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Autonomous Learner Characteristics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5487 words Published: 17th Jul 2017

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1.1 Background of the study

Looking back in time, English language were used once during the Cambodian Republic Regime (1970 – 1975), but thereafter, English was completely banned during the Genocidal Regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; in 1993, for the first National Election in Cambodia, English language emerged again in this country with the arrival of United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) (Narith, 2008). Since then the popularity of English language has gradually grown among Cambodian people. According to Crystal (1997) indicates that English language gains its popularity in the world due to political power, military power and economic power. In Cambodia, because of local and international business, international non-governmental organizations, job requirements, consumerism, computers and mass media, young people are encouraged to learn English as a foreign language (Narith, 2008). Further, Igawa (2008) studies about English language and its education in Cambodia states that “communicative competence in English means a better job and a better pay for Cambodian people”. That is why English language is encouraged and promoted to learn.

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Concerning English language learning, Cambodian students culturally seem to be respectful, obedient, and passive towards their teachers. This happens because of the traditional classroom, which is commonly practiced and mainly focused on teacher-centered approach. This approach offers fewer opportunities to students to engage in their learning, because the teacher always plays a role as a knowledge transmitter to students. Moreover, there is little interaction among teachers and students. The teacher usually spends a great deal of time speaking and explaining in the class; while students are required to sit passively and listen to the teacher attentively (Wang, 2007).

However, after the communicative language teaching has emerged in Cambodia over the last ten years, the role of teacher and student has been gradually changed in modern classroom. In other words, there is a shift from a teacher-centered approach to a learner-centered approach, which offers students more possibilities to actively engage in their learning process. Since this shift occurs, learners are viewed as the main source of information for learning process, which the practice of learner autonomy begins to grow in language learning and teaching (Benson, 2001). Holec (1981) was the first person who coined the term “learner autonomy” and defined it as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning”. Autonomous learning encourages a very active role of learners and focuses on greater students’ initiative rather teacher-centered direction. (Eyob, 2008).

Tudor (1993) also states that learner-centeredness is not a method, nor may it be decreased to a set of rules. It is, however, an approach, which views students to have more active and participatory roles in the learning and teaching process than in traditional approaches. Additionally, this approach requires different classroom activities, the structures of which are decided by students themselves resulting in increases in students’ involvement and motivation. There is also a parallel change in the teacher’s role in learner-centered classrooms. The teacher is less likely to dominate classroom events in contrast to traditional classrooms where the learning environment is teacher-centered and teachers are considered as authorities.

According to, Nunan (1996) there are two complementary aims of learner-center. One of them focuses on language content, the other focuses on learning process. To achieve these aims, leaner need to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn at their own pace, and make a decision regarding their own language competence. Thus, it is the teacher’s duties to create such autonomous learning conditions in which students can acquire skills and knowledge while making choices about the process and content of their learning. Likewise, Tudor (1993) suggests that if teachers are to foster autonomous learning conditions, student will be able to get more benefit from the teaching and learning process, particularly in the following areas: (a) more relevant goal setting with the contributions of students, (b) more effective learning enriched with students’ preferences, (c) more benefit from activities, the content of which decided by students, (d) more efficient study program with more student involvement.

Learner autonomy is considered as a crucial concept that students actively manage their learning in and out of the classroom. That is, they are independent in terms of selecting their own goals and purposes, deciding on materials, choosing ways of learning and tasks, and opting for criteria for self-evaluation (Eyob, 2008). Besides, autonomous learning can be achieved by certain conditions such as using cognitive and metacognitive strategies, learner attitudes and motivation, self-esteem, and learners’ awareness and knowledge about language learning (Thanassoluas, 2007). Similarly, Cotterall (1999) indentifies learning strategies as one of the most important factors in autonomous language learning. She also claims that the learners will have difficulties in classroom promoting autonomous learning without strategies training. Additionally, Chan (2001) states that “increasing the level of learner control will increase the level of self-determination; thereby increasing overall motivation in the development of learner autonomy”. Therefore, learners need to be self-directed and to determine the direction of their own language learning process.

In brief, developing and promoting autonomous learning is vital as the aim of all education is to help people think, act and learn independently in relevant areas of their lives. In this respect, a strategy for developing and fostering autonomy in language teaching will require enhanced cognitive and metacognitive skills, self-awareness to improve motivation and willingness to take charge of learning.

1.2 Problem Statement

With this novel concept, learner autonomy, Cambodian students are expected to take more responsibilities to demonstrate a great deal of autonomy in their learning process in order to succeed academically.

