Teach yourself autonomy does not work

January 31, 1997

Developing students as autonomous learners is a proper aim for a university but not a solution to funding crises, says Grenville Wall

As university finance gets tighter, exhausted staff take early retirement and greater pressure is applied to produce the necessary quantities of quality research, the more we hear of students as "autonomous learners". What most university teachers might once have thought of as a high educational ideal has been hijacked by those whose main concern is to balance the books. The phrase is often incanted as though it were a magic formula for dispelling the conflict between the declining unit of funding and quality enhancement.

Don't get me wrong - I think that the idea of trying to develop students as autonomous learners has a lot to be said for it. What makes me suspicious is that it has acquired its currency, not because academics have been busily defending it as an educational ideal against reactionary attempts to dispense with it, but because of the resource problems institutions face. It most frequently appears on the lips of those who are removed from undergraduate teaching. The result is a proleptic way of speaking: you reduce student contact time, reduce the number of assignments, reduce the amount of formal assessment, direct students to the nearest computing centre, give out fuller reading lists, and, thinking you have achieved something worthwhile, call your students "autonomous learners".

It might even be true that if institutions did more to develop their students as autonomous learners - especially first-year students - or did it more deliberately and systematically, teaching time might be saved later on and standards of student achievement raised. But the problem is that most of those who invoke this notion do not explain what they mean by it or chase out its practical implications.

So what might the autonomous learner be? It is clearly not enough to be left alone surrounded by books and with access to a computer terminal and a laboratory. Proponents seem to have in mind someone who is capable of the rational self-direction and management of her own learning, who can make reliable judgements about her progress and whose critical powers enable her to make accurate and soundly based assessments of the academic quality of her own work.

We can comfort ourselves with the recognition that autonomy is a matter of degree: we are not born autonomous in this sense, and we never achieve absolute autonomy any more than we can ever achieve absolute self-knowledge.

So the first tricky question arises: what level of autonomy do we have in mind? This immediately splits into several other questions about the level appropriate for different stages of university education - first-year undergraduate level, final-year undergraduate level, master's level, and so on. And how do you judge the level of autonomy actually achieved?

You might be tempted, in NVQ-fashion, to try to operationalise the levels you think are appropriate to different stages by specifying them in terms of appropriate observable student behaviours. You are strongly advised to resist this temptation: quite apart from the fact that you are likely to increase your assessment load and bury yourself in paper. Whatever autonomous learning is, it is definitely not something that can be given a reductionist behavioural specification.

But is autonomy not manifested in such things as knowledge, understanding, skill, critical capacity and originality? Do we not already have these as aims, and do we not try to develop them through that old-fashioned activity of teaching? And do we not already know how to assess these? True, but this misses the point: teaching is what you've got to give students less of.

So how do you enable students to become less dependent on teachers? If you reject the sink-or-swim philosophy, it is difficult to see how you might do this except by a special kind of teaching (and perhaps a modified curriculum and a modified form of assessment). What is more, the odds are that this kind of teaching is likely to be more time-consuming than the more traditional ones - even if you have older students as helpers or mentors.

The drain on teaching resources is likely to be even greater if we bear in mind that as a consequence of the rapid expansion of higher education and the deepening and widening of access, your attempts to develop students as autonomous learners are often going to have to start from a lower level of general educational attainment.

Your troubles have not ended yet. Remember that the notion of the autonomous learner included the idea of rational self-direction. If your university has adopted a modular system, students will have lots of choices. Quite apart from the burden this often imposes on you in advising them, they are often not really in a position to make the "informed choices" these systems are supposed to encourage. Not having bothered to do the appropriate homework, they might be badly informed about subjects and modules. Also some degree of self-knowledge is necessary if a student is to make a well-informed choice, not only in the sense of the student being well-informed about the subject, but also about its appropriateness for him.

This points to a deeper problem about the implementation of the notion of students as autonomous learners. The degree of your autonomy is an aspect of your character; and the way it manifests itself in your actions depends on a host of factors which include not only knowledge (including knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with them), but also such things as soundly based ideas of what is valuable and good judgement in relating these to your own talents. The same is true of the autonomous learner.

The achievement of a significant degree of autonomy (even as a learner) is a lifetime project. You cannot treat most students as autonomous learners and hope to save yourself a few bob. Autonomy in learning is something that has to be nurtured. And it is one of the functions of the university to do that. Some students will achieve a fairly high level of autonomy as learners by the time they graduate (and might well do so with relatively little contact with their teachers). These are the fortunate few. Many of the other 30 per cent of the age cohort will need much closer attention (and from wise and interested teachers) if they are eventually to achieve something comparable.

Although developing students as autonomous learners is a proper aim of university education, it cannot be dressed up as a solution to chronic funding crises.

Grenville Wall was principal lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex University.

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