Autonomy and Language Learning. Investigating Learners' and Teachers' Perceptions of and Beliefs about Autonomy and their Possible Impact on Learner Behavior

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2017 11 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies




1. Introduction

2. Review of the Literature
Learner Beliefs: Concepts and Types
Beliefs and Culture
Learner Autonomy: Characteristics and Responsibilities

3. Research Methodology
Context and Participants
Data Collection and Analysis

4. Results
Perceptions of and Beliefs about Autonomy
Needs for the Implementation of Autonomy
Constraints Obstructing the Implementation of Autonomy

5. Discussion and Implications

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


In view of the fact that language learners hold different beliefs about language learning, this paper aims to explore teachers' and learners' perceptions of and beliefs about learner autonomy. It also sheds light on the extent to which their beliefs are congruent with their behaviour in the classroom, referring to some research findings which provide insight into the impact of learner beliefs on learner behavior, and how they may promote or obstruct learner autonomy. A series of focus group discussions were conducted with a number of students and teachers, randomly selected from the English Department at the College of Education, at the University of Misrata, Libya. The data revealed that there are two types of beliefs. The teachers and most of the students perceived autonomy as learner responsibility and engagement in the decision-making process. They justified the absence of autonomy from their classrooms as a consequence of many obstacles and needs of learners, which could clearly affect their behaviour and classroom practices. The other some of learners expressed their negative attitudes toward autonomy and believed in the dominant role of teacher who is perceived as the only maker of decisions. This type of learner has demonstrated a strong impact of learner beliefs on learner behaviour, as this could be undoubtedly extracted from the learners' responses. According to this variation of beliefs, teachers should take into account the different types of learner, and interpret them into teaching strategies. Besides, due to the fact that the students at our department are assumed to be qualified as English language teachers after graduation, it is essential to gradually change those negative beliefs about autonomy, because their teaching strategies in the future will be influenced by their beliefs and, hence, they are not likely to lead to an autonomous learning environment.

1. Introduction

Learner beliefs have a huge influence on learner behavior and they can lead to or obstruct learner autonomy. “All behaviour is governed by beliefs and experience. It follows that autonomous language learning behaviour may be supported by a particular set of beliefs or behaviours. The beliefs learners hold may either contribute to or impede the development of their potential for autonomy” (Cotterall 1995: 196). A similar view is indicated by White (1999: 443-444) who argues that "expectations, which are developed prior to experience with a particular process, context or role, are also shaped by beliefs. Such expectations may influence how individuals react, respond and experience a new environment". Since the nature of the Libyan learning context seems to some extent traditional and dominated by the teacher (see Orafi and Borg, 2009; Ellabiedi, 2011), students are not usually offered the opportunity to share with their opinions or make decisions about language learning. While these studies discussed a secondary school context in Libya, some students who come to college seem to hold strong beliefs about traditional learning and teaching, which conflict with the mere principles of learner autonomy. Moreover; seeing the teacher as the figure authority in the classroom is more likely to be common among our students, and this does not contribute to leaner autonomy. Therefore, a research study was desired to address the range of beliefs students and teachers might hold about autonomy, and to explore the learners' readiness for autonomy. This paper, also, aims to discuss some of the learners' needs that, if met, may promote autonomy, and to highlight some obstacles which may hinder or obstruct any opportunity of its implementation in the classroom. The purpose and aim of this study can be drawn from what Cotterall (1999) points out:

Learners approach the task of learning another language in different ways, according to various individual characteristics. One of these characteristics is the beliefs they hold about language learning. Investigation of the beliefs which inform different behaviours in the language classroom is useful in making teachers aware of different learner types that need to be accommodated (Cotterall, 1999).

