March 2016
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Harisimran Sandhu, Freelance, Chandigarh, India

By its very nature, learning implies some autonomisation through the “interdependence of the cognitive and social-interactive dimensions,” wherein the teacher's role is “to create and maintain a learning environment in which learners canbe autonomousin order to become more autonomous (Little, 2003, para. 5).


The term learner autonomy(LA) was coined by Henri Holec in 1981(Smith, 2003, p. 395). Although there have been numerous definitions since, Holec essentially refers to LA as “the ability to take charge of one's own learning” (as cited in Nunan, 2003, p. 193) rather than be dependent on the teacher. It can be viewed both as a means to an end—as in learning a foreign language—or as an end in itself, in striving to make people autonomous or lifelong learners.

The autonomous learner is characteristically expected to construct knowledge from direct experience rather than respond to someone’s instruction, and, in this respect, LA is congruent with the theory of constructivism. Indeed, the cognitive dimension forms the core of the learning experience because, as Holyoake (as cited in Thanasoulas, 2000) put it, “knowledge lies everywhere to hand for those who observe and think” (Conclusion, para. 1). However, as a social process, LA does imply the redistribution of power, attending both the construction of knowledge and the roles of the participants in the learning process.

LA is often obfuscated with an array of related terms such as independence, self-direction, self-instruction, self-access learning, or andragogy. In reality, LA is all these and more and this, perhaps, explains the name change of the IATEFL “Learner Independence” Special Interest Group (SIG) to the “Learner Autonomy” SIG some years ago (Smith, 2003, p. 395).

Its key principles include self- and peer-assessment, optimal differentiation or individualization of learners, student logbooks to document learning and as a tool of reflection, and the use of interactive communicative technology to empower students by connecting them with the real world—transferring them outside the structures of the classroom, and vice versa—bringing the outside world into the classroom (Lacey, 2007).

Teacher’s Role

Far from being “teacherless learning,” as LA is often misconstrued, in effect, it endorses the crucial role of teachers in supporting and scaffolding learning, alongside fostering the development of LA. In this respect, it in no way threatens the power structures of pedagogy, instead encouraging the teacher to take “more responsibility than in a traditional class” (Lacey, 2007, p. 8). Indeed, it is difficult to visualize the growth of autonomy without the stimulus, insight, and guidance of a good teacher.

This nuanced, rehashed role of the teacher in an autonomous learning environment also helps address the ostensible paradox of learning and pedagogy, viewed in a zero-sum relationship: The more powerful the pedagogy, the less space for good learning. LA does not undermine the value of teachers but, instead, casts them in a critically supportive role in which they are also expected to model and embed reflective practices into daily learning. According to research, this not only helps create the appropriate environment, but also positively motivates learners, encouraging collaboration and social interaction. There are indications that “teacher autonomy eventually permeates into LA” (Smith, 2003, p. 6).

Advantages of Autonomous Learning

I am in agreement with Little (2003), who cites three reasons why autonomous learning is generally considered to be more effective than traditional models of learning. One, reflective engagement invariably engenders analysis, which, being more personalized and focused, produces relatively more permanent learning. Two, proactively committed learners are, by the same stroke, more motivated because reflective and attitudinal resources can overcome temporary motivational setbacks. Three, because effective communication requires procedural skills that develop only through use, learners who enjoy autonomy should find it easier to engage and “master the full range of discourse roles on which effective spontaneous communication depends” (Little, 2003, para. 4). I might add that in allowing learners to make optimal use of learning opportunities in and out of class, LA also promotes democratic societies.

Fostering Learner Autonomy

As a perennial dynamic process—rather than product—amenable to educational interventions, LA involves the supportive engagementof learners’ existing autonomy, and includes several overlapping steps:

  • Step 1: Make lesson goals clear to learners.
  • Step 2: Allow them to create and set their own goals.
  • Step 3: Encourage learners to use their second language outside the classroom.
  • Step 4: Raise awareness of the learning processes.
  • Step 5: Help learners identify their own preferred styles and strategies.
  • Step 6: Encourage learner choice.
  • Step 8: Encourage learners to become teachers:This goal of teaching each other is important because it calls for greater responsibility and fosters increased motivation along with improved accuracy.
  • Step 9: Encourage learners to become researchers.

(Nunan, 2003, p. 196–202)

Developing LA also requires a specific approach, strategies, and reflection:

  • A multipronged approach would include a combination of resource-based, technology-based, classroom-based, curriculum-based, teacher-based, or learner-based dimensions.
  • Strategy training would involve teaching learners to use both cognitive and metacognitive strategies.
  • Reflection is key to LA and needs to be embedded in daily activities, focusing on such aspects as motivation, methodologies, and learning outcomes.

While favoring autonomous learning, research evidence also tends to cast teachers in a new role, encouraging teacher autonomy, and without attenuating their importance in any way. Developing LA is a worthwhile goal, especially in language education, with several inherent benefits that together foster both permanent learning and create lifelong learners.


Lacey, F. (2007). Autonomy, never, never, never. Independence, 42, 4–8.

Little, D. (2003). Learner autonomy and second/foreign language learning. Retrieved from

Nunan, D. (2003). Nine steps to learner autonomy. Keynote presentation, International Association of Teachers of Swedish as a Foreign Language. Stockholm: Sweden.

Retrieved from!/menu/standard/file/2003_11_Nunan_eng.pdf

Smith, R. C. (2003). Teacher education for teacher-learner autonomy. In J. Gollin, G. Ferguson, & H. Trappes-Lomax (Eds.), Symposium for language teacher educators: Papers from three IALS symposia (CD-ROM). Edinburgh, UK: IALS, University of Edinburgh. Retrieved from

Thanasoulas, D. (2000). What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered? The Internet TESL Journal, 6(11). Retrieved from

Harisimran Sandhu is a freelance ELT professional with a special interest in teacher/trainer-training and evaluation.

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