Supporting independent language learning: development for learners and teachers

Author: Ciel Language Support Network


This handbook emphasises the importance of learner training and staff development in the area of independent language learning. It contains materials, suggestions and case studies, which should be of use to teachers. It also provides a description of the role of the learning advisor in managing language learning.

Table of contents


Learning training and staff development and support in the area of independent language learning are crucial to its successful implementation. Winning the hearts and minds of often reluctant learners and teachers will ensure that both have the skills and motivation to move forward. (See also handbook 1, sections 3.3, 3.4 and introduction to handbook 2).

This handbook gives an overview of ways in which support and training can be given, including the learning advisor (section 2), and it is hoped that the materials, suggestions and case studies will be of use to teachers considering both their own and their learners' needs.

The handbook includes 3 case studies: Case Study 1 in section 4.2.1 comes from the Centre for Language Study at Leeds Metropolitan University. It provides a description and evaluation of the independent learning element of an undergraduate languages and professional studies course, which incorporates learner training sessions on independent learning at the beginning of the first year.

Case Study 2 in Appendix 6 is written by the Language Learning Advisor at Leeds Metropolitan University. It relates a very practical account of how the Open Access Centre for languages at LMU has developed over the nine years of its existence in terms of technology, resources and staffing in order to meet the need for increasing autonomy among its users. The article also examines the current aims of the OAC and some of the challenges still faced.

Case Study 3 in Appendix 7 was kindly submitted by Takamichi Isoda of the Otsuma Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo, Japan following communication with the CIEL project. It provides a summary of a study which investigated learners' beliefs about the nature of language learning and their effects on the management of independent learning.

A paper entitled Assessing Learner Training Modules in Higher Education by María Fernández-Toro, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, appears in section 5. This insightful paper brings together the two areas of learner training and assessment (see handbook 4 for more discussion of issues in the area of assessment and independent learning). It considers the potential benefits of assessment as well as possible areas of conflict between the expectations of students, teaching staff and institutions. Assessment in learner training is discussed in terms of process and product. The paper also investigates how the difficult balance between the need for accreditation on one side, and the principle of learner autonomy on the other might be reached. Sample learner training and assessment materials appear in appendices 1, 2 and 3.

Thanks go to all those who have kindly contributed articles and ideas.

Mike Forshaw from Leeds Metropolitan University continues this introduction with a discussion of why we need to support learners as they engage in independent learning and move towards autonomy.

Support for independent language learning

To be successful in a language most learners will probably need to do language practice outside formal lessons in the classroom. This has always been the case. Indeed, for some learners formal lessons may not be an option at all.

There is nothing new about independent learning. After all, self-study language books have been selling for years. What is an undergraduate dissertation but a piece of sustained independent learning? There is nothing radical either about the idea of 'support'. A teacher who corrects homework, who supervises a dissertation, who gives language learning tips, who recommends a good grammar exercise, is giving support to independent language learning.

However, cuts in classroom hours, changes in learners' lifestyles and work patterns, the concept of lifelong learning and new developments in technology have given a new impetus to independent learning. It has been given more attention, more resources (and has certainly spawned more academic articles) in recent years, as people have tried to define what 'independence' means and how it can be achieved.

In practice the definition of 'support' for independent learning is very wide, not least because of advances in technology, such as the Internet and CD-ROMs, and the integration of independent learning into language programmes. Support can range from tutorials dealing with the 'grander' things, such as needs analysis, language learning strategy and skills development, to apparently more mundane but nonetheless important tasks, such as recommending a book or training a learner to use a CD-ROM or do an Internet search. Some students will need more support, some less. Some may already have, or will develop, a set of skills which has put them well on the road to 'independence'.

But there are pitfalls. Independent learning sounds an attractive option - offering a kind of language learning 'consumer choice'. However it is perhaps not surprising that the idea of 'independent learning' has sometimes been met with scepticism. Some teachers may suspect that it is a way for institutions to squeeze their hours and save money, others that is somehow downgrading their own role and authority as 'experts'. Some may be awed by the sheer size of the task of involving large numbers of students in independent learning and the mechanics of introducing effective learner support.

It is also a paradox that for some people independent language learning may not seem to bring the freedom the term suggests. On the contrary, some students and their teachers may consider themselves shackled by things which purport to help them, such as learning logs, worksheets and reflective essays.

One of the challenges in training and supporting independent learners is to help them to develop the skills they need without overwhelming them with theory or paperwork. The trick is to get the balance right.

Some students may even feel they are being coerced into independent learning. In worst cases this might give rise to the idea that independent learning is a separate 'subject' and not directly related to formal lessons Quite the opposite: effective independent learning and classroom learning should complement each other.

Moreover, to get the most from independent learning students themselves should start to think like teachers: They need to consider questions regarding what specific language skills they need to develop? What activities should they do? What is the best way to go about doing them? How can their activities be made enjoyable and varied? These questions apply to students planning their independent learning as much as to teachers planning their lessons. To answer them learners will need training and support.

In many institutions the language advisor (or whatever name the institution chooses to give him or her) has become a specialist role. The advisor can indeed play a key role in giving learners support. However, independent learning is far too important to be left solely to language advisors. Teachers need to be involved too. Teachers and students should have a common view of the value of independent learning.

In an ideal world, of course, we would be able to train all students in independent learning and always be available to offer whatever support is needed to them. In time the need for support should become minimal, as they move ever closer to the goal of 'true independence'. But in the real world we know that this is rarely possible. Students have different amounts of time available to them. They will differ in their aptitudes, learning styles, and attitudes towards technology and their experience. Our own time and resources, too, are limited.

But the professional support we give- whatever its form - should aim to help students make their independent learning as efficient and effective as possible. Few teachers or students would deny that this aim is a noble one.

Mike Forshaw, Language Learning Support Officer, Leeds Metropolitan University

1 Skills for independent learning

Becoming a good independent learner does not necessarily happen automatically. When engaged in independent learning activities the learner has to effectively become his or her own tutor. If we consider the role of the tutor delivering a language lesson we would expect that consideration would be given to issues such as aims and outcomes, suitability of materials and resources, timing, sequence and feedback, in order to maximise the effective learning which could take place in the time available. Likewise, in encouraging or training students to learn independently it is vital to encourage the development of skills which will produce the most effective learning given the time and resources available.

1.1 The learning cycle

The process of independent learning can be seen as a series of learning cycles. Kolb (1984) suggests that the activities may include:

  1. Planning a piece of work
  2. Undertaking the work
  3. Reviewing the success or effectiveness of the work done
  4. Seeking or making explanations or theoretical explanations for the success or otherwise of the work, leading to guidelines on how to make the next piece of work in some sense better.

Then (1) Planning the next piece of work...and the cycle begins again. A refinement of the process should be witnessed in each new cycle.

