Learner difference in independent language learning contexts

Author: Stella Hurd


This contribution briefly discusses learner difference with respect to those learning outside the classroom, for all or part of their learning, whether through open or distance modes or as an integral part of a taught programme (referred to throughout as independent learners). It addresses aspects of interrelationships between variables, and investigates the implications for course writers and teachers.

Table of contents


Research over the last three decades has consistently underlined the important role of motivation in successful language learning (Gardner & Lambert 1972, Naiman et al 1978, Oxford & Shearin 1994, Ushioda 1996, Dörnyei 2001). For independent learners, it is possibly the most significant determining factor in retention and achievement. The demands of self-instruction, together with the shift of control from teacher to learner can be overwhelming, particularly in the early stages. Difficulty in coping with the materials and assessing personal progress, perceived inadequacy of feedback, frustration at unresolved problems, and lack of opportunities to practise with others and share experiences are all factors that can adversely affect motivation levels.

Close attention to materials design can help prevent some of these problems occurring, for example: short structuring texts (organisers) to activities, clear explanations, logical sequencing, and strategy development. Teachers need to be aware of the different types of motivational orientation (Skehan 2003) and of the importance of high quality feedback in helping to boost or maintain motivation. Tandem pairing and self-help groups can also be beneficial by providing opportunities for mutual exchange and support .

Anxiety, introversion and extraversion

Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1989:128) contend that ‘probably no other field of study implicates self-concept and self-expression to the degree that language study does’. Research has focused on a type of anxiety termed language anxiety that is related specifically to language situations (Gardner and MacIntyre 1993:5), and is not connected with general (‘trait’) anxiety. Its effects are described as pervasive and subtle (MacIntyre and Gardner 1994:283) and also associated with ‘deficits in listening comprehension, impaired vocabulary learning, reduced word production, low scores on standardized tests, low grades in language courses or a combination of these factors’ (Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret 1997:345).

Anxiety is said to be strongly associated with low self-confidence (Cheng, Horwitz & Shallert 1999) and with introversion. Introverts tend to have higher anxiety levels than extroverts and take longer to retrieve information. However, they are more accurate and show greater cognitive control (Dewaele & Furnham 1999). While extrovert students worry less about accuracy and have a tendency to take risks with their language, both of which are assets when it comes to communicative oral competence, the ability of introverts to be autonomous in their learning through their capacity to self-regulate may be a distinct advantage in independent contexts.

For some independent language learners, anxiety may not be an issue. They can work in private, pace themselves and have more choices, including whether to mix with other learners or not, and are therefore spared, at least until the oral examination, one known anxiety-inducing factor – live performance in the foreign language in front of others. However, the same factors which affect motivation may be anxiety-producing for some, particularly those prone to negative self-appraisal.

Language aptitude and age

Aptitude is generally regarded as a fixed variable which is positively correlated with achievement. Skehan (1998:201) proposes a view of aptitude as consisting of three abilities – auditory, linguistic and memory – linked in that order to the stages of learning – input, central processing and output. Of these, memory ability linked with output may be of particular importance for adult independent language learners, given that they are past the critical period for language acquisition, and have increasing memory impairment. The fact that, despite this, many do well can perhaps be explained by their greater cognitive maturity and the self-management skills successful learners will have acquired, which can, to a certain extent, compensate for waning memory.

With regard to linguistic ability and central processing, there is evidence to suggest that while older learners are less likely than their younger counterparts to attain high levels of pronunciation because of the effects of age on coding and retrieval abilities, this is not so with grammar where the superior analytic abilities of adult learners may give them an initial advantage.

Beliefs and cultural difference

According to a survey done for the European Year of Languages 2001, 22% of the EU population do not learn languages because they believe they are ‘not good’ at them. Cotterall (1995:195) emphasises the ‘profound influence’ of students’ beliefs and attitudes on their learning behaviour. White (1999:444) also stresses how awareness of the complexity of learner beliefs and expectations can help us to understand the realities of the early stages of self-instruction in language.

