watched any TV shows or movies, listened to any music, or read anything I have recommended?
  3. Have I motivated you to use English outside the classroom at all?
  4. Finally, in what ways (if any) have I helped you become a more autonomous English learner?

Only 14 students replied. It was an optional survey, and it is close to finals, but that’s still a disappointing number. Nevertheless, I think it gave me enough insight to say that I have been successful at influencing some students’ autonomy. If all students had responded, I may have had a clearer picture, but I will work with what I got:

  • 6 students responded that they use StringNet often, especially to find collocations.
  • 2 students mentioned using Quizlet
  • 9 students have watched or have been watching things I have introduced in class, including TEDTalks, Modern Family, Community, and Shaun of the Dead.
  • 9 students felt I had motivated them to use English outside the classroom, finding the expressions I have been teaching them quite useful.

So, there you have it. It’s not much, but it does show me that I do have an effect on students. My constant yammering about StringNet seems to have influenced them, but for some reason not Word and Phrase. I have to admit that I did not demonstrate Quizlet enough in class, so maybe that can account for the low usage. I’d say student’s beginning to explore English media is a win in terms of autonomy and extensive listening. And finally, I was happy to see that my students have found my teaching useful outside the classroom. They left some pretty touching remarks for the final question. (I have included a screenshot of all their responses at the bottom of this post.)

Helping Learners Become More Autonomous

What does this tell me about how to help learners become more autonomous? If students see that their teacher is passionate about some tool, book, or show, then they are more likely to try it themselves. This actually makes a lot of sense because, as teachers, we serve as a of model (whether we like it or not) of language learning and language usage. Students strive to emulate us or our abilities and therefore may adopt what we consider useful. Another reason why this makes sense is that being passionate about something in the classroom is directly related to having high teacher plausibility – active and enaging teaching based on the “personal conceptualisation of how their teaching leads to desired learning”. Teachers with high levels of plausibility are very effective teachers because what they do in the classroom is not mechanical or routinized but dynamic and real. By extending this plausibility beyond classroom teaching to promoting student autonomy, it can be argued that this also influences how the effect on students. Or, put simply, one’s passion for language learning is infectious!

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Click to enlarge.

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