Should learner autonomy be assessed?

Can learner autonomy be
Christine O'Leary
Sheffield Hallam University
Definitions of learner of autonomy
Assessing learner autonomy- benefits and issues
Evaluating the development of autonomy in Languagesprevious studies
Assessing learner autonomy in practice: examples from final
year students on the Languages degree programme
Assessment shapes how students view the
curriculum and make decisions about what they
learn and how they learn it (Boud, 2002; Ramsden,
Biggs(2003) recommends aligning the type of
assessment with the approach to teaching and
learning for the learning to be effective.
If we regard learner autonomy as an educational
goal per se, should we attempt to assess it and if so,
Definitions of learner autonomy
Learner autonomy is defined as learners' ability to take charge
or control of their own learning (Holec, 1981; Little, 1990;
Benson, 2001& 2006). Little (2000: 69) defines autonomy in
language learning as " Autonomy in language learning depends on the development
and exercise of a capacity for detachment, critical reflection,
decision making and independent action; autonomous learners
assume responsibility for determining the purpose, content,
rhythm and method of their learning, monitoring its progress
and evaluating its outcomes. "
Learner autonomy is about interdependent as well as
independent learning (Kohonen, 1992; William and Burden
(1997; Benson, 2001; O'Rourke & Schwienhorst, 2003).
Assessing learner autonomy-issues
The measurement (and therefore, assessment) of autonomy is
problematic because autonomy is a multidimentional construct
(Little,1991; Nunan, 1997; Benson, 2001).
" Although we may be able to identify and list behaviours that
demonstrate control over learning[..], we have little evidence to
suggest that autonomy consists of any particular combination of
these behaviours" (Benson, 2001: 51)
Autonomous behaviour can take different forms depending on
age, stage of learning, perceived learning needs and even the
learning context (Little, 1991; Benson, 2001)
Benson (2001) argues that autonomous behaviour is
essentially self-initiated rather than generated in response to a
task which requires either explicitly or implicitly the observed
Assessing Learner autonomy- the
Autonomy is a capacity which the student may or
may not choose to exercise. If you don't bring it into
an assessment programme, the majority of students
will not see its importance (a view shared by
colleagues such as Debbie Corder from Auckland
Australia- Auto-L discussion March/ April 2005).
Assessment influences the decisions student make
about how as well as what they learn (Boud, 2002;
Ramsden, 2003) so assessing autonomy may be
essential for its development in an institutional
Evaluating the development of autonomy in
Languages- previous studies
Lai's 2001 study which details the successful development of
two rating scales relating to process control (task level using
listening journal) and self-direction.
Champagne et al (2001)'s action research study looking at
performance (c-test to measure attainment in language
proficiency) and process through qualitative analysis of portfolio
entries/observations and interviews. The study highlighted the
need for learners to participate in self-assessment, and for
assessment of process to be an integral part of the programme.
O'Leary (2006) study using Benson (2001)'s 3 key
psychological categories of autonomy to analyse students' selfevaluation reports. The study concluded that the nature of the
assessment activity clearly plays a key role in the development
of autonomy.
Assessing learner autonomy in
ULS French Stage 6- Assessment Programme
Language undergraduates
Portfolio including group translation and interpreting tasks &
associated self/peer evaluation, activities selected by the
learners based on needs and a reflective piece of writing
Time constrained translation (40%)
Interpreting tasks (40%)
Assessing learner autonomy in
practice- examples
Portfolio marking criteria:
Planning ability to assess learning needs,
define objectives and plan work accordingly
Reflection ability to reflect on and assess
progress made. The extent to which
feedback given to peers is detailed and
Assessing learner autonomy in
practice (2)
Portfolio marking criteria (continued)
Performance: The standard of the tasks
(group and free choice activities) included in
the portfolio
Progression: Evidence of development and
progress (e.g. acting on feedback through
resubmission of work)
Assessing learner autonomy in
practice: extract from student work
" These are the dates I propose to have each task done by. I have
specifically left the interpretations exercises until last because I
want to get as much practice as possible (..) I am less confident
in this area."
Needs analysis
" I still have problems using the correct gender for many words
and although this should not be a problem for the translation
task (..), this would be a problem when it comes to interpreting"
Assessing learner autonomy in practice:
Extract from students work (continued)
Defining objectives
" In order to improve my interpretation skills, I am going
to choose tasks that will enable me to practise my
note taking techniques"
 Reflection
"Of all three translations completed, I found the
group translation most useful...... The main
reasons for this is because I was in a group of
three whereby each group member contributed
significantly to the final version. Each point
discussed was debated enthusiastically and each
view was well justified by all group members"
Assessing learner autonomy in practice:
Extract from students work (continued)
Assessing progress made
" I found that I almost forgot important grammatical structures on
the spot. I knew that I had said something wrong once I had
said it .."
Feedback to peers
" Once again in the third paragraph which Sarah interpreted I only
found a couple of things to question.I was unsure if saying "
nous attendons" which literally means " we are waiting" gives
the correct message that" they are expecting". However it was
a good attempt to get around the word if she did not know what
expecting was in French."
The portfolio work encourages the students to
develop and use their capacity for autonomy in order
to demonstrate it.
The effectiveness of such an approach depends on
curriculum design, particularly with regards to
aspects of learner development such as
metacognitive knowledge. The opportunity to make
choices also plays a key role.
It is not clear how much the Languages
undergraduates exercise their autonomy in the other
modules they study. This would be worth exploring in
future studies.
Benson, P (2001). Teaching and Researching Autonomy in
Language Learning. Harlow, England: Longman.
Benson, P (2006) Autonomy in Language Teaching and
Learning. In Language Teaching and Learning 40, 21-40.
Cambridge University Press.
Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning in Higher
Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Boud, D (2002) Assessment and learning: Contradictory or
complementary? In: P.Knight (ed) Assessment for Learning in
Higher Education. London: Kogan Page, pp. 35-48
Breen, M.P. and Mann, S. (1997). Shooting arrows at the sun:
perspectives on a pedagogy for autonomy. In P. Benson and P.
Voller (eds.) Autonomy and Independence in Language
Learning: 132-49. London: Longman.
Champagne et al (2001). The assessment of learner autonomy
and language learning. In Dam (ed) Learner Autonomy: new
insights. Aila review 15, 45-55.
References (continued)
Holec. H (1981) Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning.
Kohonen, V. (1992) Experiential language learning: second
language learning as cooperative learner education. In Nunan
(ed) Collaborative Language Learning and Teaching,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 14-39.
Lai, J (2001). Towards an analytic approach to assessing
learner autonomy. In Dam (ed) Learner Autonomy: new insights.
Aila review 15, 34-44
Little, D. (1990). Autonomy in language learning. In Ian
Gathercole (ed.) Autonomy in Language Learning. London:
CILT: 7-15
Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy. 1: Definitions, Issues and
Problems. Dublin: Authentik .
References (continued)
Little, D.(2000) Autonomy and autonomous learners.
In Byram (ed), 69-72
Nunan, D (1997). Designing and adapting materials
to encourage learner autonomy. In Benson & Voller
(eds), 192-203.
O' Rourke, B & Schwienherst (2003), Talking text:
reflections on reflection in computer-based mediated
communication. In little et al (eds), 47-62.
Ramsden, P. (2003) Learning to Teach in Higher
Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Williams M and. Burden R. (1997). Psychology for
Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press.
Questions/ comments?

similar documents