Cultural difference calls into question notions of appropriateness and effectiveness in learning and teaching methodology. In independent learning contexts, the emphasis on autonomy and the acquisition of metacognitive skills may be counter-productive for those whose expectations of language learning involve reliance on teacher- rather than self-regulation, rote-learning as opposed to creative language use and an emphasis on accuracy at the expense of fluency. The risk of cultural inappropriateness, or worse, the charge of cultural imperialism, has to be recognized and addressed through greater sensitivity on the part of course writers and teachers and a more elastic interpretation of the concept of autonomy. (For a fuller discussion of cultural issues, see Byram 1997, 1998, 2001; Ruane 1999)

Learning styles and strategies

Keefe (1979:4) defines learning styles as ‘characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological behaviours that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment’. Learning strategies, according to Cohen (1998:15) are directly tied to the learner's underlying learning styles and other personality-related variables, such as anxiety and self-concept. Dickinson (1990:200) also talks of a likely ‘relationship between cognitive style and preferred learning processes and strategies in language learning’.

While styles are generally viewed as relatively fixed, there is some evidence (Oxford 1990, Little & Singleton 1990, O’Malley & Chamot 1993, Cohen 1998, Skehan 1998) that they can change as learners gain proficiency, or in response to pedagogical intervention in the form of learner or strategy training. For independent learners, the conscious strategies classified as metacognitive – planning, monitoring and evaluating - are of particular importance because of their role in self-regulation and the development of autonomy.

Interrelationships and mutability of variables

If styles can change over time, then it would seem likely that other factors such as beliefs, motivation and levels of anxiety can also be modified. The causal agent, however, is not easy to identify. For example, in the case of motivation, Ellis (1985, 1999:119) warns that ‘we do not know whether it is motivation that produces successful learning, or successful learning that enhances motivation’. Oxford & Nyikos (1989:295) talk of a ‘chain of variables’: ‘We would expect that use of appropriate strategies leads to enhanced actual and perceived proficiency, which in turn creates high self-esteem, which leads to strong motivation, spiralling to still more use of strategies, great actual and perceived proficiency, high self-esteem, improved motivation and so on’. The results of Yang’s 1999 study (515-535) also suggest a cyclical rather than a uni-directional relationship between learners’ beliefs, motivation and strategy use. Larsen-Freeman (2001:20) argues that ‘it is conceivable that as we search for an advanced conceptualisation of learner factors, we will also find that they are not only mutable, but that they also vary in their influence, depending on the learner’s stage of acquisition’.

Learner support: materials and teachers

Effective teaching and support through the materials involves not only knowledge of learner differences and their interrelationships, but also recognition of variability in interpretation and approach, and awareness of possible confusion and difficulty. There is a fine balance between supporting students on the one hand, and being too prescriptive or directive on the other. It is part of the tension described by McDonough (1999:12) as the ‘double-edged relation between teaching people to learn and learner autonomy’. Practical examples of the integration of strategy development into the materials are to be found in the Open University courses which contain sections on learning strategies and study skills, language awareness activities and practical guidance in the development of specific language skills. Students are also encouraged to experiment in order to determine which strategies work best for them (see Hurd et al, 2001 for a fuller discussion of metacognition, autonomy and strategy training).

Whether at tutorials, on the phone or online the teacher can be instrumental in lowering what Krashen terms as the ‘affective filter’ - reducing anxiety, identifying and praising progress, pinpointing areas of concern with sensitivity, and boosting confidence. She or he can also influence the use of different strategies, encouraging reluctant students to try things out, take a few risks, develop autonomy by learning to reflect on their learning and monitor their progress. For all learners, especially those who do not attend tutorials, the tutor has a pivotal role in providing feedback on assessed work, with full explanations of how marks have been allotted, constructive criticism in a supportive framework and concrete suggestions for improving language and learning skills.


Increasing diversity in the student population, new technologies and new more cost-efficient practices are a challenge to all those involved in the design and delivery of learning to ensure that the needs of all language learners are met. Knowledge of learner difference and its implications for learning and teaching is a vital part of that process.


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