The Internet TESL Journal

Motivation and Learner Autonomy: Activities to Encourage Independent Study

Andrew G. P. Nowlan
(Tokyo, Japan)


With the usual high costs of enrolling in a comprehensive program to learn a language, many students look for ways to improve their linguistic skills without having to make significant financial sacrifices. In addition to financial constraints of learning language, many professionals are unable to dedicate the several hours a week needed in order to make significant improvements. These barriers to learning are reflected in the question often asked in the EFL classroom: "How can I improve my English outside ofclass?."

Both students and instructors alike are recognizing the limitations of only studying English for an hour or two every week in a classroom environment. This has contributed to the idea and increasing demand of autonomous learning methods and techniques.

In this paper, several autonomous learning activities will be identified followed by a discussion of how they can be applied to East Asian EFL programs.

Autonomous Language Learning Activities

Journal Writing

One method that is often recommended to students looking to improve language skills on their own time is to keep a reflective journal. To make this even more applicable to the needs of the student they could focus their journal on events that occurred during school, work, travel, social activities, or an event that involved an exchange of cross-cultural information. At the very least, a journal logging the general events of the day increases writing ability and it provides an effective means to focus on areas where the learner may experience problems in their speaking. However, the benefits of writing a journal is greatly enhanced when a qualified native speaker is able to make and explain the corrections in a coherent fashion, allowing the student to rectify mistakes.

Using the Internet and Technology

With the use of the Internet and computers increasing around the world, it seems obvious that electronic means will provide the learning environment of the future. Instant messaging has been quite popular for some time and the rate of usage around the world is increasing as more people, especially in developing countries, are able to get online. Other forms of communication over the Internet include discussion boards, interactive blogs, and online forums. In addition, many English students are downloading English music , movies, and TV shows that allow them to get exposure to different accents and expressions from around the world. Other virtual environments can be used to develop language skills while also morphing the task of learning into an enjoyable hobby. Social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Second Life have the potential to create awareness about language that will drive people at a very young age to become involved in learning language.

Second Life, is a free program from the internet that allows you to create your own virtual environment where you can interact in real time through talking or typing with over 12 million subscribers worldwide. This environment, where you create a name and an avatar for yourself, enables the user to create a world where they are surrounded by stimulus that interests them and where they can easily meet others with common interests and characteristics. While controlling your character in this world, you can go to parks, shops, and even your own living room with a group of friends. Now with the capability to use voice chat in Second Life, it is possible to use this as an effective tool for learning language. Without the pressure of having to introduce themselves in a real classroom with other students, Second Life provides an unintimidating environment where students can introduce their virtual characters and acquire information from other characters. Facebook and MySpace can help a learner present themselves and learn more about others, but unlike Second Life, they are not presented in a 3D environment and cannot be used to speak with others.

Other technological means that can be used to improve language ability are voice-chat programs such as Skype, iChat, and messenger programs such as MSN and Yahoo. These voice-chat programs allow people to talk to others around the world in real time and they are free to use. When initial connections are made through social networks on the Internet, users can then use these voice programs to call each other and practice oral skills by applying new language items learned through writing and reading. To fully take advantage of the Internet during the learning process, one should consider other on-line programs and funtions such as relative readings, blogs, online quizzes, and podcasts. While many students and professionals around the world have lengthy commutes to and from school or work, downloading podcasts onto a listening device makes exposure to spoken English possible on a train, bus, or even while stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Autonomous Learning in East Asia

The Benefits of Autonomous Learning

For EFL students who are more introverted and concerned about privacy issues, the use of virtual worlds to encourage learning is an attractive option. Instead of sharing personal information with strangers, the learner can instead share information about their virtual character that they have created based on their fantasy and interests. This would be a great way to build both confidence and networking skills with a foreign language. Again, the merits of this approach rely on the studying goals of the learner. For example, this most likely would not improve English skills for specific purposes, such as business situations.

Especially in large EFL classrooms, there are proactive students who are motivated to learn both independently and as a group. However, others are satisfied simply with the limited exposure that they get from the class and some of these students choose not to focus during the lessons. In a 1995 research project on learner agendas, it was suggested that "while the teacher is busily teaching one thing, the learner is often focused on something else"(Nunan, 2000). It can be argued that this is amplified in Asia, where students are sometimes expected to spend twelve hours a day studying for tests or working in the office while at times juggling other responsibilities such as a family.

