Fostering Self-directed Learning through Guided Tasks and Learner Reflection

Chris King, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand

King, C. (2011). Fostering self-directed learning through guided tasks and learner reflection. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(4), 257-267.

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This article reports on the potential impact on learner attitudes and behaviour from the use of a set of guided self-directed learning worksheets. The study consisted of a before and after questionnaire with a portfolio of activities that became progressively less teacher directed. Each activity had a section for learner reflection. Final reflective comments were captured at the end of the portfolio. Data collected from both questionnaires and from reflective comments was analysed using a grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). While it is recognised that this study is a classroom-based research project with a small number of participants, and that the data collected is learner-reported, the findings are nevertheless important and suggest that such portfolios can be successful both in promoting the use of self-access centres and in fostering learner autonomy.

Keywords: self-access centres, learner autonomy, portfolios, success story

The importance of fostering learner autonomy is widely accepted. Despite wide and varied definitions, learner autonomy is recognised as having a central place in the language-learning journey (Benson, 2001; Nunan, 1996) because, essentially, it allows learners to take charge of their own learning (Chan, 2001; Little, 2007). Self-access centres have an important role to play in the development of learner autonomy and are seen to be “an increasingly important aspect of language learning provision” (Gardner & Miller, 2010, p. 161). Learners who make use of self-access centres have the potential to become able to take responsibility for their own learning, to develop effective strategies for independent learning and to devise their own programs of study (Littlewood, 1997; Sheerin 1997).

Induction to self-access centres is often fundamental to success. While the benefits that self-access centres can provide are widely recognised, Sheerin (1997) is among many researchers who note that the “mere existence of self access centres does not ensure independent learning” (p. 64). Likewise, it is recognised that ongoing learner training and development that provides effective support for learners, be it from a classroom teacher or a learning advisor, is critical to the success of self-access learning (Sturtridge, 1997). Little (2002) states that “it is usually necessary to provide learners with some kind of advisory service” (p. 2). This notion is supported by Gardner and Miller, who note the trend towards an increased provision of advisory services in self-access centres (2010).

The Present Study

This study reported on here was born from a belief in the value of fostering and supporting learner autonomy, and the in value that self-access centres can have both in developing autonomous learning and in supporting language development. At the inception of this project, there seemed however to be a perfect storm of constraints. A combination of one-off and ongoing issues such as department budgets, teaching load and class numbers meant that it was not possible to provide an incoming group of learners with one-on-one support from either the classroom teacher or from a language-learning advisor, nor was it possible to provided learners with individualised learning plans. The critical problems then, were how learners could be introduced to the self-access centre and how self-directed learning could be supported under such conditions. To this end a scaffolded self-directed portfolio project was developed. Guided portfolios were selected as being able support a progression of tasks from teacher-directed to semi-directed to self-directed while providing learners with a summary of completed work. It was felt that learner reflection and review could also be incorporated in a portfolio structure to encourage the development of “the capacity for critical reflection on learning” (Murphy, 2008, p. 215) which is seen to be crucial in facilitating the ability for learners to “to learn from the experience and shape next phase of learning” (p. 200). To evaluate the project and gain information about any possible benefits of using a set of guided worksheets in fostering learner autonomy, the following research questions were investigated:

Do the above attitudes and behaviour display any change after the completion of a set of out-of-class directed, and semi-directed tasks over a course of language study? If so, what is the nature of these changes?

Was the self-directed portfolio project an effective way to introduce learners to the self-access centre?

Were portfolios useful for supporting self-directed learning and fostering learner autonomy?

The Self-Directed Learning Project

Participants in the study consisted of seventeen intermediate-level adult migrant learners of English as an Additional Language (EAL) enrolled in a sixteen-week course at a New Zealand tertiary institution. The age of participants and length of time in the country varied. Nationality and ethnicity also covered a wide range, including learners from Asian, African and Middle-Eastern countries.

Project Design

The self-access portfolio was comprised of a set of ten worksheets that were given to learners at the beginning of the course. Learners were instructed to complete the worksheets outside of class time. As one of the aims of the project was to foster learner autonomy, it was decided that coursework and homework should be seen to be separate from the portfolio project. To this end, while all students were given a copy of the self-access portfolio, participation in the project was voluntary. A decision was made not to refer to the portfolio throughout the course, but rather to leave the completion of the worksheets to the discretion of individual learners. This is in line with Cooker’s (2010) principle of learning at self-access centres truly being self-access with learners not “required to use the facility” (p. 7). On the cover of the portfolio were a set of guiding questions that promoted learners to reflect on their learning needs and their attitudes to learning outside the classroom. Inside the portfolio there were ten one-page worksheets to complete over fourteen weeks of the course. The first six worksheets in the portfolio consisted of structured tasks designed to introduce learners to the range of language learning activities that could be done in the self-access centre, such as reading an article from a newspaper produced for L2 learners, listening to a song and completing an exercise, finding a relevant grammar workbook exercise or making an appointment with a peer tutor. Tasks gradually became less structured and less teacher-directed. The final tasks in the book simply asked learners to choose a language learning activity at the self-access centre. At the end of each task were a set of guided questions intended to prompt learners to reflect upon the activity they had completed, with the aim of encouraging an evaluation and planning of learning as well as an ongoing assessment of needs. Both the guided reflective questions and the scaffolded progression can be seen in figure one below.

