April 4th, 2012

Cultivating More Autonomous, Motivated Learners


Autonomous learners. What are they? Who are they? And, do we have any of them in our classes? As is often the case with teaching and learning terms, there is not a lot of definitional clarity. In this blog and elsewhere I have tended to used the terms autonomous learner, self-directed learner and independent learner pretty much interchangeably. It seems to me that’s what happens elsewhere in the literature as well.

But would we know one when we see one? What does an autonomous learner do that differentiates them from learners who aren’t—those we typically call dependent learners? Here’s a description with enough detail to add meaning and depth to our understanding of the term. “. . .autonomous learners take responsibility for their own learning, are motivated to learn, gain enjoyment from their learning, are open-minded, manage their time well, plan effectively, meet deadlines and are low in procrastination when it comes to their work.” (p. 357) The only trouble I see with that description is that it doesn’t fit very many of our students.

Most students don’t have this love of and commitment to the kind of learning that happens in college classrooms. We could ask why and that would be an interesting discussion, but I rather get us thinking about how we might cultivate more autonomy in learning and the article that proposes this description contains a helpful resource. Authors Ann Macaskill and Elissa Taylor (both at a university in England) have created and tested a survey that can be used to measure how autonomous students are as learners. They developed it as a resource for educational researchers, but it’s another of those instruments that are of value to classroom teachers as well.

It’s a short survey, containing just 12 items. The article explains the various analyses undertaken to establish the validity and reliability of the measure—the results indicate the instrument is psychometrically sound. Students rate the items listed below on a 5-point Likert scale with “1” being “very like me” and “5” being “not at all like me.”

Please rate how each statement describes you. 1 2 3 4 5
I enjoy new learning experiences
I am open to new ways of doing familiar things
I enjoy a challenge
I enjoy finding information about new topics on my own
Even when tasks are difficult I try to stick with them
I tend to be motivated to work by assessment deadlines
I take responsibility for my learning experiences
My time management is good
I am good at meeting deadlines
I plan my time for study effectively
I frequently find excuses for not getting down to work
I am happy working on my own

Do our students know the difference between autonomous and dependent learners? Do they know which they tend to be? Taking this survey can help develop that awareness. If you use it with several different cohorts, you can establish some norms for your students. Maybe you could compare those norms with data collected from colleagues. As you can see from the items, most faculty are going to be way over on the autonomous learner side of the scale.

Do you have class time to devote to an activity like this? If not, could this be posted on the course website or otherwise available online? Should we devote class time to activities that develop students’ awareness of themselves as learners? My answer is absolutely. I am becoming more and more convinced that the most important thing students take from their college careers is not their diplomas or their content knowledge, but their learning skills. Yes, some of those skills do develop automatically as a consequence of being in college. But when they’re developed with direct instruction and supported by opportunities for practice, the quality of those skills increases significantly. I also believe that even short activities like this can contribute a level of awareness that makes them worth doing.

Reference: Macaskill, A. and Taylor, E. (2010). The development of a brief measure of learner autonomy in university students. Studies in Higher Education, 35 (3), 351-359.

  • Gerald Grow

    When I worked with a similar instrument in the '90s, I found that students rated themselves as far more self-directed than they actually were. Many claimed to meet deadlines, for example, but were habitually late.

    One constructive use of such a survey is to identify places where student self-image is at odds with student actions. That can open a discussion on how to be a better student.

    Helping students become more self-directed is a valuable pursuit. My effort at it can be found here: http://www.longleaf.net/ggrow/SSDL/SSDLIndex.html

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  • Fannie LeFlore

    As an Instructor teaching adult students, I find that I prefer a facilitator and coaching role, working best with students who are independent and willing to take equal responsibility for their own education, for the most part. I will be able to apply information from this article to work better with students who are less self-directed.

    I also appreciate the link posted by Mr. Grow. I can definitely see why problems occur when dependent learners are mismatched with non-directive teachers and when self-directed learners are mismatched with highly-directive teachers.

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  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    Would you consider autonomous learners to be the same as self-directed learners?

    After students take this self-assessment, are they provided with any tools or resources?

    This reminds me of learning style assessments. Would that type of assessment provide more specific information so that students could better understand how they learn?

    Dr. J

  • cognitioneducation

    I'm late to this discussion, but felt compelled to comment anyways. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have made the study of this their life's-work. On their website supporting the decades of work that went into creating "Self Determination Theory" they nicely explain the theory and provide interested parties with many different, validated assessment tools. I wrote a post about this back in January (2012) as well: http://cognitioneducation.wordpress.com/2012/01/1…. To "DrBruce's" comment above as well, Learning Styles are controversial, to say the least (I've written about them too, in a post titled "Labeling in the Name of Progress"), and you will do better by your students if you attend to their motivation. The more you can do to help students take ownership of their learning, the better off they are.

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