Autonomy: From Theory to Practice in the Libyan Context

1. Introduction

In this paper the researcher explores some of the main concepts in the area of learner ‎autonomy and makes an attempt to implement them in the Libyan EFL context. After ‎explaining learner autonomy and the different levels of control involved in autonomous ‎learning, the researcher presents the reasons for fostering autonomy with special ‎emphasis on the Libyan context, particularly in universities. The researcher also ‎suggests some preliminary practices that can be applied to the Libyan EFL context. At ‎the end, the conclusion summarises the most important points raised in the paper.‎

‎2. What is Learner Autonomy?‎

There have been several definitions of learner autonomy, but, probably the most ‎frequently cited one is Henri Holec’s definition which has reconceptualised the role of ‎learners in the learning process. In addition to defining autonomy as “the ability to take ‎charge of one’s own learning” (Holec, 1981: 3), Holec (1981: 3) explained that ‎autonomous learners have the ability to make all the decisions related to their learning: ‎from determining objectives and defining the content to selecting methods, monitoring ‎and evaluating what has been learnt. ‎

Holec’s aims were to foster a kind of autonomy which is not only concerned with ‎learning but also an autonomous approach which has far–reaching implications for ‎society and its structures and this is what has been emphasized by Benson (2001) and ‎Little (1991:7). This means that autonomy may also help learners to be more ‎‎“responsible and critical members of the communities in which they live” (Benson, ‎‎2001: 1), in other words to become ‘a fully functioning member of society’ so as to ‎bring about changes within society, education systems and language learning. (Benson, ‎‎2001: 19).‎

Although Holec’s reconceptualisation of the educational process covered all the areas ‎that involve the transfer of control over learning from the teacher to the learner, other ‎researchers such as Benson (2001: 49) do not agree with him and maintains that Holec’s ‎account of learner autonomy does not take into consideration “the nature of the ‎cognitive capabilities underlying effective self-management of learning”. Little (1991: ‎‎3-4) realized this weakness in Holec’s definition and argued that

‎“autonomy is a capacity – for detachment, critical reflection, ‎decision making, and independent action. It presupposes, but also ‎entails, that the learner will develop a particular kind of ‎psychological relation to the process and content of his learning. ‎The capacity for autonomy will be displayed both in the way the ‎learner learns and in the way he or she transfers what has been ‎learned to wider contexts”.‎

For this reason, Benson (2001) prefers Little’s definition and argues that this definition ‎adds a vital psychological aspect to Holec’s definition in that it describes autonomy as ‎control over the cognitive processes involved in effective self-management of learning ‎‎(Benson, 2001:49). However Benson (2001: 49) maintains that Holec’s and Little’s ‎definitions of autonomy seem to underestimate the fact that autonomous learning ‎presupposes the freedom of learner to determine the content of learning.‎

Although several definitions of learner autonomy have been proposed, confusion and ‎disagreement about what autonomy is as well as other misconceptions of this area of ‎applied linguistics are still present. This has led Little (1991) to summarize the ‎characteristics that are not ascribable to autonomy. He (1991: 3) emphasises that ‎autonomy is not synonymous with self-instruction, which mistakenly implies that ‎autonomy requires teachers to hand over the whole learning process in the classroom to ‎learners and thus, renders them redundant. Little (1991: 3) also clarified the fact that ‎autonomy is not a teaching method which can be implemented through a series of lesson ‎plans. Finally, he (1991: 3) insists that autonomy is not a single easily described ‎behaviour or a stable state reached by learners.‎

Benson (2001: 49) adds another fundamental component of autonomous learning which ‎is to allow learners to take control over their own learning by giving them the ‎opportunity to determine the content as well as the objectives and purposes of their ‎learning. Benson (2001: 49) also argues that learner autonomy has “a social aspect, ‎which may involve control over learning situations and call on particular capacities ‎concerned with the learner’s ability to interact with others in the learning process”. ‎Although learner autonomy gives the learners a high degree of freedom, the social ‎element of autonomy makes this freedom constrained to some extent, but as Little, ‎‎(1991: 5) argues “Because we are social beings our independence is always balanced by ‎dependence; our essential condition is one of interdependence”.‎

