Learner and Teacher Autonomy in Higher Education: Perspectives from Modern Language Teaching

by Manuel Jiménez Raya (Volume editor) José Javier Martos Ramos (Volume editor) Maria Giovanna Tassinari (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 308 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Learner and Teacher Autonomy in Higher Education (Manuel Jiménez Raya, José Javier Martos Ramos & Maria Giovanna Tassinari)
  • Teacher Autonomy and Agency: The Space of Possibility in Overcoming External Obstacles and Internal Resistances (Manuel Jiménez Raya)
  • Autonomy and Affect in Language Learning: A Dynamic Relationship (Jane Arnold & M. Carmen Fonseca-Mora)
  • Understanding Language Learners’ Teacher Dependence in China (Jian (Tracy) Tao & Xuesong (Andy) Gao)
  • Preparing Future EFL Teachers to Understand, Develop and Exploit Self-Access through Project Work (Carol J. Everhard)
  • Enhancing Teacher Research for Autonomy in Postgraduate Teacher Education (Flávia Vieira)
  • The Proficiency of Multilingual and Autonomous Learners, or: What it Means to Be a Competent Learner (Hélène Martinez)
  • The Babel Marketplace—An Artefact for Teacher Training (Christoph Ehlers)
  • Educational Applications and Autonomy: The Perspective of Students (José Javier Martos Ramos)
  • Interdependent Autonomy: Face-to-Face and Digital Media in Modern Language Learning (M. Carmen Fonseca-Mora, Mark Gant & Francisco Herrero Machancoses)
  • A Self-Access Language Centre for Learners and Teachers: Promoting Autonomy in Higher Education (Maria Giovanna Tassinari)

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Manuel Jiménez Raya, José Javier Martos Ramos & Maria Giovanna Tassinari

Learner and Teacher Autonomy in Higher Education

A still widely extended idea is that all that is required for teaching in higher education is knowledge of the subject matter. Teaching is somehow undervalued in higher education for several reasons. The ‘conflict’ between research and teaching is for the most part resolved in favour of research because of the pressure of international rankings and professional promotion criteria that prioritise research over teaching. Furthermore, most universities base their claims for teaching excellence and student quality learning experiences on a close connection between research, teaching and learning. Still nowadays not many universities require from their faculty a teaching qualification before they start teaching despite the centrality of teaching for the institution and the members of staff themselves. However, as research has widely demonstrated, quality teaching does make a difference in student achievement. Although quality may be a question of definition, there is nowadays a consensus regarding the educational challenges higher education faces. The evolution from the industrial to the knowledge/learning society requires new competencies characteristically associated with the concept of autonomy and lifelong learning, namely, self-awareness, critical thinking, advanced cognitive and self-regulatory competencies, tolerance of ambiguity, cooperation and dialogic communication, among others (Jiménez Raya, 2008).

In 1992, Boyer made a pervasive appeal for a new scholarship. Boyer and his colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer, 1990; Hutchings & Shulman, 1999; Shulman, 1999) argued that there was a pressing need to enlarge the meaning of scholarship. Their suggestion was intended to enrich the quality of undergraduate education. Four distinct but overlapping areas of scholarship were identified: the scholarship of discovery research; the scholarship of integration, including the writing of textbooks; the scholarship of service, including the practical application of knowledge; and the scholarship of teaching.1 It is argued, though, that improving the quality of learning and teaching entails engagement with all four areas of scholarship. From the Scholarship of Teaching ← 7 | 8 → and Learning perspective (Boyer, 1990), quality teaching should encourage active, not passive learning and support students to be critical, creative thinkers, with the capacity to go on learning on their own. Further, Boyer suggests that good teaching means that faculty, as scholars, are also learners (Boyer, 1990: 23–24). The work stimulated by the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning movement is to a large extent responsible for the growing interest in teaching in higher education. In addition, the Bologna process in Europe has also emphasized the role of teaching in higher education, highlighting learner-centredness, competency-based education, and lifelong learning. It has also emphasized the teaching and learning of foreign languages in higher education. Therefore, academics are struggling to find the balance between research and teaching because of conflicting tendencies. Global competition between universities as expressed in world rankings is pushing in the opposite direction, promoting a unified model of the good university and fostering a trend towards disciplinary research at the expense of teaching (Arimoto, 2015).

