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One of the biggest challenges educators and organizations face is how to keep their learners engaged — especially when there are distractions and demands coming from all sides. In this environment, the best past forward is one where students take control of their own learning. 

This is what results from learner autonomy, a key learning concept in which learners are provided with the skills and tools they need to take charge and hit their goals.

Here’s what you need to know about learner autonomy, including the top benefits of autonomous learning and how to promote it within your organization.

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What is learner autonomy?

Learner autonomy is a concept that describes the ability of learners to take control of their own learning journey. The theory is that by giving learners the freedom to take responsibility for their learning — including what they learn and how they learn it — you’ll drive up their engagement and independence.

The development of learner autonomy is seen as a cooperative learning process where learners are guided by educators, instead of directed or taught.

  1. Key elements of learner autonomy

For learners to be fully autonomous, they need to be equipped with a range of skills to help them take responsibility for their learning. 

Here are some of the key elements of autonomous learning:

  • Learners can identify and set their own learning goals
  • Learners plan and perform their learning activities
  • Learners are able to reflect on their learning and evaluate their progress
  • Learners understand the purpose of learning
  • Learners understand their own learning processes
  • Learners can apply a range of learning strategies in different contexts

Educators can help learners to develop these skills through training and guidance, including setting tasks and assignments that encourage autonomous learning.

Non-autonomous learnersAutonomous learners
Educators tell learners each step they need to take to reach a goal, how to do it, and when they need to do each one.Learners decide for themselves what steps they need to take to reach their goal and when and how they do each step.

  1. Examples of learner autonomy

The concept of learner autonomy was first developed in foreign language learning and teaching. While it has now been expanded across a range of different learning contexts, it’s still a key element in most language teaching today.

An autonomous learner will set their own learning goals, choose their own tasks and exercises, and seek out opportunities to apply their knowledge outside the classroom.

What does that look like in practice?

Let’s say you’re learning Italian at a language school in Milan.

In the classroom, your teacher might set specific tasks to help promote autonomous learning, including:

  • Asking you to reflect on your goals so you can set your own aims for the learning process
  • Teaching you how to use an Italian dictionary so you can look up words yourself
  • Giving you a choice of homework tasks so you can choose the exercises that will be most beneficial to your learning needs and goals
  • Separating you into smaller groups so you can have group discussions about topics of your choosing
  • Encouraging you to join a language exchange group so you can interact with other people and learn outside the classroom

These are all examples of teaching that’s tailored to promoting learner autonomy. The educator is equipping learners with the skills they need to learn autonomously and setting tasks that encourage autonomous learning both in the classroom and outside.

Benefits of autonomous learning

Autonomous learning can open up a wide range of opportunities and benefits for learners, helping to maximize learner engagement with minimum educator input. 

Here are the top five benefits that come with promoting learner autonomy.

  1. Empower learners

Autonomous learning encourages self-directed growth by empowering learners to take control of their learning. Learners can tailor their learning experience to their needs and preferences — including adapting to their individual learning styles and areas of interest. 

By giving learners the freedom to choose how they want to learn, they have the chance to drive their own growth and progress. 

  1. Increase engagement

The key difference between autonomous learning and traditional teacher-led learning is that it’s a more dynamic learning experience. Autonomous learners take more responsibility for their learning, so they’re able to be more efficient and flexible as they’re not reliant on a teacher or instructor. The result? More engaged and enthusiastic learners who are excited to learn.

  1. Develop problem-solving skills

Learner autonomy is not only key for increasing learner engagement — it can also help to boost critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Learners are given the space to shape their own learning path, while also being asked to reflect on their progress and the goals they’re working towards throughout the process. These actions all draw on learners’ ability to problem-solve, which is a crucial skill for students and employees alike.

  1. Improve self-esteem

When you equip learners with the skills they need to take charge of their learning, you can increase their confidence and self-esteem too. Rather than being spoon-fed learning content, learners are able to manage their own learning experience. When they see the progress they make, they get the benefit of a major confidence boost.

  1. Offer more variety

In learning environments that promote learner autonomy, educators offer learners a wider range of choices to help them self-direct their learning. 

By making the learning process cooperative, learners can create their own individualized learning path rather than simply following the instruction of their teacher or trainer. This means there are more opportunities for learners to take part in a wider range of activities and tasks, or even make up their own along the way.

10 tips for promoting learner autonomy

Whether you’re onboarding new clients, training employees, or teaching students, promoting learner autonomy is a hugely worthwhile and beneficial goal. 

Here are 10 tips to promote learner autonomy to increase the engagement and enthusiasm of your learners.

  1. Ask learners what they want to learn

There is one very simple strategy you can use to promote autonomous learning: ask learners what they want to learn about.

Ask for input on the topics they would be most interested in learning, what they would find most helpful, or what they think is most important to learn, and use their answers to shape your lessons and learning modules.

There are a range of ways you can collect learner feedback, including:

  • Surveys
  • Polls
  • Group discussions
  • Break out room discussions
  • Online forums
  • One-to-one chats

By giving learners the chance to have their input on how their time is spent, you can encourage more engagement from learners and create a more dynamic learning experience.

  1. Provide multiple options for learners

Promoting learner autonomy can be as simple as giving learners multiple options for every task, activity, and assessment.

Educators can give learners a choice for what they want to do instead of simply assigning one thing for everyone. For example, when it comes to assessments, rather than simply assigning a multiple-choice quiz, offer learners a range of different assessment options such as answering an essay question, researching and presenting a case study or real-world example, or participating in a debate, for example.