However, Many English language teachers have become frustrated with investing endless amounts of energy in their students and getting very little response. Most teachers have had groups of students who never did their homework, who were reluctant to use the target language in pair or group work, who did not learn from their mistakes, who did not listen to each other, who did not use opportunities to learn outside the classroom, and so on.

These reveal that students are not making efforts in their learning. Moreover, most of them are not likely to be aware of their roles in their learning process, and particularly they lack learning strategies to enable them to excel in their language performance. Regarding this issue, students make slow progress in their learning, performing poorly, thereby affecting their ultimate achievement in English language learning. And to the best of our knowledge, there is little research conducted on assessing learner autonomy in Cambodian EFL context. Thus, the aim of the present work is to identify learners’ perspectives about their learning responsibly and their actual practice of learner autonomy in Cambodian Youth’s Future Institute (CYFI).

1.3 Research Questions:

The study on the current practice of learner autonomy is aimed at answering the two main questions and the two sub questions below in order to meet the objectives

1. How do the CYFI students perceive their own and their teachers’ responsibilities in learning English?

-Are there any differences in the learners’ perceptions of their own and their teachers’ responsibilities in learning English regarding their gender?

2. To what extent, are the Autonomous learning strategies (inside and outside the classroom) used in learning English by ESL learners at CYFI?

-Are there any differences in the learning strategies according to their gender?

1.4 Significance of the study

This study is expected to provide empirical support for the identification of factors considered to be significant for the promotion of autonomy in foreign language classrooms and examines the claims made in language learning literature about each of these factors. By exploring them, teachers could also construct a shared understanding of the essential foundation of learner autonomy and obtain considerable insights into what roles they have to play in order to facilitate learner autonomy. Furthermore, it can increase learners’ awareness of how to be in charge of their own learning and inform the learners which learning strategies that they need to learn more and apply in their learning process. Similarly, it will help learners change their behavior by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own language learning, to change their attitudes towards the English class, and to deal with their foreign language learning problems. And finally, it may serve as a preliminary idea for any interested researchers in the area.



The Literature in this review was found from the Hun Sen Library of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), and by using the websites of Asian EFL Journal, Cambridge, Google Scholar, Oxford and Zunia to identify relevant books, journals and articles focusing on Autonomy in English langue learning. Other reviews was obtained from numerous articles and the list of references by several well-known scholars such as, Beson, , Gardner, Holec, Lee, Little ,Tudor and Wenden. These scholars are long established writers in this field and have written and conducted many researches about this area. The key words used to identify the articles are Lerner Autonomy, Learner Responsibility, Self-regulated Learner and Self-access Learner.

2.1 What is learner autonomy?

The definition of learner autonomy seems to interpret in many different ways. Holec (1981, p.3) was the person who first coined the term learner autonomy and defines the term as “the ability to take charge of one’s own direct learning”. Dickinson (1995) characterizes autonomous learners as those who have the capacity for being active and independent in the learning process. While Higgs (1988, p.41) views it as a process, “in which the learner works on a learning task or activity and largely independent of the teacher who acts as manager of the learning programme and as resource person”. In fact, learners attain autonomy depends on a variety of factors, including learners’ ability to take responsibility, personal constructs, teacher support, peer support, availability and flexibility in learning environment (Little, 1990; McDevitt, 1997; Lee, 1998). Even though there is a slightly different interpretation of learner autonomy, those meanings may contribute to the understanding deeply of the term.

According to Benson and Voller (1997) there are five categories of the term learner autonomy, including situations in which learners study entirely on their own, a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning, an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education, the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning, and the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.

However, there is also a great deal of misconceptions about the definition of autonomous language learning. Esch (1996) thinks that autonomy is not self-instruction or learning without a teacher, does not mean that intervention or initiative on the part of a teacher is banned, is not something teachers do to learners, is not a single easily identifiable behavior, and is not a steady state achieved by learners once and for all.

2.2 Why learner autonomy?

In fact, the cultivation of learner autonomy is a long process. Teacher should help students develop gradually from teacher dependence to autonomy. As an old Chinese saying goes “Give a man a fish, and you feed him a day; teach him how to fish, and feed him for a life time”. Moreover, the saying “you can bring the horse to water, but you cannot make him drink” can clearly illustrate why we need learner autonomy in teaching learning process. In language learning, a teacher can offer all the necessary tools and input, but learning can only occur if learners are willing to get involved and participate (Scharle & Szabo, 2000). Further, Scharle and Szabo (2000, p.4) indicate that learners can be successful in learning when they have a responsible attitude. Therefore, we can understand that learners need a great deal of responsibility and active involvement in conducting learning activities in order to accomplish tremendous achievement in language learning. Eyob (2008) also states that “learners accept responsibility for their learning, they constantly reflect on what they are learning, why they are learning, and with what degree of success; and their learning is fully integrated with the rest of what they are”.