Research showed that learners hold different beliefs about language learning (Horwitz, 1999; Horwitz, 1987; Wenden, 1986; Benson and Lor, 1999; Cotterall, 1999, Yang, 1999). There is evidence that some learners believe that they are responsible to do most of the work in the classroom, and to brainstorm their own strategies in the learning process if certain needs are met. A series of interviews were conducted by Benson and Lor (1999) with undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong to evaluate the students' responses about independent learning. The data shows three major headings gathered from the interviews: work, method and motivation. These three broad categories of beliefs can be clearly stated as: "you need to work hard", "you need to have a good method of learning'' and "you need to have a source of motivation''. Above all, two different beliefs were observed from the interviews. The first extract suggests that the leaner should collect and absorb grammatical concepts, word patterns, and so on, in order to learn. They believed that they should have a good basis of the language before they use it. The second extract conceptualizes language learning as an environment which the learner must be surrounded with in order to learn the language in use. In addition, a study made by Yang (1999) revealed that students held some conflicting beliefs which were reflected in their use of strategies. These findings demonstrate that learners carry variable beliefs about language learning which definitely affect the strategies they use to learn the language.

2. Review of the Literature

Learner Beliefs: Concepts and Types

Learner beliefs are what knowledge and background might learners hold about learning or language learning. According to Wenden (1999), this term (learner beliefs) can be used interchangeably with metacognitive knowledge which is described as what learners know about learning. It is acquired from the environment, maybe instinctively by observation or imitation, or intentionally by listening to teachers, parents or classmates and getting instructions and guidance, about how to learn, from them. However; although learner beliefs and metacognitive knowledge have a quite similar meaning, and learner beliefs, at the same time, are considered as features of metacognitive knowledge, they are still distinct in that beliefs are more persistently held by learners while metacognitive knowledge is more changeable over time. What Wenden indicates concerning learner beliefs and metacognitive knowledge clearly demonstrates that both of them can affect the task (the activity) which includes pre-task engagement and discussion in a way that learners can call upon their previous knowledge and beliefs to deal with a particular task and any challenges it might pose and, thus, to decide what approach could be suitable for the task.

Language learners have a variety of beliefs about a range of elements which can affect their behaviour. The classification made by Richards and Lockhart (1996) organizes learner beliefs into eight categories: 1) Beliefs about the nature of English. 2) Beliefs about speakers of English. 3) Beliefs about the four language skills. 4) Beliefs about teaching. 5) Beliefs about language learning. 6) Beliefs about appropriate classroom behaviour. 7) Beliefs about themselves. 8) Beliefs about their goals. For instance, as for beliefs about the nature of English, learners who believe that learning a foreign language is an easy thing might do better than those who regard it as difficult. As for learner beliefs about language learning, for example, it indicates that learners who believe that English is a communicative language will be more interactive and involved in more group work and participation in the classroom. Whereas; those who believe that English is just like any other school subject, will behave according to this belief and, therefore, they are more likely to focus only on what might be included in the exam, and they will behave less actively and autonomously in the classroom.

Beliefs and Culture

The culture of learners can also have a huge impact on their beliefs. For example, some students believe in interaction in the classroom and consider it as an effective factor which leads to successful learning, while others from different cultures believe in student silence and teacher talk. Cortazzi and Jin (1996, cited in Cotterall 1999) explain the term "culture of learning" as something which describes how values and beliefs about what comprises good learning affect learners' behaviour in the language classroom, and emphasize the importance of examining the beliefs and expectations which learners and teachers hold. For instance, some teachers may follow a certain strategy in the classroom which might seem unexpected and strange for the learners, consequently, there may be unobserved gaps between teachers and learners or between learners themselves. Wen and Johnson's (1997, cited in Cotterall 1999) share the same view as Cortazzi and Jin in that there is a huge impact of belief variables on strategy variables, supporting the view that learners' previous beliefs and expectations about language learning should be taken into consideration by teachers and materials' writers. Both views show the importance of learners’ pre-existing beliefs and how they strongly influence the way how teaching and learning take place.



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Title: Autonomy and Language Learning. Investigating Learners' and Teachers' Perceptions of and Beliefs about Autonomy and their Possible Impact on Learner Behavior