LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Some people mistake learner autonomy for self-instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learner autonomy refers to a student’s ability to set appropriate learning goals and take charge of his or her own learning. However, autonomous learners are dependent upon teachers to create and maintain learning environments that support the development of learner autonomy.

Research has shown that teachers who model reflective practices themselves find it easier to create the appropriate learning environment to foster learner autonomy. This environment is one that is positive and motivating, and encourages collaboration and social interaction. It embeds reflective practices into daily learning activities. Learners accept responsibility for their learning, review their learning, and evaluate its effectiveness. The more learners begin to think about learning, the more transparent learning will become to them.

Creating learner autonomy

As teachers we should try to regularly motivate learners to think about why they are learning certain things, exactly what they are learning, and how they learn most effectively. Learners should develop a capacity for reflection and recognize strategies that help them succeed.

It is important that both the teacher and the learner use the target language as much as possible in class, because it is only in using the language that learners can discover their strengths and identify areas of difficulty. Language learners should be given numerous opportunities to use the target language in meaningful contexts with their peers.

These activities create an environment that will reinforce each learner’s goals, celebrate small successes, and gradually build awareness of the learning process.

Autonomous learning strategies

students at work in the classroom

Here are a few strategies that can help to build an autonomous learning environment.

  • Cooperative learning in pairs or small groups
  • Problem-based learning situations that require students to use their knowledge to create solutions for specific situations
  • Writing in journals and reflecting on what, why, and how they learn
  • Assembling portfolios that document their learning process over a period of time
  • Using rubrics that include the learner’s individual expectations and a self-assessment component
  • Peer assessment that allows students to evaluate each other using rubrics and clearly stated objectives

Can you think of any others to add to this list?

Autonomous learning activities

There are also several activities you can use in your classroom as you build learning autonomy. In the next several pages you will see examples of:

  • Learner logs
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • K-W-L chart
  • Application cards
  • Admit and exit slips