Student Autonomy – Facilitate It

Lately I’ve been thinking about learner autonomy. I myself evolved into an autonomous learner. Because I was a gifted athlete, I left home for my freshman year of high school to attend an athletic academy so I could become better at my sport. Along with athletic training at my new school came a new phenomenon: the academy did not issue grades. At first, school seemed like a cake walk and I did not readily apply myself to my studies. That continued only until I was led to realize that being a learner for my own sake had meaning. It took time to pick up the pace scholastically and embrace my own learning, but I had help along the way. My teachers gave me the tools to eventually succeed in my new learning environment.

To be an autonomous student suggests that one is in charge of setting their own learning and learning goals. In my experience, the key ingredient to having that happen was having teachers to facilitate my learning. I had to make the decision to do the work, but I needed a toolkit for help. Autonomous learners are dependent upon teachers creating supportive learning environments that facilitate learning. Students who are successful autonomous learners construct knowledge and not only from responding to classroom situations, but from experiences.

Teachers set the tone for the level of learner autonomy in their classrooms. They should help students set goals and set up the learning environment to support all levels of achievement. Setting classroom norms and teaching students helpful learning strategies is an integral part of the process.

I would like to highlight some examples I have seen lately that may help to initiate raising the level of learner autonomy amongst your students. First, setting subject norms is helpful for students to know and remember how to engage with the information. I follow Mathematics an Integral Part of Happiness on Facebook and the site recently posted norms for math class. Subject norms can be put up in the classroom and are easily referred to by students. Second, arming students with strategies that foster independence is helpful for them to gain confidence in their own thinking and learning. One possibility is to pass out “question chips.” Give each student a finite number of chips (plastic counting chips work well) designating the number of times they can call on a teacher for help. As the number of chips dwindle, they are more apt to think about the task they are doing before raising a hand.

Be proactive and expect your students to be autonomous learners. Facilitate their learning with strategies to enable and extend learning possibilities for them. Learner autonomy doesn’t always come naturally just by being at school. Take it from me, I tried that!


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