An expanded version of the above may provide a checklist for the independent language learner to work with. It may contain the following subheadings:

1. Planning a piece of work

  • Have I identified a need to undertake the activity?
  • What is the aim of the activity?
  • Have I selected materials of a suitable level?
  • Am I using appropriate resources?

2. Undertaking the work
This will depend on the type of activity undertaken but may include:

  • Noting unfamiliar grammar points
  • Noting new vocabulary
  • Noting whole phrases
  • Repeating pronunciation
  • Summarising audio or written text

3. Reviewing the success or effectiveness of the work done

  • Did the activity achieve all or any of the stated aims?
  • What did I gain from the activity?
  • Did I enjoy the activity?
  • Can I devise an appropriate follow-up activity?

4. Seeking or making explanations or theoretical explanations for the success or otherwise of the work, leading to guidelines on how to make the next piece of work in some sense better.

  • Did I try to achieve too much/ too little in the time available?
  • Was the proportion of time devoted to different activities right?
    Were the chosen materials appropriate to the aims of the task?
  • Would I do the same activity again?

The above are suggestions as to the questions which one might ask either to oneself or in peer or group work. As the learner becomes proficient in going through the learning cycle s/he will identify aspects of the cycle which need most consideration and refinement. These aspects will vary from one learner to another.

The development of learning skills is a process and takes time. However, running through the checklist eventually becomes second nature and ideally the strategies required for good learning at lats reveal themselves to be self-evident.

Of course, different students will have different aims, learning styles, abilities, motivations, time availability, and levels of confidence from others. However, general guidelines of methodology can be laid down, tailored to suit the individual.

For training materials in the skills for language learning see the Key to Good Language Learning at the website of the School of Modern Languages, University of Southampton: The site, which is freely accessible, provides a useful training tool for use either by tutors or via self-access for learners. It includes the following sections on skills development:

  • Introduction
  • Becoming an independent language learner
  • Thinking about the way you learn
  • Ways to improve your language learning
  • Making the most of language learning resources
  • A glossary of key words and terms in language learning

2 The role of the learning advisor

This section provides a brief description of some key developments in the field of learning advising. Firstly it shortly examines the notion of advising. Secondly it looks at some applications and analyses the professional development of this role.

2.1 Promoting, supporting and managing language learning: the role, functions and skills of language learning advisors

Marina Mozzon-Mcpherson - University of Hull - FDTL Project SMILE

As in the case of learner autonomy, different terms are often used to refer to the same concept and functions and the same term can also be used to mean something different. Functions, roles and learning spaces appear to be organised and developed differently depending on the conceptual framework used to define autonomy. Expectations on the part of learners, teachers and the institutions also affect the application of different interpretations of autonomous learning. The definition of advising and the profile of its professional representation (advisors) are subject to the same lack of clarity of meaning.

Different approaches to advising have either called for a new form of teaching, or for a separate professional function, or for a combination of collaborative work between two roles but with some integrated functions too. Each way may be valuable in its own right provided appropriate staff development programmes are available to ensure a reorientation of the teacher and their discourse which can in fact be 'compatible with' and supportive of learner autonomy.

2.2. Advising

The concept of advising is not a new concept but some of the ways it has developed in Higher Education may be new. Advising (or counselling) has always, however peripherally, been discussed in relation to self-access learning and learner autonomy. Esch (1994) considers the provision of help and advice 'so that the right conditions are available for students to learn more or to become more efficient learners' to be an excellent definition of 'teaching'. In her definition of teaching, advising skills play a key role and, in this context, teacher and advisor may be the same individual or, as in the case of the University of Cambridge Language Centre, two separate roles. Riley (1997) considers advising as a fundamental category of a communicative situation but very distinct from teaching. He provides a useful table distinguishing between teaching and counselling. Kelly (1996) defines it as a 'form of therapeutic dialogue that enables an individual to manage a problem'. She describes the considerable transformation which anyone, students or staff, involved in self-directed learning have to undergo. It is a transformation which challenges beliefs about language and their role as learners and a process of re-orientation and personal discovery is necessary. She continues by stating that, although learner-training programmes may directly or indirectly lead to this transformation, counselling provides the framework to develop new ways of interacting with learners. A list of micro- and macro skills involved in advising session are listed and described. Mozzon-McPherson (1997, 2000) divides the functions of advising into active, reactive and interactive and she argues for new ways of working with learners and new professional competencies to deal with these new ways. She summarises some of the findings from project SMILE into two fundamental approaches: one focused on 'technicalities' and another on 'pedagogies'.

Technicalities are expressed by an emphasis on substituting a set of skills with another (from content-based learning to strategy-based) and therefore the introduction of a new 'tool kit' (needs analysis questionnaires, learning styles, reflective journals, strategy-based modules). It is in this context that Wenden (1991) focused her research and work towards an analysis of learning strategies and the implementation of learner training programmes designed to equip students with the necessary skills to work independently. Although Wenden's work has made autonomy more practical and therefore accessible to the practitioner, at times, it has created the impression that autonomy is acquired by learning a new set of skills which are taught by teachers. In most cases, by virtue of placing teachers into different environments (the self-access centre or online environments) or in different contents (strategies rather than language) there is the illusion that autonomous learning is supported.

This is clearly illustrated by Beeching's (1996) results.' Tutors were variously suspicious, sceptical or uncommitted to the principle of self-study. They did not have previous experience...Many continued to regard themselves as teachers, not as facilitators of learning and resented the time spent on developing autonomy in learners' (pp 93)

Whilst the technicalities play a role towards helping learners to learn, we cannot expect teachers to suddenly acquire the expertise that learning advising/counselling requires. Also it cannot be expected from all teachers to show an open attitude towards this change of approach in their job. This is one reason why the two professions may continue to remain separate but complementary.

2.3 Advisors

'Facilitators', 'mentors', 'counsellors', 'advisors', 'helpers', 'learner support officers', 'language consultants' are all terms used to define a role which is distinct in function and skills from the existing teaching profession.

Advisors started as a bridging figure between teachers, new learning environments (self-access and online environments) and learners. They are now slowly developing their distinctive skills and a new discursive world to define their ever-growing role.

Project SMILE attempted to map advising/counselling and profile advisors/counsellors in relation to functions, position within the academic structure and the type of skills requested. To this purpose, a book will be published in the spring 2001 by CILT and will provide interesting background information as well as give examples of a variety of interpretations of advising and advisory services in the UK and other countries around the world.

As highlighted by project SMILE, various approaches have been adopted by Higher Education institutions based on their individual needs and purposes, contexts, financial constraints, academic and schooling cultures. In some institutions, the functions and role are embraced by existing teaching staff, in others two separate specialisations have been developed. Some advocate the need to keep these two figures (teachers-advisors) as separate entities but strictly interdependent (e.g. The University of Hull, the University of Nottingham Trent and Manchester), others prefer the full integration of the advising functions into existing teaching and curriculum demands (e.g. the University of Newcastle). As a consequence, some privilege certain 'tools' as key elements to distinguish teaching from advising, some focus on the skills necessary to support learning, others shift the place where this function of supporting learner autonomy should take place.

