Soc Trang Teachers' Training College, Soc Trang, Vietnam
This research examined three issues: what Vietnamese students think about learning autonomy, the similarities and differences of learning autonomy in Vietnam and England, and how learning autonomy affects their learning progress. Three postgraduate students from different English background and previous training styles participated in this research. They were provided a time table to describe what they did for learning autonomy in two places: Vietnam and England. After that, the interviews were recorded for analysing and comparing. The finding shows that all of the participants have learning autonomy, but its level is strong affected by teachers’ roles and teaching method. Although they proved that they are autonomous learners, their learning autonomy strategy differ from each other.
Keywords: Belief, learning autonomy, learning progress
Learning autonomy (LA) is rather important as it can reflect the learners’ images partially. Both LA and communicative language teaching (CLT) have the same target which is the learner- centeredness (Benson, 2001: 17). Basing on autonomy learning strategy, the standards of ‘a good learner’ can be made (Hedge, 2000: 77). Benson (2001: 48) considers autonomy as the capacity to make decisions at successive stages of the learning process. The autonomous learner is able to direct the course of his own learning by making all the significant decisions concerning its management organization.
Therefore, I question if Vietnamese students at University of Birmingham are ‘good learners’ in term of LA. In addition, it seems that there are different beliefs about LA between teachers and students. From the teachers’ perspective, autonomy is primarily concerned with institutional and classroom learning arrangements within established curricula whereas from the learners’ perspective, autonomy is primarily concerned with learning, and its relationship to their lives beyond the classroom (Benson, 2008: 15). This encourages me to investigate the beliefs of Vietnamese students towards LA. Moreover, there is a stereotype that, in general, Asian students including the Vietnamese are relatively dependent on the teachers (Palfreyman, 2003: 24). Besides, it is widely believed that because Asian students are dependent, they find it hard to adapt with post education which requires much more LA. Hence, hopefully this research can provide a new look at Asian students by investigating the Vietnamese students in Birmingham; especially when they have just changed the learning environment from Vietnam to Birmingham for a while.
This paper is going to analyse their beliefs of LA, comparison of LA in the two countries and the influence of LA on their learning progress.
1. RESEARCH QUESTIONS
1.1 What are the beliefs about learning autonomy?
1.2 What are the similarities and differences of learning autonomy in VN and the UK?
1.3 How does learning autonomy affect the learning progress?
There are three participants in this research. All of them are female students at the University of Birmingham. Their ages are from 25 to 30 years old. They are post graduate students, but their subjects are different. Participant A majors in Heritage Management, Master level. Participant B is doing a doctorate course in International Study. Participant C is following a Masters degree in Economic Rural Development. I chose female participants because I think female students may have more learning autonomy than males, and that would benefit my research. In addition, the English background of these participants is also different from each other. A has the lowest level of English as she is in the pre-sessional course. B’s English is the best among three because she finished the Masters programme last year whereas C has just finished two terms of the academic year.
Another point I expect from these participants’ reflections is that their hometowns are in different regions which may influence their learning autonomy styles due to different living conditions. A’s hometown is in Ben Tre, a rural and agricultural province while B was born and grew up in Ho Chi Minh city, the second largest and the most civilized in Vietnam. C lives in Tien Giang province, next to Ho Chi Minh City. From the background of these participants, hopefully I can understand and analyse the learning autonomy more reflectively.
3. LITERATURE REVIEW
The concept of autonomy first entered the field of language teaching through the Council of Europe’s Modern Language Project, established in 1971 (Benson, 2001: 8). It was defined as ‘the capacity to take charge of one’s own learning’, being seen as natural product of the practice of self-directed learning, or learning in which the objectives, progress and evaluation are determined by the learner themselves. Later, CRAPEL (Centre de Recherches et d’Applications en Langues) developed to adult self-directed learning. The key innovations for self-directed language learning were the self-access resource centre and the idea of learner training or the idea of individualisation because it aims initially to provide adults with opportunities for lifelong learning. However, Benson (2001: 11) finds that individualisation and autonomy overlapped in as both were concerned with meeting the needs of individual learners. Self- directed learning was in a sense of individualisation, in which learners determined their own needs and acted upon them. Individualisation took the form of programmed learning- a mode of instruction in which learners were expected to work their way, at their own pace, through materials prepared by teachers.
