What factors encourage high levels of student participation in a self-access centre?

Keith Barrs, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Barrs, K. (2010). What factors encourage high levels of student participation in a self-access centre? Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1(1), 10-16.

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What factors encourage high levels of student participation in a self-access centre?


The motivation to write about Self-Access Centres (SACs) comes from experiencing a marked difference in the frequency and depth of student participation at two separate centres; one in a university in Japan and one in a private language school in England. In this context ‘frequency’ means how often the students use the centre and ‘depth’ means in what ways and to what extent the equipment and resources are used. At the SAC in Japan, the facilities are continually exploited by a large number of students with many of them visiting three or four times a week, on an optional basis, for usually over an hour each time. The activities in which the students are engaged include listening to music while annotating lyrics, practising pronunciation in speaking booths, reading English language novels and graded-readers, and communicating in the target-language with other students and learning advisors. In contrast, the SAC at the institution in England is only frequented by a very small number of students and the activities are generally limited to the issuance and return of books and the use of computers for online social networking, which is usually conducted in the native languages of the students.

From experiencing this marked difference, I began to reflect on some of the factors which were contributing to the variation in frequency and depth of use at each centre. There are several articles and books of essential reading in this area which discuss in detail factors such as students’ role in the centre, the nature and use of resources, the integration of the centre in the curriculum and the need for a pedagogical rationale of the SAC (Gardner & Miller, 1999; Cotterall & Reinders, 2001; Benson, 2001; Cooker, 2008; Sekiya, Mynard & Cooker, forthcoming). This short paper presents my observations on three specific factors, related to the learning environment of the SAC, that I feel are important in encouraging high levels of student participation: the presence of a language policy, the availability of an orientation programme and an effective layout and design of the building.

Definition of a SAC

In order to effectively evaluate the different situations in the SACs introduced above, it is necessary to consider what is actually meant by the term ‘Self-Access Centre.’ Cotterall and Reinders (2001, p. 2) propose the following definition, “A Self-Access Centre consists of a number of resources (in the form of materials, activities and support), usually located in one place, and is designed to accommodate learners of different levels, goals, styles and interests.” Gardner & Miller (1999) highlight the fact that it is not simply the existence of self-access resources and services which go into making up the SAC, but also how these materials are presented to the students. They then set out a detailed explanation of what equipment and resources could be included and how it should all be organised (pp. 145-155). Furthermore, Benson (2001, p.9) states that institutions often establish SACs “without any strong pedagogical rationale,” which means that a SAC should be firmly grounded in strong pedagogical principles.

When I considered the situation in the SAC in Japan and at the institution in England, in light of these considerations, I observed that the fundamental difference between the two centres is not in the physical resources or equipment, but in the type of learning environment which has been created and offered to the students. The following sections will discuss three specific factors which I believe significantly contribute to this difference in the learning environment: a language policy in the SALC, an orientation programme for new students and the layout and design of the building.

A SAC Language Policy

In my opinion, encouraging and supporting the use of a language throughout the SAC can help to create an environment which fosters and develops regular use of the target language. In the SAC in Japan there is a language policy whereby all student-student and student-staff communication is to be conducted in English and this helps to motivate many learners to achieve tasks and seek assistance through using the target language. In this way there is a supportive and encouraging environment for the use of English, which motivates many students to visit and use the facilities. It is true that some students, especially of a lower level, may be discouraged from using the centre because of the language policy. However, I have found from discussions with students that one of the main reasons for them using the facility is that it reflects the real-world situation of conducting activities in English, and this is something which is generally difficult to experience in Japan.

In contrast, the SAC in England has no language policy. This could be understood from the point of view that students are more readily able to immerse themselves in English speaking situations, but it is an unfortunate fact that many students, despite living in the target-language environment, create a life where they can live day to day without needing to use English. By not encouraging or supporting the use of the target-language, I feel that this SAC is missing an opportunity to construct an environment which is attractive to the students for developing their self-access learning abilities, and this could be one contributing factor to the centre being used for little more than borrowing books and checking emails (in the students’ native languages).

A SAC Orientation Programme

In order for students to make appropriate use of SAC facilities, it is crucial that they know and understand what is available and how to use it. In my opinion, there should be a comprehensive orientation programme in place whereby students are introduced to what is on offer and guided in the use of the resources and equipment. As pointed out by Cotterall and Reinders (2001, p. 6), forcing students to use self-learning facilities may de-motivate them to learn independently, but it is important to establish links between what happens in the class and what is available outside (and how to use it) in order for the students to begin taking independence in their learning.