However it has been observed that many of these are 'technical' matters (M.Mozzon-McPherson 2001) which do not necessarily affect the effectiveness of its application if the philosophy and pedagogy underpinning autonomy and self-access learning is not clarified and discussed with the parts involved and professional programmes and research are conducted. The collaborative and complementary work of projects CIEL and SMILE reflects this attempt to raise awareness of the implications of promoting autonomous learning on staff development, institutional policies, curriculum and resources.

If it is the case that advisors are an essential human resource in self-access learning systems and they encourage and support autonomous learning through professional dialogue and specific skills, how do advisors prepare for this?

2.4 Preparing for advising: professional development

Traditionally teacher training tends to prescribe a leading intellectual and managerial role for teachers and ill prepares for the demands of learner autonomy. (Benson and Voller, 1999)

As we have seen, there is no universal model for setting up a self-access centre, a self-directed learning scheme or an advisory service, since many parameters vary and each institution finds an appropriate model which can work for their needs and purposes. Different interpretations and applications stem from different theoretical bases and have resulted in divergent practices in the field. Although we cannot present a uniform system and one model, key researchers in the area of advising agree on the need to explore new forms of discourse for working with learners if we want to foster autonomy and ensure effective use of a variety of learning environments and systems. A focus on technicalities will not produce new forms of interaction with learners, but only shift the focus on different tools or spaces without a change in attitudes. This transformation is a necessary step when engaging in autonomous language learning. This author considers that the gradual development and acquisition of counselling skills through appropriate staff development programmes may bring a new understanding of learning.

Failing to do that it will result in new tensions and fears, and disorientation both among teaching staff and learners. The latter will call for a reproduction of existing models which may not be compatible with autonomy as a desirable educational goal.

SMILE identified in the lack of appropriate professional development and research in the area of discourse a weak element in the debate on learner autonomy. The provision of a professional development programme combined with a formal post-graduate qualification has been one of the outcome of project SMILE which spent three year observing and mapping the situation of self access centres in relation to their mission to promote and support learner autonomy. Based on this three-year work, the University of Hull is now designing a one-year programme which is planned to be delivered as a distance-taught programme from September 2001. This programme initially includes three 20-credit modules (1. language learning, 2.language teaching and management of open learning, 3. advising/counselling skills).

The latter can contribute to reach a consensus on the principles underlying advising and therefore provide the necessary guidelines to safeguard the quality of its professional applications - be they embodied in a full-time advisor post or in an existing teaching post, be they placed in a multimedia centre or in a classroom.

Finally, it should be remarked that the success - or failure - of advising and advisors will ultimately be determined by the attitude of the institutions towards self-access and autonomy.

3 Supporting the learner

The approach of the learner to the task of learning is vital to success in learning, i.e. the learner's willingness to contribute to the learning process. Clearly, no-one can learn on behalf of the learner. However, as stated in the introduction, we should beware of assuming that students come to us already possessing the ability to learn independently and in the most profitable way. The acquisition of the skills for learning requires effective training and support and will take time to achieve.

With the above in mind, what learners will be expected to contribute to the learning process should be made explicit in order to avoid confusion over the commitment which is being made.

We have seen in section 2 how the presence of a Learning Advisor is potentially of great benefit to training and supporting the independent learner. However, there are a variety of other ways in which we can support the independent learner in the development of independent learning skills and the use of open access facilities.

These include:

  • Providing Information guides
  • Face to face induction sessions with a learning advisor/ tutor
  • Providing Interactive induction materials
  • Portfolio building

3.1 Information guides

The function of an Open Access Language Resources Facility may be clear to those who were involved in establishing it or who run it (although not always!). However, this is unlikely to be the case for those coming new to independent learning and evidence reveals that an unsatisfactory first visit to such a provision can engender a lasting dislike of such facilities and a consequent reluctance to make a return visit. This is particularly the case where there is no individual present to offer advice- such as the learning advisor (see section 2).

Information on what is available in an Open Access Language Resources facility should be made available to users and should form a useful part of the training process.

An information guide may include sections on:

  • Opening hours
  • Staffing
  • Books and cassettes
  • Multimedia
  • Satellite TV
  • Guides and Worksheets
  • Internet
  • Borrowing arrangements

A sample information sheet appears in Appendix 4

It is also possible to make support information accessible on-line.

For example, see the Southampton University School of Modern Languages on-line Language Learning Resources site at which offers:

  • Guided tour of the Language Resources Centre
  • A - Z of language learning resources across the university
  • Key to Good Language Learning - tips on improving your language learning strategies
  • Useful Web links - including course materials
  • Language Resources Centre software database

3.2 Face-to-face induction sessions

An induction programme at the beginning of a course gives learners insight into the tools available which can facilitate their independent learning. (See case study on formal classroom-based training in IL for students in section 4.2.1 and Staff development in section 6.)

3.3 Interactive induction materials

Better than simply making learners aware of the existence of resources and materials is for them to be made to interact with them. Interactive induction materials ask learners to do just this.

An interactive guide to a learning resources area may ask users questions of the following kind:

  • What hours is the Open Access Centre open?
  • When is the Language Support Officer available?
  • How many rooms does the Open Access Centre have?
  • What help can the Language Support Officer offer?
  • Can students borrow materials to take home?

Can you find materials for:

  • elementary level French
  • intermediate level German
  • advanced level English
  • business Italian

Can you use the Internet and user guides to access

  • a newspaper in your chosen language
  • some information about the capital city of the country

What guides are available to help you use the Centre.

Try to find:

  • help on how to use equipment
  • lists of materials to use
  • generic worksheets
  • language learning advice and tips
  • advice on how to practise speaking, listening and pronunciation

In the process of achieving the mini-tasks which these interactive guides set learners will further familiarise themselves with what is available in the resources centre and, equally importantly, start to consider what can be done with it

3.4 The portfolio as a reflective tool

An increasingly common approach to the promotion of independent language learning activity is through the encouragement of portfolio building. A portfolio may contain all or a selection of the work which a student has undertaken independently. The portfolio may be used for assessment purposes (see handbook 4) but whether or not it is assessed the process of portfolio building can be a useful training process in itself.

The Activity Sheet which appears in Appendix 5 of handbook 4 contributes to the assessed portfolio on one undergraduate languages course. The sheet is designed to encourage Kolb's learning cycle (see section 1.1) of planning, doing, reflecting and doing again. As such it aims to explicitly combine language learning and learner training. As part of their language learning portfolio on the course in question students are asked to complete one activity sheet per week. The idea is that the process of planning, doing and reflecting will become automatic and consequently the activity sheets are not compulsory in subsequent years.