2.3 Characteristics of Autonomous Learners

We understand that autonomous learners have to be responsible for all decisions that they have to make in their own learning. In other words, they are self-directed in the sense that they act independently of the teacher without remaining passive or waiting to be told what to do from teachers.

According to Hedge (2000) characterized autonomous learners as those who:

know their needs and work productively with the teacher towards the achievement of their objectives.

learn both inside and outside the classroom.

can take classroom based material and can build on it.

know how to use resources independently.

learn with active thinking.

adjust their learning strategies when necessary to improve learning.

manage and divide the time in learning properly.

do not think the teacher is a god who can give them ability to master the language.

Further, Wenden (1991) also characterized autonomous learners as those who:

are willing and have the capacity to control or supervise learning.

are motivated to learn.

are good guessers.

choose material, methods and tasks.

exercise choice and purpose in organizing and carrying out the chosen task.

select the criteria for evaluation.

take an active approach to the task.

make and reject hypothesis.

pay attention to both form and content.

are willing to take risks.

2.4 The Role of Teachers and Students to Promote Learner Autonomy

Holden and Usuki (1999) who questioned Japanese students’ perceptions of learner autonomy concluded that it was not the learners who were innately passive, but it was the teachers that created an environment which discouraged learner autonomy. Moreover, it also concluded that the vast majority of students view their instructor as playing a major role in the development of their language skills. However, it stresses that learner autonomy, is not something that teachers do to learners, or another teaching method that can be taught (Little ,1990; Benson, 2001). Also, Dickinson (1987) states that, “the learner is totally responsible for all of the decision concerned with his learning and the implementation of those decisions”. In a full learner autonomy there is no involvement of a teacher or an institution. And learners are also independent of specially prepared materials. For instance, the early research on language learning strategies carried out by such researchers as Rubin (1975) indicated that good learners have an active involvement with language learning, that they have clear ideas about the best ways for them to go about language learning, and that they set up their own learning objectives. However, this research has no strong reason to support that autonomous learning requires teachers or institutions, does not mean that it must proceed independent of them.

Even there is a contradiction between the role of the teacher and the learner in promoting learner autonomy, McCarthy (2000) and Scharer (2000) argue that, in developing learner autonomy, “the teacher-student relationship is crucial”. The trust and cooperation between the teacher and the students makes the students feel comfortable and secure in the classroom. Only then can the students have the confidence to adventure in language learning. Benson and Vollers (1997) study also found that teachers have a significant role to play in launching learners into self-access and in helping them to stay afloat. In this investigation, it was found that there is a great change for both teachers and learners. Teachers are no longer in their dominant position as speakers in class while learners are not passive receivers any more. However, it does not necessarily mean teachers are less important. On the contrary, the teachers’ job is more demanding and challenging in helping students grow up as creative and independent learners. Teachers must focus their attention on how to learn instead of how to teach. They must play different role in class as guides, facilitators and counselors. Therefore, adjusting the teacher’s and student’s roles, and establishing proper relationship are the keys to the success in promoting autonomous learning (Benson & Vollers, 1997).

2.5 Language Learning Strategies

There are a number of researchers who have defined the term language learning strategies (LLS) in different ways. Wenden (1991) defines LLS as, “mental steps or operations that learners use to learn a new language and to regulate their efforts to do so.” O’Malley and Chamot (1990) defined LLS as “the special thoughts or behaviors that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information”. By understanding various definitions from different researchers, we can see that learning strategies are very important in learning a language. Hence, all students have to be trained on how to use them appropriately in order to be successful learners.

According to Hedge (2000), there are four types of learning strategies utilized by language learners, including cognitive strategies, meta-cognitive strategies, socio-affective strategies, and communication strategies.

2.5.1 Cognitive Strategies

Hedge (2000) defines cognitive strategies as “thought processes used directly in learning which enables learners to deal with the information presented in tasks and materials by working on it in different ways”. According to Tudor (1996), cognitive strategies include:

Repetition: repeating a chunk of language (a word or phrase) in the course of performing language language task.

Resourcing: Using available reference sources of information about the target language, including dictionaries, textbooks, and prior work.

Grouping: Ordering, classifying or labeling material used in a language task based on common attributes; recalling information based on grouping previously done.

Note taking: Writing down key words and concepts in abbreviated verbal, graphic, or numerical form to assist performance of a language task.

Deduction/ Induction: consciously applying learned or self-developed rules to produce or understand the target language.