Perhaps the best summary of all these definitions and with which the researcher agrees ‎is provided by Benson (2001: 47) who described learner autonomy as “a ‎multidimensional capacity that will take different forms for different individuals, and ‎even for the same individual in different contexts or at different times”. ‎

‎3. Autonomy and Control over the Learning Process

According to Benson (2001: 75), autonomy presupposes learners’ readiness to take control ‎over their own learning, which means that they “initiate and manage their own learning, set ‎their own priorities and agendas and attempt to control psychological factors that influence ‎their learning”. To be considered as autonomous, learners have to take control of their ‎learning in a systematic way, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to encourage, ‎support and assist them in doing so. If autonomy is considered as an objective of language ‎education, teachers and educational institutions should make the required effort to promote ‎autonomy. This can be done through implementing practices which encourage and enable ‎learners to take more control of all aspects of their learning, which in turn, will help them ‎to become better language learners (Benson, 2001: 109).‎

Benson (2001:47) argues that control over learning takes distinct forms at different ‎levels of the learning process. However, Benson (2001:50) believes that any “adequate ‎description of autonomy in language learning should at least recognise the importance ‎of three levels at which control may be exercised: learning management, cognitive ‎processes and learning content”. He maintains that these levels are interdependent ‎because “effective learning management depends on the control of the cognitive ‎processes” and “control of cognitive processes necessarily has consequences for the ‎self-management of learning” (Benson, 2001: 50). He further argues that “self-‎management and control over cognitive processes should involve decisions concerning ‎the content of learning” (Benson, 2001: 50).‎

‎ ‎
‎3.1 Autonomy and Control over Learning Management

Benson (2001: 76) maintains that “Control over learning management can be described ‎in terms of the behaviours that learners employ in order to manage the planning, ‎organization and evaluation of their learning”. Management over learning is considered ‎an integral element of effective self-directed learning and is taken to be the key to ‎successful language learning and to learning how to learn. When learning a language ‎learners undoubtedly need certain language learning strategies to manage their learning.‎

Learning strategies have been defined differently by different researchers. For example, ‎Chamot and Kupper (1989:13) define learning strategies as “techniques which students ‎use to comprehend, store, and remember new information and skills”. Oxford et al ‎‎(1989:29) regard language learning strategies as “actions, behaviours, steps, or ‎techniques…used by learners to enhance learning”. Oxford (1990:8) views learning ‎strategies as “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more ‎enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations”. ‎According to Brown (2000: 113) strategies are “specific methods of approaching a ‎problem or task, modes of operation for achieving a particular end, planned designs for ‎controlling and manipulating certain information”. Cohen (1998) argues that learning ‎strategies are consciously selected by learners.‎
Strategies are classified into three main types: metacognitive, cognitive and socio-‎affective strategies. Metacognitive strategies help learners to “coordinate their own ‎learning process” (Oxford, 1990:135-136). They provide the learners with ways to plan, ‎organise and evaluate their learning. Cognitive strategies are “more limited to specific ‎learning tasks and involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself” ‎‎(Brown, 2000: 124). Socio-affective strategies involve the regulation of emotions, ‎motivations and attitudes and also facilitate learning through interaction and learning ‎with others (Oxford, 1990:135,145).‎

The discussion about learning strategies steers us towards the topic of strategy training ‎and its aims which Cohen (1998: 67) explained as follows:‎

‎“Strategy training, i.e. explicitly teaching students how to ‎apply language learning and language use strategies, can ‎enhance students’ effort to reach language program goals ‎because it encourages students to find their own pathways to ‎success, and thus it promotes learner autonomy and self-‎direction.”‎