4 Learner training

4.1 JIT (just in time) training

JIT Training describes the advice given on an ad hoc basis to learners who use an open access resources area (OAC). It is an important part of the role of the learning advisor sometimes taking up an average 25% of working time. Priority will always be given to requests, although the time which can be offered at that moment when the request for advice is made may depend on how busy the advisor is at that time. Dealing with ad hoc requests is essential not only to be useful for the student, but also to promote as far as possible the idea of the advisors accessibility and personal service.

  • In offering JIT training the advisor has to perform the following activities very much on the spot:
  • Consider how familiar the learner already is with the OAC, often by choosing quickly from a pool of questions, i.e. have they been here before? have they used a computer before? Do they know how to operate the tape machines?
  • Make instinctive judgements regarding how much can the individual can profitably take in if it is the first visit. Perhaps offer a general summary handout of how OAC works.
  • Judge the existing level of language ability and from this what sort of materials are needed.
  • Advise on any language and aspect of language learning.
  • Offer solutions to technical problems.

The language advisor will assume that in most cases the learner will return if they have a successful first visit. Consequently it is important not to overload with information on the first visit. They should leave with a good impression and feel it was worth coming, for whatever reason.

JIT training is by nature spontaneous. Over time the range of requests will become increasingly familiar as will the range of possible responses.

4.2 Classroom-based training

If it is not clear that our learners are equipped with the skills for effective independent learning when they first come to us it may be useful in the early stages of a course to run classroom-based sessions which focus on the acquisition of these important study skills.

In the following case study we see how an undergraduate course in language with professional studies at Leeds Metropolitan University integrates an assessed independent learning element. In promoting the value of effective independent study it was decided to incorporate timetabled sessions on how to learn independently to all students at level 1. The student reaction has been monitored and evaluated and the results of this are also given in this brief study.

4.2.1 Case study 1: input and evaluation: the independent learning element of an undergraduate languages and professional studies course

The course

The Professional Language Studies (PLS) BA at the Centre for Language Study (CLS), Leeds Metropolitan University (LMU) took in its first cohort of students in October 1998. This four-year full-time degree course offers students the study of two languages (one at post A and the other at ab initio level) together with a professional route, including Tourism, Business in Europe, Linguistics, Marketing, Public Relations and Multimedia for Business. Other subjects developed include linguistic and cultural awareness, language learning strategies, basic IT skills and European/ international context. The third year is spent abroad on work or study placement. International marketing projects undertaken in the final year on behalf of local companies give students the experience of integrating their language and professional skills within a real commercial environment before they graduate. The aim of the course is to prepare linguistically competent and culturally aware graduates who can make an impact in multinational organisations within their specific discipline.

The independent learning element

In designing the course particular emphasis was placed on independent learning (IL), the aim being to assist students in their attempts to engage in effective language learning outside the classroom teaching environment. Findings of the CIEL project confirmed that simply providing IL resources and materials- such as those offered by the Open Access Centre (OAC) for languages at LMU- was no guarantee that students would use the facilities. Equally, if students were to use the facilities there was no guarantee that they would know how to use them to maximum effect. With this in mind the 1st year of the course includes for all students 1.5 hours of tutor input every week for the first 6 weeks of semester 1 on strategies for successful independent learning. This IL element forms one third of a module entitled Personal and Professional Skills and is assessed on a pass/fail basis. The 6 sessions engage students in a mixture of the theoretical, i.e. a consideration of how language is best learned, and the practical, i.e. a range of interactive activities which show students what materials are available and how they might best use them to achieve their independent learning objectives. The sessions also encourage familiarisation with the new technologies. These sessions are run by the Language Learning Advisor who works full time in the OAC and the IL Co-ordinator for CLS who is also a level 2 Post-A language tutor on the course.

The six themes of the IL input sessions are as follows:

  • How to learn a language
  • Listening skills
  • Exploiting the Internet/ reading skills
  • Speaking skills
  • Writing skills
  • Needs Analysis

(See 4.2.2 for more details of the contents of the input sessions)

An indicative 5 hours of IL activity per language per week is expected of the students. IL activity is evidenced by compilation of a portfolio of work which includes evidence of all IL work undertaken by the students. This IL work may include a selection of the worksheets which are available in the languages Open Access Centre. Through their careful design, these worksheets encourage learners to prepare and predict prior to the activity, to do the activity and take note of any important outcomes, and lastly to reflect on and evaluate the activity so that this may feed into future work. All IL activities are also logged in brief note-form in a learning log at the front of the portfolio. Tutors discuss the portfolios with students both halfway through and at the end of both semesters one and two in level 1. During these discussions successes can be praised and problems analysed. The tutor is able to offer advice regarding the learning strategies being used and in response offer suggestions which will influence the work which will be done subsequently. If students wish to discuss their IL work at any other time during level 1 they can do so with the full-time language learning advisor who is based in the languages Open Access Centre. The pass/ fail assessment of the IL element is centred on the contents of the portfolio and the related discussions with the students.


Student reactions to the IL element of the course have been monitored since the start of this new degree programme. First of all, the perceptions of the first cohort of students were investigated in both their first and second year of study. An analysis of the changes in their perceptions between their first and second year was made and reasons for these changes sought. Secondly, the perceptions of the second cohort of students were evaluated when they were in their first year of study. Comparisons were then made between the perceptions of the first and second cohorts, explanations were sought and recommendations made.

The general consensus of the students was overwhelmingly that they believed in the rationale behind the introduction of the IL element of the course and that the concept was, in principle, a good idea. The practicalities of its implementation were considered a main barrier to its success. For this reason, the extent to which the university may be able to enhance the quality of the students' IL experience was examined. It became clear that the university's role was crucial, particularly in the aspects of learner training, feedback and assessment and student support (both tutor support and learning resource support).

From the evaluation of two successive groups of first year students, it has become clear that the general consensus of the literature on IL regarding the desirability of a gradual relinquishing of tutor control of the students' IL experience was confirmed. The first year students' motivation, sense of usefulness of the IL element and sense of progress were greatly influenced by their perceptions of the tutor support mechanism, although they felt much more confident in their second year of study, as their awareness of the expectations of the module grew.

The major recommendations and student suggestions emerging from the evaluation can be summarised as follows:

  1. The development of individual programmes of independent study or learning contracts based on a detailed needs analysis, following discussion between the students and tutors (or the Language Learning Advisor) is desirable.
  2. Regular, personalised tutor feedback on the students' independent work, especially during their first year, was recommended. This serves, not only to provide subject-specific feedback, but also as a motivator and confidence-builder.
  3. The means of assessment and the assessment criteria should be flexible and fair and appropriate for independent learning, catering for a variety of learning styles.
  4. A varied and up-to-date supply of learning resources for all levels should be provided and the students' interests and needs be borne in mind when purchasing materials.
  5. The learning environment provided by the institution for independent study (e.g. an Open Access Centre) should be conducive to effective study, as regards such issues as heating, ventilation, lighting and the distribution of space.

