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Learner autonomy Going it alone

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Learner autonomy is an important concept in educational fields, including language learning ones such as EAP. This section will consider what learner autonomy is, what skills autonomous learners need and why learner autonomy is important. The page also looks at how learner autonomy can be developed, as well as considering the cultural aspects of learner autonomy. The page finishes by considering how the website can help students to develop autonomy.

What is learner autonomy?

The term learner autonomy has been used in education since the early 1980s, when it was first used by the educator Henri Holec. Holec defined learner autonomy as the learner's ability to take charge of his/her own learning. Other writers since Holec have modified this definition, in part depending on whether they see learner autonomy as a means to an end, or the end product itself. In taking responsibility for their learning, learners need to work in partnership with the teacher and other students. Learner autonomy is especially important in EAP since students may need to continue to develop their EAP skills without the help of an EAP teacher, for example when they have progressed from foundation or pre-sessional courses to undergraduate degrees.

What skills do autonomous learners need?

In keeping with the definition above, which sees the autonomous learner as someone with the ability to be fully responsible for their own learning, there are a number of skills which are needed. The main ones which such learners require are:

  • the ability to identify and set learning goals;
  • the ability to plan and execute learning activities;
  • the ability to reflect on and evaluate their learning;
  • an understanding of the purpose of their learning;
  • an understanding of their own learning processes;
  • knowledge of a range of learning strategies and skills;
  • clear motivation to learn.

In short, autonomous learners need to be proactive, reflective, self-aware and motivated.

Why is learner autonomy important?

There are four main advantages to becoming an autonomous learner. First, as noted above, you may not always have the support of your teacher, and you will therefore need to be able to learn by yourself. Second, autonomous learners are likely to be more efficient in their learning, because the learning will be more personal and focused. Third, the skills required in autonomous learning are ones which will be needed in future, for example in the workplace. Finally, since autonomous learners are more proactive in their learning, they will usually succeed even though they may not always feel positive towards their learning or may sometimes lack motivation.

Developing learner autonomy

Developing learner autonomy involves learning how to learn, and is a gradual and sometimes difficult process. In order to become autonomous, learners need to be exposed to a range of useful learning activities, and have the opportunity to evaluate and reflect on these. This will be achieved by a combination of efforts by the teacher, peers and the student. Assessment of learning, by all three groups, will also be important. Working with others in this way can be difficult for some students, who may not be used to viewing learning as a social activity, and the autonomous learner therefore needs to develop social skills such as empathy, tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as the ability to explain, discuss and negotiate with the teacher and other learners. In short, developing learner autonomy means developing a wide range of academic, intellectual, personal and interpersonal skills, requiring engagement with cognitive, metacognitive, affective and social dimensions.

The teacher will of course have a role to play in developing learner autonomy. In the first instance, the learning environment needs to provide opportunities for the learner to take control of their learning, which could include opportunities for peer and self assessment or negotiating activities with students. Learners may initially not have an appropriate conceptual stance towards their learning, which means that the teacher will need to introduce and explain the importance of learner autonomy and the skills which are required. Learners may initially lack the ability to identify goals or plan their learning, and the teacher can assist by scaffolding the learning, suggesting suitable goals, or setting or negotiating a timetable. Reflection is also not a natural ability in most students, and reflection training is another area where the teacher can assist and support students. As students develop the necessary skills, the support offered by the teacher can be gradually reduced. It is important not to remove the support too quickly - or completely - as this can be demotivating if students are not ready.

To clarify how a teacher can support students, the table below shows what would happen with different types of students in planning for an assignment, such as an essay or presentation task. The term 'semi-autonomous' is very broad, as most students would have some degree of autonomy rather than being halfway between autonomous and non-autonomous.

Non-autonomous learners Semi-autonomous learners Autonomous learners
Teacher tells students each step they need to take, and when they should do each one. Teacher elicits ideas about what steps students should take, suggests some which may be missing, and negotiates a time when each one will be done. Students decide for themselves what steps to take and when to do each one.

Cultural attitudes towards learner autonomy

An important question to consider is whether learner autonomy is possible in all cultures or whether it is an exclusively Western idea. Although research suggests that learner autonomy is a psychological phenomenon which can go beyond cultural differences, learning behaviour is always culturally conditioned, meaning that students from some cultures, especially teacher-centred ones such as those of Asia, struggle to accept the concept of autonomous learning and therefore find it difficult to learn the necessary skills. One definition of learner autonomy is the recognition of learner's rights within the educational system, which makes the concept not simply an educational one but also a political one. Under this definition, learner autonomy moves the focus from teaching to learning and affords maximum influence to the learners, which runs counter to the importance and perceived influence of the teacher in some cultures. If learner autonomy is used in non-Western cultures it may therefore need to be adapted, and the teacher will need to provide more support, and exercise more patience, with students from such cultures.

How can help?

The main area of the website to help you to develop your autonomy is the study skills section. This includes:

  • the learning cycle page, which will help you gain an understanding of your learning processes and reflect on your learning (items 3 and 5 above);
  • the learning styles page, which will help with an understanding of learning processes and introduce some specific learning strategies and skills based on your preferred style of learning (items 5 and 6 above);
  • time management, which will help you to plan and execute learning activities (item 2 above);
  • using feedback from the teacher, peers or yourself, in order to evaluate learning and identify learning goals (items 1 and 2 above).

Of course, other areas of the website are also helpful, as EAP is a discipline which is concerned with academic skills and strategies, such as following the writing process and learning skills to improve reading speed.


Cottrell, S. (2001) Teaching Study Skills & Supporting Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jordan, R.R. (1997). English for Academic Purposes: A guide and resource book for teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Little, D. (n.d.) Learner autonomy and second/foreign language learning. Available from (access date 8 April, 2016).

Moore, I. (2016). What is Learner Autonomy. Available from (access date 8 April, 2016).

Smith, R. (2008). Learner Autonomy, ELT Journal, Volume 62/4, pp.395-397.


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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 14 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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