Providing learners with multiple options can help them to find the activity they’re most interested in and play to their strengths, so they can show off what they’ve learnt to the best of their abilities.

What’s more, it can help learners to apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios and contexts rather than being purely theoretical. 

  1. Supply a wide range of resources

To help learners continue their learning outside of the formal training or teaching modules you’re offering, try to provide a wide range of extra resources.

Share them via your LMS or internal communications channel and encourage learners to take a look in their own time.

Possible extra resources could include:

  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Books and eBooks
  • Forums and discussions
  • Apps
  • Online games

You don’t need to include these resources as part of your core learning program. Instead, empower learners to engage with the content outside of the classroom setting.

This can help spark their imagination, promote critical thinking, and open up new opportunities for learners to take control of their learning experience.

  1. Try the ‘can do’ exercise

A simple goal-setting task that can kickstart autonomous learning is writing ‘can do’ statements. Use ‘can do’ statements to encourage learners to think about their learning path and their learning goals.

There are 3 parts to the ‘can do’ exercise:

  • Can do: Learners write down what they’re able to do already, including what they’ve learnt from previous lessons and self-study
  • Need to do: Learners highlight what they still need to learn in order to reach their goals, including specific learning concepts and tasks
  • Want to learn: Learners look ahead at what they still want to learn and what they’d be interested in exploring more

Try using this exercise at the start of live training sessions or via an online discussion space. Then ask learners for their feedback on what they thought and if they found it helpful.

  1. Suggest learners keep a journal

A big part of autonomous learning is encouraging self-reflection, but that can often be easier said than done.

Journaling is a really effective tool to encourage reflective thinking and it can be completed at any time, so learners can fit the activity into their busy schedules. Encourage learners to keep a journal through the learning process and reflect on what they hope to achieve, how they feel about their progress, and what they still want to learn.

Journaling is most effective when it’s done regularly so remind learners to keep their journal going through the duration of their education program.

  1. Build an online learning community

Social learning is a hugely effective way to engage learners and promote autonomous learning outside the classroom.

Build an online learning community for your learners where they can meet and interact with one another to encourage social learning activities, including: 

  • Discussing ideas and key concepts
  • Asking and answering questions
  • Sharing resources
  • Providing peer-to-peer feedback
  • Supporting each other’s learning progress

These activities can all help to encourage autonomous learning by making the learning process more interactive, fun, and sociable for learners.

Need help getting your learning community started? Download The Complete Toolkit To Creating A Learning Community.

  1. Offer multimedia learning content

When you’re creating learning content, think about providing multiple forms of instruction and content to give learners a wider choice of how they learn.

Multimedia content can help to make the learning process more interesting while also catering to different learners’ needs and preferences.

For example, rather than the usual instructor-led format or textbooks, training content could be presented as:

  • Video lessons
  • Animations
  • Diagrams and infographics
  • Audio content or podcasts
  • Micro-learning videos with quizzes

Learners can choose the type of content they want to learn from to help them find the most effective and compelling learning path for them.

  1. Outline helpful tools

Promoting learner autonomy also includes helping learners understand how to use the tools available to them.

Educators should take the time to introduce learners to key learning tools like topic-specific dictionaries, resource hubs, and databases where they can learn more and take part in self-directed learning. 

If your organization has a resource library, show learners how to access and navigate it.

Though it might sound simple, many educators skip this step and leave learners to figure it out for themselves. Help learners to help themselves by outlining the tools that will be most useful to them.

  1. Encourage learners to take risks

The traditional education model often imparts the lessons that achievements are important and mistakes are bad. 

In fact, mistakes are normal. And they’re an inevitable part of life and learning.

To help learners gain more confidence and take control of their learning experience, remind them that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process. 

There are a range of ways you can encourage learners to take risks during the learning process, including:

  • Sharing mistakes: Promote a culture of positive risk-taking by sharing stories of people who tried and failed before. Sharing mistakes helps learners see that it’s not something they need to be afraid of and mistakes can actually be a good thing.
  • Introduce educated guesses: Many learners fear getting the answer wrong, so they don’t speak up at all. If you can encourage educated guesses — and highlight the benefits of them — you can create a more open and encouraging learning space.
  • Celebrating perseverance: Highlight learners who persevere by trying a different strategy to solve a problem, reworking their assignment, and accepting negative feedback. Celebrating people who stick with the learning process even when they’re struggling can encourage more students to take risks.
  • Allowing retakes: Assessments should be geared towards helping learners think through and apply what they’ve learnt, rather than trying to get top grades. By allowing retakes, you can help learners to appreciate the whole learning process, not just the certificate at the end.

If you can create a supportive learning environment where learners are encouraged to take risks, and to try and fail, they’ll gain confidence that allows them to be more autonomous in their learning.

  1. Create opportunities for learners to be leaders

If you have a cohort-based learning environment — like live or group sessions — you can also open up opportunities for learners to lead the group to help increase learner autonomy.

For example, learners could try exercises like:

  • Leading group discussions 
  • Moderating debates
  • Presenting case studies
  • Setting the lesson content
  • Leading break-out groups

By putting control in the hands of individual learners, you can promote autonomous learning while also helping to improve learners’ confidence and public-speaking.

Use learner autonomy to level up your education program

The concept of learner autonomy can be used across a wide range of learning environments to engage learners, encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and increase learner confidence and self-awareness. Try these tips to promote autonomous learning in your organization and see the results from learners and educators alike.

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