It has been seen, therefore, that practical issues relating to the implementation of the programme have a direct effect on the motivation of many of the students. For this reason they need to be very carefully considered prior to the introduction of an IL module into any undergraduate programme. It seems clear, however, that the rise and encouragement of independent learning can be a valuable means of helping British HE institutions to adapt to the needs of both the changing student population and employers.

Jeremy Bradford and Dawn Leggott, Centre for Language Study, Leeds Metropolitan University, October 2000

4.2.2 Classroom-based training sessions

In case study 1 (section 4.2.1) we saw how the 1st year students on the Professional Language Studies undergraduate course are offered six themed introductory sessions on how to be a successful independent learner. More detail of what is covered in each of the sessions appears below.

How to learn a language

  • Some general advice on how to learn a language.
  • Getting to know the Open Access Centre
  • Introduction to the IL Worksheets
  • Learning about and practising with some of the equipment and learning resources in the Open Access Centre

Listening skills

  • How to develop listening comprehension skills as an independent learner
  • Other ways to exploit listening material

Exploiting the Internet/ reading skills

  • To check students ability to use Word and to teach/revise basic operations where necessary
  • To train students in exploiting up-to-date texts (e.g. news articles) on the web to develop skimming/scanning/vocabulary development

Speaking skills

  • To show how you can use the OAC technology to develop speaking skills (e.g. pronunciation/fluency)
  • To focus on the use of OAC resources and technology for practising formal and informal presentations
  • How such practice will help develop, specific language, useful "presentation phrases", fluency etc.
  • How material, native speakers, dictionaries etc. can be "quarried" for source material

Writing skills

  • To make students aware of the various conventions and styles in different kinds of writing
  • To introduce some ideas for practising writing as an independent learner
  • To write a business letter in the target language, which can then be compared with a target language model

Needs Analysis

  • How to pinpoint those areas of language (skill or specific language task etc.) the individual student needs to work on
  • How the student can balance activities (s)he likes doing with those (s)he most needs to improve in

In deciding the content of classroom-based training sessions we might bear in mind that some activities, such as guided discussion in the target language, may not lend themselves as readily to independent learning as others, such as reading comprehension. With ever reducing class-contact time tutors might wish to consider which aspects of the language learning process students can be left to ably cover for themselves in their independent learning time and guide them towards these activities. Tutors can then concentrate on those elements of language learning which students cannot do as well by themselves.

(Having said this, a wealth of self-study materials exists which offer techniques by which students can practise speaking on their own. Also see Tandem Learning in section 5.)

4.3 Tandem learning

For a discussion of the opportunities offered by Tandem Language Learning, see handbook 3, section 4.3.

5 Learner training and assessment

María Fernández-Toro, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The following paper discusses the role of assessment in learner training modules in Higher Education. First, the potential benefits of assessment are examined, as well as possible areas of conflict between the expectations of students, teaching staff and institutions. Assessment in learner training is then discussed in terms of process (learning to learn independently) and product (language achievement). Finally, the paper investigates how the difficult balance between the need for certification/accreditation on one side, and the principle of learner autonomy on the other, could be reached by gradually integrating self-awarded marks as part of summative assessment. A number of related issues are also summarised for further discussion in the final section.

5.1 Assessing learner training modules in higher education (based on Fernández-Toro and Jones, in progress)

In recent years, HE institutions have been considering the issue of learner autonomy with a growing interest. In terms of implementation, different institutions have addressed the matter in different manners. Learning tasks, course units, and even entire modules have been developed with the aim of training university students to learn independently, and are commonly grouped under the general category of learner training.

Language modules with a learner training component can take a variety of forms in HE. They can be skills-based (with a syllabus structured around strategies for developing skills such as reading, listening, speaking, writing, grammar and vocabulary), project-based (written dossier, poster or spoken presentation); customised (tailored to the individual needs of each student); or integrated (combining different approaches, possibly within a conventional course). Examples of these approaches are discussed in Fernández-Toro (1999, pp. 8-13). In terms of assessment, the weighting of learner training components may range from stand-alone modules that carry a summative mark towards the final degree classification, to optional tasks in which any assessment carried out is purely for formative purposes.

According to one of the most commonly cited definitions, learner autonomy is "the ability to take charge of one's learning", or in other words: "to have, and to hold, the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning". These areas for decision-making range from initial goal-setting to the final stage of "evaluating what has been acquired" (Holec 1979, p.3).

If the ultimate aim of teaching is to achieve complete learner autonomy, then surely the only acceptable form of assessment ought to be self-assessment by the learner. However, establishing this principle in practice is no simple matter. For most institutions, it means that important changes have to be made to the assessment procedures already in place. Such change presents learners, teachers and institutions with a number of challenges:

a) most learners require specific training in self-assessment techniques before they can assess their own performance in a valid and reliable way;

b) teachers themselves need to learn how to train their learners in self-assessment techniques;

c) this also requires a change in attitudes, whereby learners and teachers abandon their traditional roles and accept the greater level of responsibility put upon the learner;

d) learners can legitimately expect that their newly gained skills are acknowledged through some form of accreditation, so that their autonomy as learners can be claimed as an asset with prospective employers;

e) institutions need to devise assessment procedures that are both valid and reliable so that this need for certification can be met, and also in order to comply with teaching quality guidelines for accreditation purposes.

This paper examines the potential tensions that may result from all these - often conflicting - factors, and proposes an initial set of principles to facilitate the practical implementation of learner training modules in HE language programmes. Institutions themselves are taking part in a learning process as they are faced with the paradoxical task of providing formal evidence of the level of autonomy that their students are able to achieve through the training provided.

In this transitional context, the present paper regards itself as a working document. It illustrates an exciting stage of our own learning process as institutions, and is intended to trigger discussion and bring about alternative options, rather than being the ultimate answer to a complex question that may still a few years to investigate in depth.

5.2 Assessment: what for?

Although it is often perceived as an externally imposed constraint, assessment actually plays an essential part in any training programme. Negative perceptions of assessment occur when those involved are not in agreement with the nature, the function, or the amount of assessment that is imposed upon them. However, provided that the rationale for a particular form of assessment is fully understood and accepted by all parties involved, it becomes obvious that assessment can yield benefits for students, teachers and institutions alike.