It should be noted that strategy training can be conducted alongside the teaching of ‎language itself. Practically, this means that teachers should include components of ‎strategy training within their lessons. In this way teachers assist their students in ‎improving their skills in learning how to learn and in developing effective strategy use ‎which in turn enable learners to use their language outside the classroom (Nunan, 1991: ‎‎181). ‎

The goal of learner training is to facilitate language learning by providing learners with ‎a wide range of strategies to choose from during their learning and language use ‎‎(Cohen, 1998: 65). This implies that proficiency will be improved and autonomy will be ‎fostered.‎
Benson (2001: 65) argues that “learners who achieve proficiency in foreign languages ‎tend to take some degree of control over the overall direction of their learning”. ‎Therefore, training learners to manage their own learning is vital when implementing ‎learner autonomy. ‎

‎3.2. Autonomy and Control over Content and Cognitive Processes

‎Control over cognitive processes is concerned with specific mental processes which ‎‎“offer a concise account of the psychological factors underpinning control over learning ‎behaviour.” (Benson, 2001:87). Benson (2001) argues that control over cognitive ‎processes is mainly concerned with three aspects: attention, reflection and ‎metacognitive knowledge (Figure 1). ‎psychology of language learning

Attention is considered essential for language learning if it is to be effective. Language ‎learners have to exert cognitive responsibility for the linguistic input, because as ‎Tomila and Villa (1994: 184) argue, the learner is “ overwhelmed by incoming L2 input, ‎and it is a virtual certainty that attention employed to help sort out that input and to ‎bring order to the chaos threatening to, and sometimes succeeding in, overwhelming the ‎learner”. Bialystock argues that‎

The reason that … language proficiency increases, is that ‎mental representations develop. Analysis is the process by ‎which mental representations that were loosely organized ‎around meanings become rearranged into explicit ‎representations that are organised around formal ‎structures. … Because cognition originates in mental ‎representations, then there must be a means of focusing ‎attention on specific representations, … relevant to a ‎particular purpose. … Awareness is the result of the ‎interaction between analysis and control. Analysed ‎representations can be attended to by means of control of ‎processing in precise ways. … This process of focusing ‎attention onto specific aspects of the representations gives ‎rise to the subjective feeling of awareness that has been ‎called consciousness. (Bialystock, 1994:159-65; cited in ‎Benson, 2001:88-9)‎

Reflection is also believed to be one of the main components of learner autonomy. ‎Accordingly, Little (1997) argues that if autonomy is to be implemented in formal ‎learning, reflection, then, is imperative in autonomous learning for “formal learning is ‎the result of deliberate intention” (Little, 1997: 94). As a result, in addition to ‎reflecting on the language itself, learners will also be able to reflect on the process of ‎learning and develop their own way of learning by applying the results of their own ‎reflections. This view of reflection is supported by Kohonen (1992:17) who argues that ‎‎“Only experience that is reflected upon seriously will yield its full measure of learning, ‎and reflection must in turn be followed by testing of hypotheses in order to obtain ‎further experience.”‎

It is believed that control over content is fundamental to autonomy too. With regard to ‎control over the learning content Benson (2001:102) argues that it “requires, more than ‎any other aspect of autonomy, that teachers and education authorities create situational ‎contexts in which freedom in learning is encouraged and rewarded.” In Libyan ‎classroom teaching the content is determined by teachers and the national curriculum, ‎hence learners cannot exercise any control over the content. However, if learner ‎autonomy is to be implemented in the Libyan context, learners should have their say ‎about the syllabus and textbooks that they are using in the language classroom. To ‎develop learner autonomy then, negotiation has to take place so that a balance can be ‎achieved between what learners want to study and what the institution offers. In this ‎way autonomy can be fostered through interdependence.‎