Substitution: selecting alternative approaches, revised plans, or different words or phrases to accomplish a language task.

Elaboration: Relating new information to prior knowledge; relating different parts of new information to each other; making meaningful personal associations to information presented.

Summarization: Making a mental or written summary of language and information presented in a task.

Translation: rendering ideas from one language to another in a relatively verbatim manner.

Transfer: using previously acquired linguistic knowledge to facilitate a language task.

Inference: Using available information to guess the meanings or usage of unfamiliar language items associated with language tasks, to predict outcomes, or to fill in missing information.

2.5.2 Meta-cognitive Strategies

According to Oxford (1990), “metacognitive strategies are actions which go beyond purely cognitive devices, which provide a way for learners to coordinate their own learning process”. Oxford also mentions that there are three metacognitive strategies such as centering learning, arranging and planning learning, and evaluating learning. Moreover, Tudor (1996, p.205) also states that metacognitive strategies consist of planning, monitoring and evaluating; some of these strategies are:

Planning: previewing the organizing concept or principle of an anticipated learning task (advance organization); proposing strategies for handling an upcoming task; generating a plan for the parts, sequence, main ideas, or language functions to be used in handling a task (organizational planning).

Directed attention: Deciding in advance to attend in general to a learning task and to ignore irrelevant destructors; maintaining attention during task execution.

Selective attention: deciding in advance to attend to specific aspects of language input or situational details that assist in performance of a task; attending to specific aspects of language input during task execution.

Self-management: understanding the conditions that help one successfully accomplish language tasks and arranging for the presence of those conditions controlling one’s language performance to maximize use of what is already known.

Self-monitoring: checking, verifying, or correcting one’s comprehension or performance in the course of a language task.

Problem identification: Explicitly identifying the central point needing resolution in a task or identifying an aspect of the task that hinders its successful completion.

Self-evaluation: checking the outcomes of one’s own language performance against an internal measure of completeness and accuracy; checking one’s language repertoire, strategy use, or ability to perform the task.

Thus, it is very essential to teach students about metacognitive strategies in order to make their language learning effectively.

2.5.3 Socio-Affective Strategies

Oxford (1990) the term affective strategies refer to emotion, motivation, attitudes, and values. He claims that affective strategies are concerned with the affective elements of the learners such as self-esteem, attitudes, confidence, motivation, and anxiety. Oxford (1990) also suggests that there are three main sets of affective strategies: lowering your anxiety, encouraging yourself, and taking your emotional temperature. While Tudor (1996) suggests some of the affective strategies are:

Questioning for clarification: asking for explanations, verification, rephrasing, or examples about the material; asking for clarification or verification about the task; posing questions to the self.

Cooperation: working together with peers to solve a problem, pool information, check a learning task, model a language activity, or get feedback on oral or written performance.

Self-talk: Reducing anxiety by using mental techniques that make one feel competent to do the learning task.

Self-reinforcement: providing personal motivation by arranging rewards for one self when a language activity has been successfully completed.

Therefore, good language learners should know how to control their emotions and attitudes about learning (Oxford 1990).

2.5.4 Communication Strategies

According to Hismanoglu (2000), communication strategies are employed by speakers when confronted with some difficulties because of the fact that their communication was misunderstood or was not caught clearly. Hedge (2000) also states that learners use communication strategies in order to make them understood and to maintain a conversation; these strategies contain gesture, mime, synonym, and paraphrases. The significance of these strategies is to help learners get involved in conversations when they practice the language and to assist learners in getting their message across or clarify what the speaker conveyed.

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2.6 Learner Attitudes, Motivation and Self-Esteem

Benson and Voller (1997) state that language learning is not merely a cognitive task; Learners do not reflect on their learning in terms of the language input to which they are exposed. Rather, the success of a learning activity is partially contingent upon learners’ stance towards the world and the learning activity in particular, their sense of self, and their desire to learn. That is, language learning involves affective elements such as attitudes, motivation and self-esteem.

The term attitudes refer to “learned motivations, value beliefs, evaluations, what one believes is acceptable, or responses oriented towards approaching or avoiding (Wenden, 1998, pp, 52-53)”. There are two kinds of attitudes which are very essential: attitudes learners hold about their role in the learning process, and their capability as learner. Thus, it appears that if learners have positive attitudes towards their learning, then those attitudes will play an important role in increasing learners’ motivation, and contribute to their achievements in learning.