The outcome of assessment may be used for a variety of purposes, which are summarised below (list adapted from Atkins and Brown 1985; and Lloyd-Jones and Bray 1986):

For students:

  • Motivation (provides evidence of achievement)
    Diagnosis of one's own strengths and weaknesses
  • Evaluation of the strategies used, and decisions regarding strategies to use in future
  • Curricular and career choices (assessment determines what options are available at a particular point)
  • Certification (provides evidence of achievement that can be used for employment and career purposes)

For teachers

  • Motivation (measurable student achievement as a goal to aim for)
  • Evaluation of the methods and materials used
  • Diagnosis of individual needs
  • Curricular decisions on individuals (performance on assessment can be used to predict students' ability for future curricular alternatives and identify further training needs)

For institutions

  • Internal evaluation of the modules offered (student performance on assessment can be used as a measure of how effectively the course has met its stated objectives)
  • External accreditation (provided that assessment is both valid and reliable, overall good student performance should mean that quality standards are high)

Obviously, the interests of one party may be in conflict with the interests of the others. Students are primarily interested in gaining knowledge and skills and obtaining good grades (whichever may come first in their list of priorities); teachers are interested in teaching their subject as they believe is most practical and effective; institutions are interested in gathering evidence of the cost-effectiveness, viability and market value of their programmes. For instance, a weak but hardworking student might believe that she ought to pass the course, whereas the institution might be concerned with the effect that falling standards could have on accreditation. A department which is concerned with a forthcoming inspection might request that teachers spell out every single procedure and formalise some of the assessment that they were willing to regard as informal. A student concerned with final grades might overlook the formative value of assessed coursework, and complain instead about the allocation of points for a particular question, which the teacher might in turn regard as only marginally relevant.

These differences in perception are understandable, but they do show that all those involved in assessment take it seriously, albeit for different reasons. Rather than suppressing formal assessment from learner training programmes on the grounds that it would hinder learner autonomy, its benefits should be made explicit to all those involved, and awareness of any possible conflicting interests between the parties should be raised. If a system of assessment is to be regarded as useful by learners, teachers and institutions, it is important that the function of each procedure within the system is perfectly clear to all.

5.3 Assessment of what?

In their review of learner autonomy definitions, Broady and Kenning (1996, p.9) summarise the concept of "autonomy" in terms of both a "goal" (the "capacity for independent thinking and responsibility for learning") and a "process" (learning to learn independently). At the same time, readers are warned that "learner autonomy cannot be 'taught' in the traditional sense, but can only be 'promoted' ". This consideration puts the issue of assessment into perspective. If something cannot even be taught, should we be thinking of assessing it formally? Why not just assess the students' achievement in terms of language performance and give up trying to assess their level of autonomy? The fact is that, if learner autonomy is stated as one of the goals of a course (presumably because it is regarded as a valuable asset) it should be acknowledged and certified in one way or another, so that learners, teachers and institutions can indeed claim it as one of the assets of the course.

Given the multiple functions of assessment discussed earlier, perhaps we should at least consider the suitability of certain forms of assessment to certain aspects of learner training. Before discussing who should carry out the assessment, let us examine what exactly can be assessed, both in terms of process and product.

Fig. 1 : Areas for assessment in a Learner Training module

Learning to use the language Learning to learn independently
* Process: Trying out learning strategies.* Product: Language achievement. ® * Process: Reviewing learning strategies used.* Product: Learner autonomy.

In a learner training module, students are engaged in two simultaneous processes (fig. 1): learning to use the target language by means of trying out a series of language learning strategies; and learning to learn independently by critically reviewing the strategies used throughout the entire process. In terms of product, the former process results in language achievement (the difference between the student's initial level of language proficiency and the student's level at the end of the module); whereas the latter process results in the student's ability to learn independently at the end of the module. The suitability of each of these areas for formal assessment will now be examined.

5.3.1 Process-oriented assessment

If learner autonomy is considered as a process through which individuals are "learning to learn", assessment can certainly play an important part in the process as a formative exercise. The two processes of learning the language and learning to learn independently are very closely inter-related. While one is learning a foreign language, a range of cognitive and social-affective strategies are tried out in order to induce the process of language acquisition. At the same time, metacognitive strategies are also used in order to monitor one's progress, evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies that were used and plan which strategies should be used next (Oxford 1989; 1990; O'Malley and Chamot 1990). In terms of assessment, both types of strategies can be difficult to examine separately. This would require a level of detail in the analysis that might generate more paper than actual benefit to the learner. Instead, both processes could be regarded as integrated in the general process of learning, and assessed together as one global process that covers the cyclic stages of needs analysis and goal-setting, choice of resources and strategies, progress assessment and means evaluation.

If we assume that every component of a degree module should be assessed in one way or another, then every stage of the process (from goal-setting to the final evaluation) ought to be assessed individually. Whether it is for formative or summative purposes, the criteria for assessing the learning process would need to cover the following questions:

Goal setting:

  • Are the goals relevant to the learner's needs?
  • Are they realistic and achievable?
  • Are they sufficiently demanding on the learner's ability?

Choice of materials:

  • Are the chosen materials relevant to the goals?
  • Are the chosen materials suitable for the strategies that are intended?
  • Are the materials suitably varied? (if variety is relevant to the chosen goals and strategies)

Strategies used:

  • Are the strategies relevant to the goals?
  • Do the strategies suit the learner's personal learning style?
  • Do the strategies suit the materials chosen?
  • Are they suitably varied? (provided that variety is relevant to the chosen goals)

Assessment of progress made:


  • Is the assessment procedure relevant to the goals?
  • Is the assessment procedure related to the materials used?
  • Is the assessment procedure related to the strategies used?


  • Are the assessment criteria sufficiently explicit to ensure that similar performances would obtain similar scores?
  • Would any trained marker using the same criteria give a similar score for the same performance?

Response to assessment (evaluation):

  • Is there an accurate diagnostic of strengths and weaknesses revealed through assessment?
  • Is there an adequate evaluation of the effectiveness of materials and strategies that were used?
  • Is there a suggested course of action to meet the needs revealed through assessment?

Whichever status self-assessment is given in a learner-training module, students should always be trained to ask these questions themselves. In the author's institution, the outcome of process-oriented self-assessment is used for formative purposes only, while tutors are still in charge of awarding the final summative grade for the process. However, such a system could be questioned on the grounds of learner autonomy - an issue that will be discussed in subsequent sections of this paper.

5.3.2 Product-oriented assessment

As a product, the "capacity for independent thinking and responsibility for learning" (Broady and Kenning 1996) is difficult to assess in itself. All that can be done is to look at the evidence gathered during the process and assess this evidence in terms of the amount of learner initiative that it shows. More importantly, attempting to assess externally - let alone quantify - the level of autonomy that a particular student has reached at the end of a course seems in radical contradiction with the principle of self-responsibility that underlies the concept of learner autonomy. A more viable option is to focus on actual achievement in terms of language improvement. This other product of the learning process is somewhat easier to assess. Besides, if the autonomous strategies used by the learner are really effective, an improvement in language proficiency should naturally follow. As Little points out, "the whole point of developing learner autonomy is to enable learners to become autonomous users of their target language" (Little 1995, p.176), therefore it makes sense to assess actual language achievement, even within modules which emphasise independent learning.

