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What Is Learner Autonomy?

By Ivan Moore, Director of Centre for Promoting Learner Autonomy CETL

These pages will introduce readers to the concepts of learner autonomy and provide a guide to practices that enhance the capacity of students to become more autonomous as learners. This page is organised into seven sections:
Conceptualising Learner Autonomy in Higher Education
Developing a Conceptual Stance to Higher Education
Encouraging Student Motivation and Engagement
Developing Information Literacy Skills
Managing Learning
Enquiry Based Learning (EBL)
Student Partnerships

Conceptualising Learner Autonomy in Higher Education

Conceptualising learner autonomy involves two factors:

An autonomous learner has developed the capacity to take at least some control over their learning; and
The learning environment provides opportunities for the learner to take control of their learning.

Developing capacity requires a set of personal qualities: confidence, motivation, taking and accepting responsibility, and ability to take initiative. It also involves a set of skills: academic, intellectual, personal and interpersonal.

Within the context of Higher Education, effective autonomous learning requires the learner to have an appropriate conceptual stance towards their learning, which leads to an appropriate orientation to learning. In addition, learning is a social activity, and socialising their learning requires learners to recognise the benefits of working with others and to be able to share and negotiate with other learners. The employability agenda within HE also requires learners to develop appropriate professional skills and the diverse nature of the student body requires learners to recognise difference. This involves developing tolerance, empathy and understanding of other values and cultures; and to be able to explain, discuss and negotiate in an acceptable manner.

The Sheffield Hallam definition of learner autonomy starts with the premise that an autonomous learner takes responsibility for his/her own learning. In doing this:

  • They can identify:
    – their learning goals (what they need to learn)
    – their learning processes (how they will learn it)
    – how they will evaluate and use their learning
  • they have well-founded conceptions of learning
  • they have a range of learning approaches and skills
  • they can organize their learning
  • they have good information processing skills
  • they are well motivated to learn

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Developing a conceptual stance towards Higher Learning

Students come to University from diverse social, cultural and educational backgrounds, which influence their expectations of Higher Education. One factor that can inhibit their learning and success is the mismatch between their expectations and those of the programme. It is important that students develop an appropriate conceptual stance towards their learning. This involves understanding what is meant by 'higher learning', as well as accepting responsibility for their own learning, developing high level intellectual skills, including reflection and metacognition, and understanding and developing their own approaches to learning.

Although it is necessary for students to reflect continuously on their learning and conceptions, a key time to engage with students on these is on arrival into university, so as to encourage effective orientations and deep approaches to learning, and to develop a culture of reflection and engagement which will support them through their university studies.

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Motivation and Engagement

Engaged learners are active in their learning, in both formal and informal environments. They have a natural sense of curiosity about their subject and its wider context. They demonstrate a balance of vocational, academic, personal and social motivations to learn, and can distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn. Motivation can be encouraged by socialising the learning; developing effective working relationships; offering choice in learning goals and processes; providing positive feedback; introducing realistic challenges and offering the opportunities to develop self-confidence.

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Information skills

The Standing Conference of University Librarians (SCONUL) describes the seven pillars of information literacy as the ability to:

1. recognize a need for information
2. distinguish ways in which the information ‘gap’ may be addressed
3. construct strategies for locating information
4. locate and access information
5. compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources
6. organize, apply and communicate information to others in ways appropriate
7. synthesize and build upon existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge

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Managing Learning

In order for students to be able to operate autonomously, it is important for them to develop an approach to managing their learning; managing themselves; and managing relationships in ways that maximise their ability to succeed in their academic lives. This can be encapsulated intuitively in the notions of personal effectiveness; reflections on the nature and degree of personal autonomy; and informed agency in the context of a complex academic environment. For many students, this can be seen as an evolving capability in relation to the different demands and challenges presented by their learning experiences and learning goals.

Specifically, this will involve students developing effective study, planning, problem solving and time and project management skills; demonstrating focus and resilience; being able to balance social, work and learning needs; and having the metacognition to balance the demands of assessment, self-assessment and evaluation of their learning.

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Enquiry Based Learning (EBL)

EBL represents a shift away from passive methods, which involve the transmission of knowledge to students, to more facilitative teaching methods through which students are expected to construct their own knowledge and understanding by engaging in supported processes of enquiry, i.e. learning in ‘research mode’. It is a natural form of learning, borne out of our innate sense of curiosity and desire to explore and understand. It is generically applicable, and has grown from modelling learning in a number of subjects. The learning is driven by a process of enquiry or investigation, often involving complex, intriguing ‘real-life’ stimuli. It is student-centred, requires active participation, and supports the connections between theory and practice. It is a supported process that develops a range of skills in students:

Academic: Research and information skills
Professional: Team, leadership and inter-personal skill; communication skills, project management, entrepreneurship, idea generation and innovation.
Personal: Taking and accepting responsibility, planning, balancing creativity with resilience

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