In educational context, many researchers or experts have defined the term “motivation” differently. So there is little agreement on the exact meaning of the term. According to Dornyei (2001) the father of motivational strategies refers the term motivation as “a keen, committed, and enthusiastic learner who has good reasons for learning”. “Motivation explains why people decide to do something, how hard they are going to pursue it and how long they are willing to sustain the activity” (Dornyei, 2001, p.7). Furthermore, according to Gardner and Macintyre (1993) indicate that motivation consist of three elements, including desire to achieve a goal, effort extended in this direction and satisfaction with the task.

Indeed, people are motivated in different ways and to different degrees. And learners should encourage focusing more on their intrinsic motivation because it emerges with the inner drive or interest of the learners in doing something which they can sustain their motivation longer. Therefore, motivation is a key factor that contributes to the success of language learning. If learners are more aware of the importance of motivation, then they will be more likely to achieve their desire goals or outcomes.

Indeed, attitudes and motivation are the concept of self-esteem (Thanasoulas, 2007). James (1983) defines “self-esteem” as a ratio found by dividing one’s achievements in areas of life of importance to a given individual by the failures in them or one’s success. According to Branden (2001), “self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth)”. If learners have a high self-esteem, then they may achieve highly in their learning process. Conversely, if they have a low self-esteem, then it can lead to negative attitudes towards their learning, possibly deteriorate their cognitive perform and lowering their success (Wenden, 1991, p.57).

All in all, learners have to be willing to take charge of their own learning. They should use the right strategies plus having positive attitudes, intrinsic motivation and high self-esteem. And all of these do contribute a lot in leading them to largely succeed in language learning. Most importantly, they should use every opportunity that they obtain in order to learn the language effectively and successfully. Thus, teachers and students should be responsible in fostering autonomous learning (Eyob 2008).



3.1 Research Design

To conduct this study, the researcher utilizes a survey research in order to describe the current practice of autonomous learning by CYFI students. By using this method, it also assists to illustrate the fundamental problems that challenge the practice.

The method is suitable in attempting to describe the attitudes, opinions, behaviors, or characteristics of a sample or the entire population (Creswell, 2005). Additionally, it included cross-sectional studies using questionnaires and focus group interviews for data collection.

3.2 Data collection tools

Chamot (2004) suggests that appropriate methods in conducting this kind of the study need to be utilized. Those recommending researches tools in data collection are group focus, interview and questionnaire and these methods can help researchers to ensure the reliability and validity

3.2.1 Questionnaire

The self-administered questionnaire is used in order to obtain descriptive and frequencies data of the study. The researcher employs this questionnaire because it is able to be administered with or without the presence of the researcher and it is easy to analyze with many computer software packages (Wilson & Mclean, 1994). In addition, Questionnaire is familiar to most people. Nearly everyone has had some experience completing questionnaires and they generally do not make people apprehensive. Questionnaire also reduces bias; there is uniform question presentation and no middle-man bias. Also, the researcher’s own opinions will not influence the respondent to answer questions in a certain manner because there are no verbal or visual clues to influence the respondent. Nevertheless, the researcher need to invest great amount of time to develop, pilot, and refine questionnaire and data collected may lack of flexibility of responding (Wilson & Mclean,1994). The rate of return can also be a major concern when the researcher uses this data collecting tool (Anderson & Arsenault, 1998).

3.2.2 Focus Group Discussion

The researcher uses a focus group discussion as a second data collection tool for this study. In order to verify the data collected from the questionnaire and to make the data more enriched and valid. By using focus group discussion, the researcher can explore more insights in some particular areas found from the results of the questionnaire and can cross check and probe more information about the study. Moreover, focus group will offer a collective view rather than an individual view and it is economical and less time-consuming. It also produce a large amount of data (Mogan, 1988). However, focus group may yield the data less than the survey and data may lack overall reliability as group disagreement and even conflicts may arise. Also, Data obtained from focus group will be difficult to analyze concisely.

3.3 Sample size and Sampling technique

The research is conducted in the form of a case study. The target populations of this study are Level 07 CYFI students whose levels are pre-intermediate. The sample of about 60 students of the entire population is chosen purposively to complete the questionnaire study. Besides, 4 to 6 students are also selected purposively to involve in the focus group discussion. The researcher intends to choose a non-probabilistic convenient sampling procedure for the study because, as its name suggests, it is convenient, fast, low cost and less-time consuming. Also, it is easy to conduct and the participants are available and voluntary to participate in the study (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2007). And yet, the sampling may fails to represent the whole population and be limited to make a generalizability of the findings due to its nature.

3.4 Data collection process

The self-administered questionnaires are administered to the participants at the end of their class. Since there are two kinds of self-administered questionnaires, the participants have a choice to complete questionnaires either in the presence or in the absence of the researcher, assistants and their teachers. If the participants decide to fil


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