But if learners are to assess their own language achievement for themselves, the initial stages of needs analysis and goal-setting are crucial. Given that the goals of different students are strictly individual and will differ from each other, it is particularly important to establish very clearly the starting level of each student, ideally in the form of individual learner profiles in which a range of skills are assessed separately (e.g. listening, reading, writing, speaking, grammar, vocabulary, background cultural knowledge etc.).

The next step is to ensure that the goals set by each learner are consistent with the needs shown in the learner profile. Let us examine two examples:

Fig. 2: Assessment of language improvement - Two case studies.

Student A:

  • Proficiency level: beginner
  • Main area to improve: Grammar
  • Set goal: to learn the present tense, including irregular verbs.
  • Test format: 40 item gap-filling exercise for present verb forms
  • Marking criterion: percentage of correct forms given

Student B:

  • Proficiency level: advanced
  • Main area to improve: Speaking
  • Set goal: to take greater part in conversation when talking to native speakers (NSs).
  • Test format: conversation with NS recorded on tape, and then transcribed by the learner
  • Marking criterion: word count of the learner's actual contribution to the conversation (must be above 40% of the total word count)

Two students at different levels of proficiency (students A and B on fig. 2) were asked to propose possible forms of assessment for their respective goals. Negotiating a test format was relatively easy for student A, because the product of learning (a set of verb forms) lent itself to a simple, measurable output. Student B, on the other hand, found it somewhat more difficult to come up with an objective method for measuring her actual involvement in spoken conversation. A fair amount of help was required from her tutor until the test format and marking criterion outlined above were finally reached. Most students will need varying amounts of guidance from their tutors in order to design valid and reliable tests, especially in the early stages of training. The aim, however, is that they come up with workable suggestions by themselves after a while.

To facilitate the process while avoiding excessive intervention from tutors, a new approach to study-guide design is being adopted. It consists of presenting the students with a wide repertoire of ready-made assessment techniques, specially designed to suit the range of goals that are most typically pursued by different types of learners (Fernández-Toro and Jones in progress). Students can then search this "bank" of suggested techniques and select the ideas that in their view are most suitable to their individual needs and to the resources available to them at the time.

Student B, for example would be able to search through a checklist of "Typical problems related to speaking" (Appendix 1), and pick up the description that best matches her own reported problem. In her case it would be statement number 7 on the checklist: "In real conversations, I don't get a chance to speak. By the time I work out what I am going to say, the conversation has moved on". Next to the statement describing her problem, she would also find cross-references to a choice of suitable strategies to tackle that particular problem. She would then refer to the worksheet describing her chosen strategy, in this case called "Outspeaking your partner" (see Appendix 2). The worksheets related to each strategy not only explain the objectives of the strategy and provide step by step directions, but they also indicate possible ways in which to assess the progress made (in this particular case, by means of a word count based on a transcript of the conversation).

This approach to study-guide design can significantly reduce the amount of direct input required from tutors. So long as the materials present students with a wide range of options, there ought to be ample space for learner initiative, both within and beyond the strategies described in the study guide.

5.4 What kind of assessment?

Establishing what is to be assessed and designing suitable tests is only the one step in the assessment procedure. Another essential step is to consider and decide what role such assessment should play within the institution and the modular programme as a whole. The importance of assessment for learners, tutors and institutions has already been discussed. But because so many different interests are involved, a number of choices will need to be made regarding which procedure assessment ought to follow in a particular learning context.

In a conventional teacher-directed context, setting up an assessment system is relatively straightforward:

(a) Teachers and assessors list possible areas for assessment
(b) An agreed operation list with weight markings is drawn up
(c) Pupils are informed of the assessment expectations
(d) Assessors use the methods and weightings to assess projects
(e) Assessments are moderated.

(Johnson 1985, p.89)

With autonomous learners however, learner involvement is not simply a matter of being "informed" of assessment expectations externally set by others; instead, learners themselves should be setting their own expectations and marking the work according to their own criteria. Consequently, the entire process needs to be revised. Holec (1996) advocates a gradual shift of responsibility as the training progresses. At first, decisions are made jointly between the teacher and the learner, but gradually the teacher takes a secondary role until the learner becomes the only decision-maker at the end of the training programme. This recommended gradual shift applies to decisions made at every single stage of the learning process, covering "definition of objectives", "selection of resources", "methods and techniques", "evaluation", and "management" (Holec 1996, p.89).

The logical conclusion of this principle is that assessment eventually ought to be carried out by the learner throughout the entire process. However, "pure" autonomy is not the only consideration in a learner-training module: learners themselves may require external certification so that their achievements can be claimed and quantitative evidence can be produced for prospective employers. Besides, formal assessment can be an additional factor of motivation when the mark obtained on a course contributes to the final grades. Self-improvement alone may not be enough to keep one going when there is heavy pressure to pass other subjects, unless the language module receives equal credit to other modules in the curriculum.

Institutions offering learner training courses as part of their language programmes must also bear in mind the requirements imposed by Teaching Quality Assessment exercises and external accrediting bodies, and need to produce a set of convincing assessment procedures. This makes it difficult to simply accept the results of self-assessment as a component of student's final grades without a few essential precautions. It is therefore important to reach a balance between learner autonomy and self-assessment on one hand, and the need for clearly defined criteria for summative assessment and external certification/accreditation on the other.

In order to be acceptable, self-assessment has to be based on procedures and criteria that ensure sufficient validity and reliability. The issue of validity can be addressed by making sure that the set goals are consistent with the learners' proficiency level at the start of the training programme. This can be achieved through a process of negotiation of the proposed objectives at the early stages. Thus tutors can ensure that the goals that different students have set themselves are both achievable and challenging enough, and also that they are likely to involve comparable amounts of effort, given the learners' individual profiles. They can also guide the learners in their decisions about test format, so that the performance being assessed is indeed related to the set goals.

In terms of reliability, learners tend to find it difficult to produce assessment procedures that can be used reliably, especially at the early stages of training. It is important to assist them in gaining this skill for two main reasons:

  1. in formative assessment, learners who know how to assess their performance reliably are more likely to draw accurate conclusions about their achievements and needs
  2. for summative assessment purposes, only reliable measures of achievement would ever stand a chance to be accepted in a system in which self-awarded marks would "count" towards final grades

Boud (1995) makes a series of recommendations to improve marker reliability for self-assessment purposes:
1. Establishing the area to be assessed and the goals to be pursued
2. Establishing explicit criteria for satisfactory and unsatisfactory performance
3. Using scales in which the categories are unambiguously defined
4. Not using scales which are more sensitive than the fitness for discrimination allows
5. Training markers through practising on specific examples
(Boud 1995, p.170)

As a starting point, lists of criteria and marking scales similar to those already being used by teachers could be presented to the learners so that they can reflect on them and modify the scales according to their own needs and priorities. Alternatively, preliminary self-assessment scales or basic awareness-raising checklists can be designed so that learners can decide on which areas they need to focus and negotiate the degree of specificity required (or possible) in each area. Appendix 3 shows an example of self-adjustable scale for speaking tasks.