‎4. Why Fostering Learner Autonomy?‎

Cotteral (1995:220) argues that autonomy has to be promoted to enable learners learn ‎even when they do not have access to teachers’ instruction and that they will learn more ‎effectively if they do not depend on teachers’ help. Discussing a course strategies for ‎learner autonomy Cotteral (1995: 222-223) argues that in order to foster autonomy ‎learner/teacher dialogue about all aspects of language learning should be encouraged, ‎and that learners’ beliefs about learning should be questioned and related to information ‎about factors which contribute to language learning success. This, she maintains, will ‎provide learners with the vocabulary necessary to talk about their language learning ‎experience. Cotteral (1995: 224) asserts that a course which fosters autonomy “must ‎incorporate frank discussions of objectives, methodology, roles, and expectations”. In ‎this way she argues learners will be able to think about the application of classroom ‎tasks to their future needs.‎

‎4.1 Reasons to Promote Learner Autonomy in Libya

Dickinson (1995: 171) regards autonomy as factor in the motivation-success chain and ‎asserts that ‘Success in learning … appears to lead to greater motivation only for those ‎students who accept responsibility for their own learning success’. Thus, learner ‎autonomy increases students’ motivation which in turn leads to more effective learning.‎

Traditional teacher-centred approaches do not give learners their right to freely choose ‎what they want to learn and how to learn. However, learner autonomy brings back this ‎freedom to the learners and prepares them to abandon the idea of being teacher-‎dependent and to be responsible for their own learning. As a consequence, they become ‎more efficient learners. Confucius ‎ realised the importance of autonomous learning ‎which for him means a process of independent exploration (I read, and I forgot; I saw, ‎and I believed; I did, and I understood). Autonomy is also encouraged by the Libyan ‎culture and is evident in the Arabic proverb which says ‘if you want a thing well done, ‎do it yourself”. ‎

The Libyan education system is suffering from a shortage of English teachers at present. ‎Learners are taught collectively in large classes and they are experiencing a lack of ‎English language interaction in the classroom. Thus, fostering learner autonomy not ‎only provides an economical solution for the education system problem, but also an ‎effective way for students to compensate for the lack of opportunities to use English in ‎class. It is believed that learner autonomy offers learners more opportunities for English ‎interaction in non-native contexts.‎

Due to individual differences Libyan learners are usually at different levels that no ‎formal classroom instruction can comply with. Self-directed learning, however, is ‎adaptable. It is independent of time, location and method. It can be carried out in the ‎library, at home, in a self-access centre, in the classroom, in a computer lab or even ‎under a tree. Students can also choose the convenient time for them to learn. It is ‎adjustable according to the individual’s learning style and his/her use of strategies. It ‎also allows learners to select materials according to their own needs. It reinforces ‎individualism but does not rule out collaborative learning (Gardner and Miller, 1999).‎

It can be argued that once students have developed their own autonomous approach to ‎learning one can claim that they have acquired a life-long learning skill which will help ‎them after their graduation.‎

‎4.2 Some Practices to Foster Autonomy in Libyan Classrooms ‎

Learning English in Libya is completely teacher-centred and students usually do not ‎have the right to fully control their own learning and therefore do not know how to ‎exercise this control. In a situation like this where learners have not experienced ‎autonomy before, it is of vital importance to introduce autonomy gradually through ‎some practical classroom actions. The researcher suggests that learner autonomy can be ‎implemented in the Libyan context through the following preliminary classroom ‎practices.‎

‎1. When asking students to write assignments, the teacher should provide several topics ‎from which students can select the topic they are interested in. Students should also be ‎allowed to design their own topics and discuss them with the teacher. The teacher may ‎even negotiate the deadline for the submission of assignments. After students had ‎submitted their assignments, the teacher should ask the students how they did it in order ‎to elicit and discuss the strategies they have used while preparing their assignments.‎

‎2. In conversation classes the teacher should give students the freedom to decide the ‎topic they want to discuss or at least he/she provides them with several topics to select ‎from.‎