The SAC in Japan conducts a week of orientation activities for the Freshman students. These activities include a tour of the SAC, assistance in setting up a SAC passport for borrowing resources and an in-class presentation into what constitutes ‘self-access’ learning and how this can be achieved in the centre. Furthermore, optional modules are offered whereby the students can gain extra credits for their course through independent learning in the SAC. For example, Freshman students are able to take an optional ‘First Steps Module’ which is designed to integrate their class-based Freshman English course with the facilities and resources in the SAC. This creates a supportive, encouraging and participatory environment where links are established between in-class and out-of-class learning. There is no requirement for students to visit or use the centre but there is encouragement and support for self-access learning which is created by integrating the SAC into the wider university context. As a result of this supportive environment, the majority of Freshman students independently visit the SAC on a number of occasions during their first few weeks and this sets a trend for their continued use of the centre. Taking just one class as an example, 21 students from 29 signed up for the optional self-study learner training module which they follow throughout their first semester.

In contrast, the SAC in the institution in England exists mainly as an adjunct to the main school. Although the centre is well-stocked with a range of resources and equipment and all new students are given a brief tour of the school and SAC, there is no explanation of how the centre can be properly utilised and integrated into the students’ programme of study. In my opinion, this contributes to the student participation rate in the centre being very low and the ones who do visit it often do little more than use the computers to access social networking sites in their own language. Indeed, end-of-course feedback surveys show that many students finish their course at the school never having used the centre. It can be seen that without an orientation programme, high rates of student participation in the centre are unlikely, no matter how well the centre is resourced and equipped.

The SAC Layout and Design

In order to create an environment which is conducive to self-access learning, attention needs to be paid to the general design and layout of the building so that students can make effective use of the centre by themselves (Gardner & Miller, 1999). First of all, the equipment should be easily accessible and adaptable to a range of functional uses, such as stereos and TVs/DVDs for listening/recording and areas for private or group interaction. Integrated into this there needs to be a wide range of resources that are appropriately placed so that students can make effective use of the equipment and materials.

The SAC in Japan has been designed with a focus on maximising the use of space and encouraging a motivating working environment. The centre, whilst being one large open-plan room, is divided into areas specific to particular activities and the resources are appropriately arranged to coordinate with the equipment. There is sufficient division between private and public work areas and the centre has a general feel of openness achieved through the use of full-glass fronts on rooms and open-style seating plans around stereos and TVs. In this centre I have observed high levels of participation by students, using it for a variety of purposes from presentation practice in group rooms to individual writing exercises at desks or computer stations.

The centre in England, although well-resourced and equipped, has not been designed with a particular focus on fostering independent learning. There is a computer room with a square layout and students facing out to the walls, and a separate listening/speaking room with stereos in a similar layout. The equipment and resources are sufficient but there is nothing in the design to encourage a range of functional uses of the equipment; there is no space for group activities or private booths for speaking practice and, consequently, the learning environment which has been created is fairly restrictive. Most importantly, the learning advisors are in a separate room and there is very little contact between them and the students, making the environment unsupported. From my observations, I have found that in order to encourage high levels of student participation in a SAC, there needs to be appropriate consideration given to the design and layout of the centre.


Although a facility might be advertised as a ‘Self-Access Centre’ in its accompanying promotional literature, that does not necessarily mean that a suitable learning environment has been created which will encourage students to use the resources for help with their self-directed learning. Along with Benson’s observation that SACs are often established without having a particular pedagogical focus (2001, p. 9), it seems evident that SACs are often established without due care and attention to the learning environment offered to the students. If institutions are to encourage high levels of student participation in the self-access centre then it is clear that it is not enough to simply establish a centre that is equipped and resourced with self-access materials. Research shows that many different factors are involved in encouraging this participation (Gardner & Miller, 1999; Benson, 2001; Sekiya, Mynard & Cooker, forthcoming) and in this short article I have presented my observations of those factors which I feel are particularly relevant to the two SACs where I have experience. I believe that having a language policy, an orientation programme and an effective layout and design are three factors which can help to motivate and encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning in the self-access centre.

Notes on the contributor

Keith Barrs lectures in Freshman English and Advanced Reading and Writing at Kanda University of International Studies, Japan. His research interests include the uses and integration of technology in the classroom as well as the learner interaction patterns encouraged by different pedagogical approaches.


Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. Harlow:Pearson Education Limited.

Cooker, L. (2008). Some self access principles. Independence 43, 20-21.

Cotterall, S., & Reinders, H. (2001). Fortress or bridge? Learners’ perceptions and practice in self access language learning [Electronic version]. Tesolanz, 8, 23-38.

Gardner, D., & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing self access: From theory to practice. Cambridge: CUP.

Sekiya, Y., Mynard, J., & Cooker, L. (forthcoming). 学習者の自律を支援するセルフアクセス学習 [Self-access learning which supports learner autonomy]. In H. Kojima, N. Ozeki & T. Hiromori (Eds.), 「英語教育学大系」全13巻中の第6巻「成長する英語学習者¯学習者要因と自律学習」大修 館書店 [Survey of English Language Education: Vol. 6. Developing English learners: Learner factors & autonomous learning] (pp. 191-210). Tokyo: Taishukan-shoten.

What Factors Encourage High Levels of Student Participation in a

Self-Access Centre?