Once this initial step has been completed, students must be encouraged to narrow down their criteria to suit the specific nature of the task being assessed. Thus, Student B from our earlier example might decide to revise the criteria for her own purposes as follows:

Fig. 3: Student B's revised assessment criteria

1. Main assessment area:

My own contribution to the conversation(as calculated from word count on my transcript) - 60% of total mark

2. Subsidiary areas:

The focus areas that I ticked on the "preliminary self-assessment scale" (I'll use the scale as it stands) - 40% of total mark

Since in her case, the main goal was to increase her participation in conversations, the greatest weighting (60%) has been given to this area. The score to which this higher weighting applies is calculated with a strictly quantitative means (the word count technique described earlier). However, a number of other aspects of Student B's speaking performance are also assessed as "subsidiary areas" (e.g. pronunciation, vocabulary range and grammatical accuracy). A golbal weighting of 40% was allocated for these, and in this instance, the (comparatively subjective) descriptors given in the preliminary scale (Appendix 3) were considered accurate enough for assessing these subsidiary areas, given that they did not constitute the main focus of assesment.

In his useful list of "strategies for incorporating students self-marking", Boud (1995, p.171) stresses the importance of providing learners with adequate practice in designing and applying reliable criteria before self-awarded marks are actually used for grading purposes. He proposes that this training should be carried out using typical examples of student performance and also that learners could be required to produce a qualitative justification of the figures obtained (including specific examples taken from their own work), rather than providing only a bare numeric score for each criterion.

If, for example, another student had set "language accuracy" as his main goal, he would need to realise that, in this case the decriptors provided for "accuracy" in the preliminary scale (questions 12 and 13 of Appendix 3) are not specific enough. Assuming for instance that he gave himself a broad score of 2 for question 12 (meaning that he made "Quite a few" but "mostly "silly"/careless mistakes"), he would then have to operationalise the scale by producing:

  1. a set of criteria for judging what is to be regarded a "careless" mistake and what would constitute a "serious" mistake (with supporting examples),
  2. a new marking scheme based on this definition of "careless" and "serious", preferably using a scale comprising more than the 4 points allowed in the preliminary version (since "accuracy" is his main assessment area).
  3. a list of all the mistakes that he actually made (possibly based on a transcript of his performance), labelled according to their "seriousness", and scored according to the revised marking scheme,
  4. a global marking scheme, specifying the overall weighting of "accuracy" in relation to any other subsidiary areas to be assessed (along the same lines of fig.3 above, but with "accuracy" at the top of the list).

The student might need to seek help from other people (a tandem partner for instance) in order to identify and classify his mistakes, just like other students may require external advice for other aspects of their performance such as register and appropriacy. These are just normal instances of the type of social strategies that are used by effective learners in any language learning process, and should be acknowledged and encouraged.

The procedure just described presents two advantages. The first one is related to formative assessment: learners need to reflect on their own performance in a very analytic manner in order to provide the examples required, and as a result subjective appreciations become less likely to occur. The second advantage is related to summative assessment: this method makes it easier for a moderator (e.g. a tutor acting as second marker or a trained peer) to examine on which grounds a particular grade has been awarded. In certain cases some negotiation may be necessary in order to arrive at an agreed mark, and if no agreement is reached an external examiner may be asked to make the final decision. This procedure offers as many levels of control as the traditional university procedure, which also involves two levels of moderation in the form of a second marker and an external examiner.

The following revised procedure (adapted from Johnson 1985; and Boud 1995) incorporates all the recommendations examined in this section:

(a) Learners list possible areas for assessment.
(b) An agreed operation list with weight markings is drawn up.
(c) Learners try out the marking scheme on genuine learner performances (possibly using a mock version of their own test).
(d) The marking scheme is revised.
(e) Learners apply the revised scheme to their own performance.
(f) Learners justify their numeric scores using examples from their performance.
(g) Assessments are moderated.

By training the learners (steps c and d above), asking them to provide a qualitative analysis of their performance to justify self-awarded grades (step f), and involving second markers (step g), it becomes possible to integrate self-assessment as part of formal assessment with higher levels of reliability.

5.5 Outstanding issues

As explained earlier, this paper illustrates the present state of our own learning process as institutions, and therefore provides more questions than answers. Yet formulating these questions is an essential first step towards possible answers. A number of important issues emerge from the previous discussion.

  1. Should summative assessment be left out altogether from learner training programmes? A number of reasons, mainly related to certification (for the learners' benefit) and accreditation (for the institutions' benefit) would justify some kind of summative assessment.
  2. Is it possible/desirable to assess the learning process through summative assessment? This issue is open to debate, given that: (a) the process doesn't lend itself very easily to objective assessment, and (b) such attempts might spoil the formative nature of the exercise.
  3. Should self-assessment be integrated as part of summative assessment, and if so, how could this be done? One possible approach is proposed in this paper, but other alternatives could also be considered.
  4. Should assessment be criterion-referenced or norm-referenced? Norm-referenced criteria can be difficult to apply by learners themselves, given that they have little access to the global performance of their peer group. Besides, this might encourage undesirable competition. On the other hand, institutions tend to aim for normal distributions in their overall class grades, and this is best obtained by means of norm-referenced, rather than criterion-referenced scores.
  5. Can assessment be used to enhance autonomous learning in general? In other words, are self-assessment skills for language learning transferable to other areas? The question is clearly beyond the scope of this paper and much research is still needed, but any findings in this area could have considerable implications on the methods of assessment adopted in future.
  6. Practical implementation: In learner-directed assessment, every test is unique, yet some degree of standardisation would be desirable for practical reasons. Another problem is that some skills are very difficult to assess in terms of measurable outcomes. The approach to study-guide design discussed in this paper and the sample materials shown as appendices are just an attempt to address the problem, but a long development process still lies ahead.

The institutions' learning curve is steep, and as new modules based on learner autonomy continue to be developed as part of language programmes in HE, we should see the appearance of a range of innovative approaches to the issues discussed above. The results of further research on self-directed language learning should also provide better guidance as to which findings ought to be investigated more thoroughly in terms of practical implementation.

Appendix 1: Typical problems related to speaking

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Appendix 2: Outspeaking your partner

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Appendix 3: Preliminary self-assessment scale - speaking

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Appendix 4: Sample open access centre information guide, Leeds Metropolitan University

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Appendix 5: CIEL focus group session on learner training and support

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Appendix 6: Case study 2 - changes in the languages open access centre provision at Leeds Metropolitan University, Mike Forshaw, Language Learning Support Officer, Leeds Metropolitan University

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Appendix 7: Case study 3 - learner beliefs as the basis for decision-making, Takamichi Isoda, Otsuma Junior and Senior High School, Tokyo, Japan

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