How promoting autonomous learning among students influences their own learning strategies

I used to have a desktop computer with very good hardware components, but the operating system was outdated and slow for what I needed. I heard from friends and colleagues at work, that there was a new and better operating system available, which I could install in my machine, and since I didn’t want to hire someone else to do it, for I had terrible experiences with computer repair technicians in the past, I decided to learn and do it by myself.

It was clear that I needed some more information on how to go about it, so after reading a few tutorials on the internet, I brought another computer and connected it to the internet; I also decided to call a friend of mine who knew more about this issue than I did. He gave me some great advice about hard disk partitions and he encouraged me by showing me through video tutorials how easy it was. He also lent me an operating system set up disc, which I installed on my computer, and with my new set of skills acquired, I was able to set up a new operating system that worked well from then on.

That was, I believe, a learning situation in real-life conditions, in which the learner identified a problem, set the goal, selected the tools, and contacted a more experienced learner to guide me if necessary. Nowadays if something is wrong with my laptop, I feel that I can look for a solution and fix it myself, and the same happens with some other electric and mechanical devices at home.

I bring this as an example of what is known as autonomous learning, also called self-directed learning, which differs a lot from the kind of learning that takes place at schools. As an instructional designer, e-learning, and educational technology professor, Gregory Francom explains, self-directness has to mirror the way people learn in real scenarios so they have life-long learning skills necessary in today’s world.

Some authors prefer to talk about self-directed learning over autonomous learning, as they say, that autonomous learning is a vague concept. However,  University of Nottingham’s associate professor in TESOL Richard Pemberton was able to distinguish the two terms by explaining that autonomy refers to a capacity of controlling one’s learning while self-directness refers to how that learning is carried out.

Today’s society of knowledge and the need for citizens who are able to adapt to changing working conditions is an undeniable reality. In the USA, for example, as reported by Francom, the number of different jobs workers have to face during their life continues to increase. It is also reported that people usually do not have the necessary skills to carry out new jobs simply because they have not been educated and prepared for them at school.



Reading some of the work written by professor Malcom Knowles one comes to understand how after World War II, adult education began to take place under the conception of pedagogy, students felt schools and teachers did not meet their needs and there were high drop-out rates. This is how the concept of andragogy appeared as a pioneer of self-directed learning. Researchers discovered that to match adults’ learning needs and styles, they needed different teaching practices.

They built a theory around those practices and reflections and a new approach emerged “Self-directed learning”, an educational approach in which experience and background were conditions for setting the new knowledge, experiential learning, and problem-solving.

Experimenting constituted a favored technique. It was required to relate the subjects studied in response to real-life necessities, as well as the development of competencies to be more successful in all aspects of life. These assumptions were then supported by theoretical thesis and it was believed that the new approach could work for children given that many of them had demonstrated to have self-directed learning skills when observed in real-life situations. As an example of that in today’s life, think about the fact that children do not need to take a course on how to use a smartphone, but most of them just do it, they simply learn by themselves. Those are the procedures intended to mirror in self-directness scenarios.

I had a chance to undertake a master's degree program with a high emphasis on self-direction. At the beginning of the program, I was one of the many who showed disappointment and demanded more guidance and feedback from professors, in spite of the fact that they were always scaffolding and demonstrating that the approach was completely different from what we were accustomed to knowing. As time passed, I developed more autonomy and became less dependent on professors to achieve my goals. I understood that I needed to change my own assumptions about teaching, learning, and the roles of learners and teachers. If we observe and think about our own teaching scenarios, one of the certain conclusions would be that learners and teachers usually have different views in regards to what, how, and when to learn a subject matter, just as Australian linguist David Nunan suggests.

If we bet on this type of self-directed learning approach, teachers ought to help students discover how learning happens through think-aloud protocols, journals, and discussion forums, among many other initiatives. This way, students will be better informed when it is time to make their own learning decisions, given that the teacher should not be the only one who makes all these decisions. Working on metacognitive strategies should be useful in the short and long run, for the best and the most important lesson we teachers should teach is how to learn, with this gain, our students’ success will be assured.

When implementing this kind of approach it should not be done in an extreme manner, like in an all-out or nothing fashion. Students must be led to a gradual change in teaching and learning paradigms. Teachers could start by giving them a say, on what or how to learn. It could certainly be very engaging and motivating for them, to have some sort of control and responsibility for the order in which tasks can be done, or selecting a study piece from a scientific article, a newspaper article or a tutorial to do a task, for example.

From my own perspective, I would suggest that to initiate this notion of self-directedness we should take advantage of the fact that most schools and students nowadays have access to computers and internet connections. The fact that students feel motivated and comfortable working in this environment, and our ability to provide self-access materials can be a very appealing strategy that can trigger self-directedness in students.

It is very feasible that with sufficient support, feedback, and clear instructions, learners can become involved in controlling their time to learn, in selecting and using tools by themselves, and choosing their own goals. According to Canadian researcher Gilbert Paquette, this kind of approach favors students with different learning styles and levels of achievement.

As part of my first research project back in 2013 (Riascos, 2013), which focused on formative assessment, I invited my students to participate and help design their own tests as a step towards alternative assessment.  I was then able to demonstrate that, giving control to learners for their own test design, encouraged self-study, it reduced anxiety and it made them feel more responsible for their own learning. I was also able to motivate and help them learn to learn that those teaching practices that include activities of formative assessment such as self-assessment, peer-assessment, and portfolios encourage autonomy and self-direction in all of us, “the learners”.

 autonomy class

Finally, some of the teaching practices and reflections I would like to share on this topic include for example the way teachers treat errors, an aspect that could be enhanced specifically by including self-correction and peer-correction, procedures that favor autonomy. When learning grammar, implementing the discovery approach can work well in that direction too. For improving vocabulary and pronunciation, guessing meaning from context, using monolingual dictionaries, and familiarizing students with the phonetic symbols and sounds, I believe help foster self-directness. Nowadays everything is changing, and so is education including its actors, that is why teachers are key agents of that transformation and must play an important role as promoters of that shift. Self-directedness is an approach that suggests the creation of different learning materials and resources, as well as the implementation of specific strategies like the ones mentioned before which help develop metacognitive skills, or in other words learn to learn, and to reflect on paradigms related to teachers’ and students’ role in education.


  • Francom, G. (2010). Teach me how to learn: Principles for fostering students’ self-directed learning skills. In the International Journal of self-directed learning. (pp. 29-44) Volume 7 N° 1
  • Pemberton, R. & Lam, A. & Or, W. W. & Pierson, H. D.(1996). Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU.  Retrieved June 16, 2014, from Project MUSE database.
  • Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall/Cambridge.
  • Nunan, D. (1999). Second language teaching and learning. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
  • Paquette, G. (2001) Designing Virtual Learning Centers. In H. Adelsberger, B. Collis, J.
  • Riascos, E. (2013). Students participating in test design: a step forward to alternative assessment. (Master’s thesis Universidad de la Sabana).

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