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How to create independent learners

It is generally accepted that to be successful in today’s world (and in the future), one will have to constantly learn new skills. It is a teacher’s job, therefore, not only to teach his or her subject, act as a babysitter and promote students’ social skills, but also to train students to learn autonomously.

In other words, just as it is the parents’ job to bring up their children to be independent, it is one of the functions of teachers to make themselves unnecessary. This is especially true when we are talking about the learning of a foreign language, as without practice, students’ ability rapidly falls away.

The Road to autonomy

So, what can you do to teach your students to learn by themselves? How can you turn every pupil into somebody who is happy to learn and work on their own, and who first tries to solve problems before asking for help?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that becoming an independent learner is a process that will involve a change in pupils’ attitudes and behaviour. This won’t happen overnight. Weaning learners off teachers’ support will take the entire course, and those students who are more comfortable being spoon-fed will offer some resistance.

Metacognitive training

You should begin this process by insisting that students think for a moment before answering, ‘I don’t know’, to your questions. Ask them to first think about what they do know. Once students have learnt how to use the information they already have, they can often infer the answer to your questions. Similarly, don’t just tell them the answer when they ask you, but say, ‘What do you think the answer is?’. In the end it is much more satisfying for learners to work out the answer for themselves, with some guidance from the teacher where necessary.  

Furthermore, teachers should not simply accept a correct answer: insist that students justify their answers. This will separate random guesses from well thought out answers, and serve as a model of appropriate cognitive processes for other students.

You're on your own now

By the end of the course, students need to be able to continue their learning process by themselves. This applies to the long summer holidays after the end of the academic year, as well as to more permanent withdrawals from active classes. You can do a lot to prepare for this inevitable independence during the course.

For example, encourage students to come to the first class at the beginning of each week with an example of the English they have encountered since their last class. Most students see or hear a tremendous amount of English in their daily lives, and by getting them to collect it and then discussing it as a class, it becomes much more relevant to their lives. And once this habit of curiosity is instilled, students are more likely to carry on after the course has finished.

It is also helpful to familiarise students with the large number of resources that are available to them on the internet, for learning all aspects of English: these tools make self-study much easier than ever before. However, your expertise at separating the wheat from the chaff will be invaluable to your students.

Ask students to also think about how they plan to maintain their English after the course has finished, and to write down their ideas in a personal plan. Then talk to each student about his or her plan to motivate them to follow their plan.

Finally, urge students to stay in touch with each other to offer mutual support. Any effort – and self-study is certainly taxing – is easier in a group. Again, modern technology – in the form of social-media groups – makes keeping in touch, encouraging each other and sharing resources simpler than ever before. 

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