Autonomous Learning in the Classroom - Giving Students the Reins

Author: Louise Raw

Posted: 14 Nov 2013

Estimated time to read: 4 mins

Teaching is hard. In case keeping 30 kids focussed for 60 minutes wasn’t difficult enough, you also have to complete enough paperwork to bury a school bus. What if there was a way to reduce your workload and improve student engagement and attainment? 

If we give students more control of their learning it gives them more incentive to work. They own their success and, more importantly, their own mistakes. The teacher is always there to support them, but allows ownership of education where possible. 

By making our classrooms more autonomous and giving students more power, we can also free up more time to practise self care and try to build a better work-life balance. If you currently struggle with the sheer volume of work you recieve, this could be for you.

What is autonomous learning?

Autonomous learning is a phrase that continues to crop up in many areas of education, from language learning, increasing motivation, and above all, to ensuring that students take ownership of their work.

Put simply, autonomous  learning puts the power in the students’ hands. This can be deciding what they need to learn more about, or how they want to learn it. The overwhelming result is that students develop greater introspection and critical thinking, as well improving their approach to learning as a whole. 

Stop spoon-feeding

Despite teachers’ best attempts to foster autonomy, it seems that all too many students have become accustomed to being told exactly what to do, and how to do it. This expectation has driven conscientious teachers into creating detailed handouts, powerpoints and other resources, to take the pressure off students.

As thoughtful as this may be, the students’ levels of effort and motivation may diminish from their lack of responsibility. This process can therefore be detrimental to both teachers’ and students’ workloads, but you can take the power back in your classroom.

autonomous learning in the classroom

How to implement autonomy in class

By giving students ownership of their work, you allow them to explore how they work best, to work out problems on their own, and to use their initiative. By focusing on the areas they enjoy the most, it has also been reported that teachers more readily gain the respect of their students(1).

Whilst covering the lifespan of a historical event, a teacher could encourage students to research from their preferred resources, and to present it how they best see fit. The results, to name a few, could include:

  • Focusing on one specific event vs. the entire period
  • Compiling research from internet, books, films, newspapers clippings or memorabilia
  • Creation of a storyboard, quiz, timeline, web page, newspaper article, diary entry or script

By showing students that you trust them, gaining their respect and building their confidence, they can begin to see a point to their work. They take ownership of their work, which increases motivation to persist in learning. This gives them the tools they need to grow into decisive and analytical adults - undoubtedly lifelong skills.

Changing the way we teach

The problem that we face, is that autonomous learning isn’t something that is necessarily taught, but a process that students can be exposed to.

This may be why many students find the leap between GCSE and A-Level (and more so, University) to be difficult, and begs the question, what can be done to ease students into ‘the real world’ from an early age?

Much of our current education system relies on absorbing and remembering information. Exams assess which information our pupils remember, rather than if they understand it. 

Teachers are up against the clock, often with more material than they have time to teach, it's not realistic for them to give students full understanding of a topic. That's why learner autonomy is such an important concept. 

By empowering our students to take learning into their own hands, we encourage them to make learning their own priority instead of just something they do in class. We also find that they fill in their knowledge gaps and gain a better understanding of the topic teachers are covering in class.

Nurturing young minds in this way creates individuals that question rather than accept information. It creates young people who can tackle a problem from multiple angles rather than one, and reflect upon their own learning styles. So why not hand over the reins and see what your students are capable of?

The Impact of Effective Classroom Management PDF Download