Beside the four strategies including cognitive, meta-cognitive, communication and social-affective strategies that suggested by Hedge (2000: 77-79), Benson (2001: 111) also provides six approaches to the development of autonomy- foster:
+ Resource-based: independent interaction with learning materials
+ Technology-based: independent interaction with educational technologies.
+ Learner-based: direct production of behavioural and psychological changes in learner.
+ Classroom-based: learner control over the planning and evaluation of classroom learning.
+ Curriculum based: extended the idea of learner control to the curriculum as a whole.
+ Teacher-based: the role of the teacher and teacher education in the practice of fostering autonomy among learners.
In order to select the right choice for autonomy, it depends on how learners define the term ‘learning autonomy’. Benson (2008: 26) suggests that in learners’ perspectives, LA means to have the answer for what they can do to help themselves move toward the personal goal. In other words, learners are typically more concerned with learning what they need to learn for the achievement of these life goals, than they are with learning to be autonomous. He sees that learners’ perspectives on autonomy are always contextualized within particular experiences of learning and life. In his research, the Cantonese learners failed to complete the tasks, skipped homework, and did not take the advantage of the practice outside of the class. However, there was no relationship between LA and their behaviour. The author thinks that they were independent learners because they decided what was more important for them. They were adult learners who had current jobs, so they did not complete the task because of lacking time. They skipped homework to save time for investing on other tasks which were helpful to them. Similarly, Ariza (2008: 47- 73) claims that students conceived autonomy as an opportunity to find a key to learning beyond the classroom. They have independent action for decision making.
Therefore, Benson admits that autonomy manifestation will vary according to culture contexts (2000: 55). Regarding to LA of Asian students, Palfreyman and Smith (2003) finds the difference between LA styles among Asian students. In their research, the Korean student chose communication and social effective strategies for her LA in the USA because she had not had many chances to speak to native speakers, and she wanted to improve pronunciation. In contrast, the Hong Kong student who speaks English as a second language at home and school chose intellectual privacy to develop her study when she was in Texas. She needed privacy to access learning facilities. Both of the participants in that research were successful in their learning because they knew exactly what they needed and how they directed themselves to achieve their personal goals. Contributing to Asian students’ LA, Kubanyiova (2004: 13, 14) claims that Thai students were autonomous as ‘it is the students who search, adapt and create’.
With the purpose to compare the autonomy between Asian and European learners, Gieve and Clark (2005: 261- 276) researched a group of Chinese students studying at some British universities. They find that ‘the Chinese students expressed at least as much appreciation of the benefits of autonomous study as did the European students, and claimed to make equally good use of the opportunity’. In an agreement with him, Littlewood (2000) learns that Asian students are willing to question teachers when necessary to help their understanding. They are not obedient students as they have been assumed.
From all of the researches above, I would like to investigate Vietnamese students’ perspectives towards LA, what are their LA strategies and how LA links to their learning progress.
In order to collect the data for this research, I designed the time table (see appendix 1) to understand their learning autonomy activity and sent to them by email. In that time table, the participants were asked to fill in what activities they had done or were doing for learning autonomy including what time, how long, how often and with whom for each activity during one week. They would answer the same questions in two learning environment: Vietnam and England. In addition, in that time table they would explain the reasons why there were any differences of learning autonomy between the two learning environment.
After receiving their time tables, I read them carefully, and started to interview. Every interview lasted around 40 minutes. The interview based on the prepared questions (see appendix 2), and a variety of other follow up questions focusing on the time table so that I could understand their beliefs about learning autonomy and its role in the learning progress. Two interviews were face-to-face, but the other one was conducted on the phone because her house was off campus. One among three interviews was done in Vietnamese for participant A to be comfortable, self-confident and to express herself accurately. The other two wished to speak in English. After that, three interviews were listened several times and compared with each other in terms of learning autonomy styles, beliefs and activities. Finally, the interview in Vietnamese was translated into English and the transcripts for all were made. During the process of analysing data, I compared what I found from the participant with my experience where relevant because I am also a Vietnamese learner.
There were some advantages in this method of collecting data. Firstly, filling in the time table was like writing a type of diary, so the participants felt familiar and relaxed because they had time to recall what they had done in Vietnam. Secondly, the topic was about the participants’ learning, so they could express themselves more easily. However, at the beginning, two were participants found it shy to share about their learning autonomy as they were afraid that they could be judged as not very studious. After trying to convince them that the aim of this research was wishing to understand more about Vietnamese students’ learning autonomy, they were willing to help me. Moreover, during the collecting data process, some technical problems happened such as the voice recording mp3 ran out of battery without any signal, so we had to do it again or the quality of the phone network was not strong enough to start the interview which resulted in delaying it into the following day.