Characteristics of the Successful Autonomous Learner

In David Nunan’s 2000 study, he outlines common characteristics for people who successfully and dramatically improved their language skills through learning autonomously. These characteristics and requirements include: a diversity of skills, passion and enjoyment for a particular field, a focused and active approach to learning, and finally, pursuit of learning and success despite high probability of failure and public disapproval (Nunan, 2000). While most learners in Japan are wary about taking these risks, there are many examples of those who do with favorable results. Nunan (2000) presents a couple success stories in Hong Kong of students who took their learning in their own hands and excelled because of it.

One student named ‘Josephine’ once approached Nunan to inform him of the great progress she was making with her English. When Nunan continued to give himself as the teacher credit for the improvements, Josephine countered that it was not his lesson that resulted in her improvements, but her domestic situation living with a Canadian roommate. (Nunan, 2000) In a second example, Nunan (2000) describes the language development of another student by the name of ‘Siu Fun’: “she loved English but she quickly came to realize that learning English in school wasn’t enough so she found opportunities to practice her English out of class…Siu Fun used to hang around the tourist traps after school (to interact with foreigners in English)”. (Nunan, 2000) Similar examples can be found in Japan, where students who are very keen to learn English will volunteer at tourist venues (museums, shrines, and temples) in need of an interpreter. What these learners have in common is that their attitudes were developed after they made a decision for themselves that exclusively studying in a classroom environment was not enough. While it is difficult to implant this attitude in other language students’ psyche, the first step for the instructor to encourage this is to better understand the attitudes and needs of the student.

The Role of the Instructor in Autonomous Learning

While examples of several exceptional students have been given, the fact remains that the average student does not possess the drive or motivation to acquire language this way. In their 2002 study, Chen, Spratt, and Humphreys conducted a large-scale study on learner autonomy at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where they aimed to represent the students’ views on responsibility, motivation, and decision making outside of the classroom. In this study, Chen et al. conclude that the vast majority of students view their instructor as playing a major role in the development of their language skills. This study has pedagogical implications, as it is argues that understanding the students’ perceptions on learning can help a teacher identify what responsibilities can be transferred to the student. (Chen et al., 2002)

This is quite similar to the case in Japan, where a lot of pressure is placed on students to succeed which in turn discourages one from taking learning into their own hands. It appears safer for the student to follow the lead of the instructor. While language learners in Asia are exposed to studying language at a very young age as a means to pass an entrance test, this has really resulted in a spoon-feeding education system where the student needs to focus on the material presented in class in order to pass a test that will ultimately determine the university they attend and the career options that may be presented to them after graduation.


Autonomy in learning is a process and not a product that many EFL students seek today. Autonomy requires understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses and accumulating a diverse set of resources that will maximize exposure and improvements in speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

It is difficult to improve language skills exclusively through autonomous learning. Skills can be learned by studying independently and with other EFL students, but skills are only truly assimilated when they can be confirmed and responded to by a qualified mentor. In most cases, this is achieved in a formal classroom environment. This benefits the students by preventing false reinforcement of mistakes and encouraging critical thinking when using public means to communicate such as chat sites and Internet forums.

As seen with the student examples from Hong Kong and Japan, successful language students did not reach their desired levels of fluency exclusively by autonomous learning but by supplementing their classroom and textbook learning with autonomous learning. It can be argued that it requires a particularly motivated student to succeed with autonomous learning and language learning in general; however, by using the activities mentioned in this paper and by becoming more educated about the opportunities presented to bilingual learners and professionals, an increased interest in independent and formal language learning should ensue.

In attempts to promote a higher level of learner autonomy in Asia, it is important for the instructor to encourage and organize team activities and homework assignments that will force students to explore realms and means that could ultimately pique a greater interest in autonomous learning. As English instructors, it becomes our responsibility to not only teach a language, but to also inform and instruct how to study outside the classroom. This will be accomplished by presenting tasks that inspire the learner to take learning into their own hands.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 10, October 2008