Achieving autonomy in learning: a psychological approach

Achieving autonomy in learning: a psychological approach

As technology advances at an increasingly rapid rate, it is becoming all the more important for students to be able to adapt and develop the skills necessary for lifelong learning. They are entering an uncertain workplace, in which their ability to learn and process new information will be highly valued, even necessary to contribute to society. 

As technology advances at an increasingly rapid rate, it is becoming all the more important for students to be able to adapt and develop the skills necessary for lifelong learning. They are entering an uncertain workplace, in which their ability to learn and process new information will be highly valued, even necessary to contribute to society. 

Industrial age education is currently putting economic growth and new opportunities at risk, with an ever increasing skills gap developing as employees are unable to keep up with the rate of technological progress. This could result in G20 economies losing up to US$11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth in the next ten years. 

In this kind of environment, it is important for students to be able to learn autonomously, and to understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Proposed solutions to this problem include promoting experiential learning techniques, shifting the focus from schools and teachers to students and empowering those most vulnerable with the tools they need to learn. 

Developing autonomy is a crucial element to empowering students to take charge of their own learning, but under the current education system, there are limitations to helping students develop these skills. 

In the book, Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, Emeritus Professor David Boud of the University of Technology Sydney describes students as being able to learn autonomously when they no longer require constant presence or intervention of a teacher. 

Boud argues that while many educators agree that an important aim of education is to produce students who can function independently of their teachers and set texts, most are unsure of how to organise courses and lessons to achieve this. He adds that universities are astounded by the inability of students to work independently, yet fail to provide the tools they need to do so.

With this in mind, what can teachers do to support their students in becoming more autonomous learners and better prepare them for both university and the world of work? In this article, we will be exploring which areas educators can turn their attention to, and how to overcome the barriers to developing learning autonomy.

How to help students become more autonomous

The psychology of learning can offer insights into supporting students to become more autonomous in the classroom. While there are barriers when attempting to work with students in this way, particularly when preparing them for exams, just one lesson focused on these skills could have a positive impact on a student’s approach to learning. This will better prepare them both for independent enquiry and for adulthood in the digital age.

The findings of Barbara McCombs, PhD and researcher at the University of Denver, are presented on the American Psychological Association website and offer key tips for developing autonomous and responsible learners, three of which we have summarised below. The complete list is available here

1. Motivate students with ownership

To explain how this works in practice, McCombs tells the story of her PhD research. This involved classroom observations in a difficult school in America, in which many students became involved with gangs and drug use. 

In such a challenging context, one might expect that every teacher would be battling to maintain control of the classroom, but McCombs saw quite the opposite. In some classrooms, behaviour management was a real issue, but in others, students were going about their daily tasks carefully and with purpose.  

McCombs’ findings suggest that in the classrooms where the teacher trusted students to be self-regulated and self-motivated, they invariably rose to the challenge. The teacher was not only freed from keeping his students in control, he was also able to support and engage with his students in more meaningful ways. 

2. Providing students with choice through blended learning environments

The fact that many students are taking less and less responsibility for their learning has been attributed to fewer and fewer choices in direction as they progress from primary to secondary school. 

New technology is helping to combat this, and providing students with the opportunity to become more autonomous. Through offering personalised learning options, technology is engaging students in a way that is not possible in traditional classrooms.

However, when these new technologies are added to the classroom, teachers sometimes feel overwhelmed, and unsure of which programs are adding value to their students’ learning experience and which are a distraction. 

3. Focus on socio-emotional development 

Although socio-emotional issues where previously considered unrelated to student learning, researchers and practitioners are now recognising the influence they have over a student’s ability to learn and progress. That is, in order for students to become autonomous learners, teachers have to take issues such as bullying, isolation, ridicule or alienation due to learning difficulties into account first. 

McCombs suggests the following effective strategies to support students socio-emotional development:

  • Helping students identify and label their feelings.
  • Teaching students to conduct an “inner dialogue” where they use self talk to turn around negative thinking.
  • Learning to see the current situation as part of a bigger process in which it is normal to have some setbacks.
  • Helping students see that with additional effort they can overcome learning difficulties.
  • Encouraging students to find learning partners who can work with them on areas where they are having difficulty.

Overcoming barriers to autonomous learning

Despite the clear benefits of autonomous learning, many teachers feel constrained within the current education system and unable to promote this approach in the classroom. 

Professor David Boud explains that teachers’ perceptions of what is possible in the classroom are a considerable barrier to implementing new approaches. Their concerns are centred on how to help learners become more autonomous within the current assessment system, and that their institutions are not set up for divergence from the curriculum. 

While it is important to note that systems are making it difficult for students to explore their own pathways and use their experiences to develop new ways of thinking, there is a necessity for students to understand how to become more autonomous. Perhaps then it is more a question of teachers being willing to take risks for the long-term benefit of students, which is at the heart of what drives every great teacher.

Neap has been active in the education community for over 30 years, with an established reputation for producing high quality materials for VCE and HSC. We are driven to deliver assessment materials that teachers can trust for their accuracy, level of complexity and adherence to the curriculum.

Sophia is an experienced writer and English teacher with a Masters in Education from the University of Cambridge. She enjoys writing about learning and passing on knowledge to others.