‎3. In revision classes, students should be given the opportunity to select those areas ‎which they feel need revising as well as reviewing the points that the teacher deems to ‎be not fully understood.‎

‎4. In Reading comprehension classes, students should be allowed to select from several ‎passages or articles provided by both the teacher and the students. ‎

‎5. The teacher should discuss the importance of reflection with his/her students and ask ‎them to reflect upon what they have learnt (e.g. the articles they have read or the ‎assignments they did). ‎

‎6. The teacher should encourage learners to prepare a classroom magazine or posters ‎and let them decide the content of them. The teacher here might suggest some sources ‎to collect data from.‎

‎7. The teacher should discuss the components of the course and give students the ‎opportunity to participate in the process of deciding the sequence in which the course ‎will be taught, but after highlighting that certain lessons have to be studied before ‎others.‎

‎8. The teacher should ask the students about how they did their tasks to elicit their ‎strategy use and then discuss them with the learners and point out the effective ones ‎according to the task in question.‎

‎9. The teacher should help his/her students to develop metacognitive strategies for ‎planning, organising and evaluating their learning.‎
‎ ‎
In fact, the promotion of learner autonomy in classroom settings depends to a large ‎extent on teachers’ ability to help their learners by involving them in decision-making, ‎self-discipline, self-help and teamwork …etc.‎

‎5. Conclusion ‎

Although autonomy is beneficial for learners, fostering it in teacher-centred settings is a ‎very difficult task for teachers because it involves the change of the preconceived ‎beliefs about the traditional learning process. Moreover, “if the curriculum itself lacks ‎flexibility, it is likely that the degree of autonomy developed by the learners will be ‎correspondingly constrained” (Benson, 2001: 162). Although the Libyan curriculum is ‎inflexible, the researcher believes that teachers can foster autonomy by implementing ‎the classroom practices suggested above. The researcher also believes that teacher ‎training is a prerequisite to the promotion of autonomy in Libyan classrooms, because if ‎teachers are well-trained they will find the ways by which autonomy can be fostered. ‎


Benson, P (2001) Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning. Harlow, ‎England: Pearson Education Limited.‎

Bialystok, E. (1994) ‘Analysis and control in the development of second language ‎proficiency’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, pp. 157-168. ‎

Brown, Henry D. (2000) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. 4th ed. London: ‎Longman.‎

Chamot, A. U. and Lisa Kupper (1989). ‘Learning Strategies in Foreign Language ‎Instruction’. Foreign Language Annals, 22, No. 1, pp. 13-24. ‎

Cohen, Andrew D. (1998) Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. ‎London: Longman.‎

Cotteral, S (1995). ‘Developing a course strategy for learner autonomy’. ELT Journal, ‎Vol. 49/3, 1995.‎

Dickinson, L. (1995). ‘Autonomy and motivation: a literature review’. System, 23, 2, pp. ‎‎165-174.‎

Gardner, D. and L. Miller (1999) Establishing Self-access: From Theory to Practice. ‎Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.‎

Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.‎
‎(First published 11979, Council of Europe, Strasbourg.)‎

Kohonen, V. (1992). ‘Experiential language learning: second language learning as ‎cooperative learner education’. In D. Nunan (1992) (ed.) Collaborative Language ‎Learning and Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 14 -39. ‎

Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy. 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems. Dublin: ‎Authentik,.‎

Little, D. (1997) ‘Language awareness and the autonomous language learner’. Language ‎Awareness, 6 (2/3), pp. 93-104.‎

Nunan, D. (1991) Language Teaching Methodology: A textbook for teachers. Hemel ‎Hempstead: Prentice Hall.‎

Oxford et al (1989). ‘Language Learning Strategies, the Communicative Approach, and ‎their Classroom Implications’. Foreign Language Annals, 22:1, pp. 29-39. ‎

Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. ‎Boston: Heinle & Heinle.‎