5.1 Beliefs about learning autonomy
Participant A and B agreed that LA was independence and self- directed learning, but A also confirmed that interest and willingness contributed to LA: ‘It means learning independently. No one forces to learn and almost for my interests and willing’. Participant C understood that LA was a process, the responsibility and making choices and decisions: ‘Learning autonomy is the process in which students are the key figures responsible for the decisions concerning with ones’ learning and all the implementations of these decisions’. Also, she said LA reflected learners’ motivation and learning effectiveness. From their definitions, they had different LA styles and different beliefs about teacher’s role.
According to A, a teacher is a controller and a facilitator. For her, a teacher must control the class to remain the order and discipline, but he should let students have some freedom to discuss and develop critical thinking: ‘The teacher can control the class, but can’t force the students to obey everything. Although he needs to control in some situations to control and remain order, he must let time for students to discuss freely to develop creativity’. In contrast, B thinks that a teacher is a counsellor to provide students materials, guidance and instructions: ‘Explain what I don’t understand. Let me know good books. Tell me her/his experiences in doing things more effectively’. C seems to combine those two ideas together: ‘I prefer that the teacher is the organizer, co-operator, and supporter to the student’s learning process. As being so, the teacher can enhance the efficiency of the student’s learning remarkably. In the class, the teacher organizes the learning content and activities, working with students in these activities and helping students when they need. That’s the way learning process becomes interesting and effective’.
Although all of the participants agreed that learning autonomy refer to the activities to enhance study skills and they did those activities both inside and outside the classroom, their LA strategies were different. Participants A and B shared the same view as they were doing four strategies at the same time such as cognitive, meta-cognitive, communication and socio-affective strategies. Discussing with teachers, friends, asking questions, contributing to the lessons, using self- directed facilities such as books, internet, attending social event with native speakers were what they chose for their LA. However, C only focused on the first two strategies, especially critical thinking. She planned her learning; self- evaluated her learning and worked with the lecture by herself. In this point, she and B were alike because they preferred to be silent in classes, only listened and took notes. Depending on teachers’ personalities, she would email her questions to teachers whereas A felt interested in raising hand to talk directly in the classroom. While A and B would like to participate in local events to meet more native speakers, C wanted to do private activities.
Although they had a slight difference in LA styles, they were identical in dealing with teachers’ feedback. A said: ‘If teachers give me the answers, it seems so simple, not impressive, and easy to forget. But if I do it by myself, I can memorise it’. All of them wanted to work with feedback by themselves as long as it had enough clues or guidance for them to improve their work. The appropriate feedback would not only guide them to the right direction, but also would encourage them to investigate something new while revising the same work.
Referring to self-learning facilities, they liked books and internet the best, but they preferred books rather than internet, which was opposite to my assumption. They explained: ‘Though it’s very convenient for me to access the internet sources, books are more helpful and effective than the others. I could read it again, understand thoroughly what are being discussed and what can be useful to me’.
5.2 The differences of learning autonomy in Vietnam and England
The result shows that the level of LA in England is higher than that in Vietnam. In England, the participants do a wider range of activities. In other words, in Vietnam, if they use all of LA strategies in England, they had two, cognitive and metacognitive strategies, which were more about repetition, memorization and doing homework for the next class: ‘After school, I usually stayed at home to study by myself. I often had a break for 1 or 2 hours having meals or watching televisions with my family. Then I went to my studying corner to do all my homework, preparing for tomorrow class, and do some extra exercises on maths or English’. Besides, they thought they were more active than that in Vietnam because it was them who managed the time and chose what they wanted to do: ‘I seem to have more free time now compared to me in the past. However, the activeness I have now is much greater than that in the past. I can organize my time and my work properly and flexibly while in the past my time and work depended greatly on my school timetable. I also have to set up my work (what to do, what to read, how to do it, etc.) myself as well. That’s why I think I am more active now than I was in the past’.
5.3 The influence of learning autonomy on learning progress
The finding shows the important roles of LA. A and B said that LA increased study results while C admitted that it reflected learning motivation:
A: ‘The more you have learning autonomy, the higher result you can get. If you ignore learning autonomy just a little bit, the result will decrease at once. For example, first I spent time equally on practising 4 skills, but later I reduced the time for reading a bit, then the final score for reading also reduced’.