Figure 1. An example of a teacher-directed task and a self-directed task.

The Practice Makes Perfect task above on the left is strongly teacher-directed, with further instructions about the task printed on the second page of the portfolio. The task required learners to find a particular reading practice book, choose a story to read and complete the exercise in the book. Extra Task Four task on the right is an example of one of the final tasks, which simply asks learners to do something at the self-access centre. In this way scaffolded support was provided as the tasks progressed from being strongly teacher-directed, to semi-directed to self-directed.

Data collection and analysis

A two-pronged approach was used to data collection, with pre-project and post-project questionnaires and a series of reflective comments that were completed by participants at the end of each task and at the end of the portfolio project. To enable a comparison of responses, the same five questions were used in both the pre and post questionnaires. Figure two below shows the questionnaire on the left and the final page of the portfolio with the reflective comments on the right.

Figure 2. Data collection tools: survey questions and reflective comments

The data collected was largely qualitative and open-ended, and an in-depth iterative analysis of leaner comments was conducted. The analysis was conducted in an open manner to allow for the possible emergence of unexpected themes and relationships between comments were explored in order to allow a theory to emerge from the data.

Results and Analysis

Survey questions

The comparative results of the two surveys, given to learners at the start of project and after the completion of the self-access portfolios at the end of the 16-week project, provides insight into both learner perceptions and behaviour with regard to learning beyond the classroom. The extracts presented here are unaltered with errors left intact to preserve the richness of the learner responses.

For the first question, how much time do you spend learning English out of class each week, nine learners reported an increase in the amount of time spent studying outside of the classroom, four learners reported a decrease, and one learner reported no change in time spent studying outside of class. The overall average for all learners of 9.18 hours spent outside of the classroom in the first pre-portfolio survey increased only modestly to 9.32 hours at the end of the project. However when the nine learners who reported an increase were isolated, the average change in time spend studying outside of the classroom was an increase 3.28 hours per learner.

For question two, what do you do to learn English outside of your classroom, there were no marked changes in overall response. While a number of students reported an increased range of activities, a similar number of students listed fewer activities on the second survey. It was clear, however, that on the second survey learners gave more articulate responses. Rather than simply providing a list of activities, in the second questionnaire, learners often provided reasons for why they engaged in particular activities. One example of this related to reading a newspaper written for EAL learners is that “this task can help me to read and understand some new words because there is vocabulary list in the article”.

For the third question, is doing your own English study and learning outside of class time important, although all learners responded with a ‘yes’ in both surveys, the reasons listed by learners in each survey differed. Responses in the first survey were linked to themes of time and revision, and responses in the second survey linked to themes of planning of study and selection of activities. Comments such as “you need more time and more chance to practice” and “I can review and consolidate learning of class” were typical of the open-ended comments in the first survey, while comments such as “when I go to the LLC, I chiose the weak subject”, “you can spend your time on your weak skill”, “I can focus on what I’m interested in” and “we can choose many subjects you like” are representative of responses to the follow-up survey.

For question four, how do you feel about learning English outside of the classroom, a thematic shift in leaner perceptions was also evident. Typical comments from the first survey were “it’s useful for me”, “your English…will be improved and developed” with responses focusing on the necessity and utility of study outside of class. In contrast, responses to the second survey focused largely on affect, as illustrated by such comments as “it’s very enjoy”, “sometimes happy, sometimes frustrated”, “this is my best time to study without teacher”, “when I got new knowledge from out of class I am very happy” and “I feel it can revive my self-confidence”.

The final question in the survey required learners to complete the sentence learning English outside of the classroom is like… to form a metaphor. No thematic shifts were evident, but as responses are nonetheless illustrative of learner perceptions of autonomous learning, a section of responses is listed below.