B: ‘Good learning autonomy will increase the learning result’.
C: ‘To my opinion, learning autonomy plays a crucial part in the learning process. It reflects the intrinsic motivation and the learning effectiveness of a student. It also helps a student assess one’s learning outcomes and improve one’s knowledge and skills according to one’s needs. As a result, it might be justifiable to say that learning autonomy affects greatly learning progress’.
From the result, it is likely to say that it is the teacher who determines students’ autonomy. The more appropriate beliefs of Vietnamese students towards LA have just been built since the time they came to England where CLT, learner- centeredness teaching method, is being applied to teach them. They said LA meant independence, self-learning, responsibility, willingness to learn and the choice of what they learn. It seems that their teachers who use CLT have changed their learning attitudes and strategies because they are aware of two among the most important concepts in CLT: setting goals and objectives and self- monitoring (Hedge, 2000: 19). In opposition, when they were in VN, their LA was limited in having few chances to speak in the class, and doing homework. In my experience as a learner and a teacher, I think it was due to the teaching method and how students were educated to interpret the teacher’s image. I am totally in agreement with the participants that when we were in VN, the cognitive strategy we used was only memorization and repetition due to the grammar translation method and considering the teacher as the controller. Yet, when we are taught with CLT and the role of the teacher has changed, we start to be familiar with another angle of cognitive strategy: working on tasks and materials in different ways (Hedge, 2000: 77).
It is relatively interesting because how the participants looked at the teachers rather matches what CLT expects. Among the 9 roles that Hedge (2000, 28) listed from Kavanras’s work (1995), the roles as a facilitator of learning and source of expertise were the most recommended, and that was what the participants expected from their teachers. Because of the change in teachers’ roles, their LA was changes as well, which resulted in they wished to work on the feedback independently, instead of giving them the right answers. Therefore, in her article, Kubanyiova (2004) argued that teachers should ‘leave the students alone’ for them to create, design and learn, and teachers should not do what the students can do.
Not only CLT changes the teachers’ roles, it also affects learners’ roles and responsibilities as well. Their improved LA in England makes them indentify learning needs, contributing to the syllabus and encouraging them to learn more effectively (Hedge, 2000: 34). Those important factors are what CLT aims at, and we can see that through task based approach. The task based approach does help students to develop learning autonomy as every task has a target and it is the students who find the solution to achieve that goal by contributing, cooperating and encouraging each other whereas in Vietnam everything was done by the teachers due to the structure- based approach, the grammar translation method and the traditional role of a teacher.
Another fantastic point that CLT brings for LA is motivation because students have the freedom to respond, reflect, self evaluate their learning process, decide and choose what they want to learn or what they are interested in. All of the participants admitted that LA affected strongly their learning result. Their scores would fluctuate with level of LA, so LA must be remained by motivation or the willingness to study. Motivation inspires learners with more effective self learning because it is connected to the discipline. Therefore, if a learner lacks motivation, he may lack discipline for LA, but with the application of CLT, which targets at considering students in context learning, he can develop his LA, resulting in better study skills (Hedge, 2000: 343). With the help of CLT, I am in agreement that Vietnamese students as autonomous as European students as the previous research suggested.
In conclusion, learning autonomy plays an important role in the teaching and learning process. It creates the mutual relationship between teaching and learning. The appropriate teaching method can train students to have learning autonomy. Then, after students have learning autonomy, they can share some burdens with teachers as Kubanyinova (2004) writes: ‘I no longer spend nights searching for suitable texts for class debates. Neither do I worry if the questionnaires are exactly relevant to their students’ lives. It’s the students who search, adapt and create. Not to just my time though, but to make the most of theirs ’. With that belief, although there is a debate about whether CLT has dead, I prefer to adapt and use CLT in my classrooms. Personally, learning autonomy is very important from primary to higher education. Therefore, it should be trained from the early age so that its skills can be developed through time, so I think the beginning point should be teaching students to discover as Holec (1980: 35) says: ‘The basic methodology for learner training should be that of discovery. The learner should discover, with or without the help of learners or teachers, the knowledge and the techniques which he needs as he tries to find the answers to the problems with which he is faced. By proceeding largely by trial and error he trains himself progressively.’
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