…I buy shoes and choose that suit one

…traveling which can bring unexpected happiness and disappointment

…exploring, you don’t know what you’ll find out

…learning to walk for kids

…learning driving

…plant a flower, need the sun and water

…a key that makes you improve English quickly

…swimming in English

…second teacher

…a person not only needs to have meal but to drink water

…auxiliary verb

…to drink coffee

Reflective comments

The second method of data collection was the reflective comment sections that learners completed at the end of each task and on the final page of the self-directed portfolio. While it was evident that learners used the reflective comments at the end of each worksheet to respond to the task in an affective way, gauge the effectiveness of each task and plan further study, no specific themes or patterns emerged. The reflective response to the overall project on the final page of the portfolio however, provided much richer data for analysis. For the first question, have these self-study worksheets helped you improve your English, thirteen students responded positively with ‘yes’, one student responded negatively with ‘no’, and three students gave a mixed ‘in some ways’ response. For question two what was the most useful task and question three what task wasn’t useful, responses were varied and no clear pattern was apparent. Comments made however were often thoughtful and reasons were well articulated. Regarding which task was not of use, one learner commented:

“Read the book. Because I’d like interesting books, short stories, novels and history but the books are old and little bit not interesting for me.”

For question four, did you do any other learning after you finished the four extra tasks, twelve learners responded with ‘yes’. The response “Yes, I did. I often read some articles from Password and listen types. Visit Languge Tuotor” is representative of eight learners who reported doing further study in the self-access centre. An alternative response “watching TV and searching internet about current issues” is representative of five learners who stated that they continued to do autonomous study outside of the classroom but focused on activities beyond the self-access centre. Five learners reported that they did no further study outside of the classroom. One of these learners stated “no because of lazy” while four learners responded with a comment such as “no because we have no time and lot of examination!!!”.

For the final question, will you continue to study by yourself in the future, all seventeen students stated ‘yes’. While the open-ended comments were varied, most learners simply stated what kind of activities they would do and what skills they would study. Only two learners gave reasons: “studying by yourself and study with teacher are auxiliary to each other” and “yes, because English will be very useful for me in the future”.


The main research question, whether learner attitudes and behaviour display any change after the completion of the portfolio project is answered by the data presented above; for nearly all learners both changes in attitudes and behaviour were apparent. After the completion of the portfolio, a majority of learners spent more time studying outside of the classroom and felt that the portfolio project helped them to improve their English and stated that they would continue to study outside of the classroom. Learners were also more able to articulate both the reasons for and the benefits of studying outside of class. Finally, learners seemed to be more able to take responsibility for planning their own study activities. As the portfolio project progressed learners indicated both what they would study in the future “I will listen to Tv and radio”, why they would study “must study hard to get good level to become more confident if I meet with kiwi people”. At the end of the portfolio learners made comments such as “I want to focus on listening the tapes again because I found it’s a good way for improving my English”.

The project reported upon here was a case study investigating the use of a set of worksheets that progressed from teacher-directed to semi-directed to self-directed in fostering learner autonomy. As such it is worth noting that the project was limited in several ways; the number of participants was relatively low, with 17 students completing the entire portfolio project and 14 of those students completing both the pre and post project surveys. It also needs to be noted that although learners were made aware of the separation between the portfolio project and classroom work, performance and assessment, the study relied on self-reported data. Furthermore, participants were not required to articulate why they felt the portfolio had or had not contributed to improving their English nor were they required articulate why they would or would not continue to study in the future. Modifying the design of these questions may provided a more useful response.

These above limitations notwithstanding, the study reported here shows that, for this particular group of learners, the guided self-access portfolio project appeared to have a positive impact on both the attitudes that learners held and on the behaviour in which the learners engaged regarding language learning beyond the classroom.


The aim of the portfolio project was to introduce learners to the self-access centre, cultivate an awareness of the importance of studying outside of the classroom, and promote knowledge of the kind of study options available in an overall attempt to foster learner autonomy in a situation where little individual student-teacher contact was possible. In this respect the portfolio project can be considered to be a success story. While the particular constraints in the context in which this project was established meant that one-on-one support from a teacher or language-learning advisor was not possible, this is not to say that scaffolded self-access portfolios such these should be used in isolation. Indeed, the strong suggestion of this author would be that they be used in concert with a range of other support measures. Regardless of the availability of other support options, the clear implication is that such guided portfolios can be a useful tool for teachers who wish to foster self-access learning, and can contribute towards making learners’ journeys towards autonomy stories of success.

Notes on the contributor

Chris King has been teaching EAL, both in New Zealand and overseas, for what sometimes seems like quite a long time. He works at the Department of Language Studies at Unitec Institute of Technology, and is currently teaching on an Intermediate-level course. His research interests include Task-Based Language Learning, eLearning, and Learner Autonomy.


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