Excellence in teaching or being scholarly from our standpoint entails a higher level of professionalism in stimulating students and fostering their learning in diverse ways. It regards teaching as an intellectual activity, as research that employs identical criteria to other forms of research, according to Shulman (1999), as on-going investigation that is given visibility, shared with others, peer reviewed and published. A scholarly approach involves an inquiry approach to one’s teaching practice and a concern for knowledge development in one’s discipline but also for keeping up to date in methodological issues. A scholarly approach to teaching comprises all the aspects of teaching, that is, the design, delivery, and assessment of the curriculum as well as the evaluation of the effectiveness of the instruction delivered.

The basic premise in this volume is that autonomy is a prima facie value. Autonomy is generally acknowledged as one of the main goals of education and a value to be promoted in higher education. It is presently acknowledged as crucial to the development of lifelong learning in the learning society. Furthermore, it is often regarded as a defining attribute of all sustained learning that attains long-term success. Autonomy is simultaneously a goal of higher education and an educational approach to secure that goal. The creation of the European Higher Education Area and the implementation of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) call for a learner-centred, meaning-based pedagogy which fosters the development of critical thinking skills. In this sense, pedagogy for autonomy becomes an indispensable element. The purpose of education in the learning society is not merely to enable students to accumulate facts but to develop the capacity for lifelong learning. A major goal is that by the time students finish their degree ← 8 | 9 → they should have developed the capacity to regulate purposefully and responsibly their own learning behaviour because when people function autonomously, they are more deeply engaged and productive, generating human capital and wellness (Gough & McGregor, 2007 in Ryan & Deci, 2006).

Nowadays, autonomy features centrally in theoretical accounts of persons, conceptions of moral obligation and responsibility, social policy, and many other areas of political theory. According to Kerr (2002), a concern for autonomy is intrinsic to such essential values as freedom, democracy, rights, justice, and some versions of equality. According to Winch (2002), it entails a complex of propositional, personal, and practical knowledge, because it involves the propositional knowledge of what is sanctioned as either a sensible or a valuable choice, the personal knowledge essential to decide what ends are proper for oneself, the practical knowledge needed to evaluate the relative intrinsic worth of potentially suitable ends, as well as the various means appropriate to achieving them.

Autonomy has typically been categorized as self-government, self-rule or self-determination. To be autonomous is understood as being able to live a life in accordance with our own conception of a good life, that is, to live in accordance with one’s own values. The liberal tradition has conceived autonomy as the ultimate goal of education. This goal requires freedom and experimentation in living. Concerning its development, Mill was convinced that in order to develop as an authentic individual, one has to become involved in a process of experimentation in living, in which one tries oneself out in various situations in order to ‘discover oneself’ and find out one’s real true values. This reflects Mill’s idea that one does not learn about oneself by a purely passive search within oneself. Rather, according to Mill, experimentation in living is necessary also for the development of self-direction. The best way of training the mind to rational decision-making, and of training the will to actually implement decisions is by becoming involved in the real making and implementing of decisions through experimentation in living. Research on self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2006; Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, & La Guardia, 2006) has found evidence for the claim that autonomy is essential to the full functioning and mental health of individuals and optimal functioning of organizations and cultures. Self-determination theory is an empirically based approach to human development and motivation in which autonomy is a central concept.

This volume is a modest but interesting and inspiring example of the growing interest in teaching among faculty at a European/global level, an example of a scholarly approach to teaching in higher education. It includes contributions from ← 9 | 10 → scholars in different university contexts, which face the challenge of implementing, in various ways, the principles of pedagogy for autonomy.

Overview of the book

Manuel Jiménez Raya examines the notions of autonomy and agency in language education and points out to the contradictions between the social and political understanding of autonomy as crucial to democratic societies and autonomy as a goal in education. In particular, whereas autonomy is claimed as a crucial goal in education, as the capacity to critical thinking, decision-making and action, in practice schools and universities still focus on accountability, exercising control on educational programs, faculty, and teaching and learning practices. In such educational contexts, teachers willing to exercise and develop their own and their students’ autonomy, face multiple challenges and encounter, beside internal resistances, external obstacles. While providing basic principles for implementing a pedagogy for autonomy, Jiménez Raya exhorts teachers to become aware of constraints, paradoxes and dilemmas they may face and to create the conditions for meaningful and motivating learning experiences which give learners – and teachers – a sense of autonomy, exploring the space of possibility, that is the territory between the real and the ideal.

Jane Arnold and M. Carmen Fonseca-Mora address a relevant issue, the relationship between autonomy and the affective dimension of language learning and its implication for teaching practice. In a humanistic vision of education which takes into account affective as well as cognitive aspects of the teaching and learning process, the role of the teacher is, besides supporting and guiding learners in their autonomous learning paths, to create a psychological climate which allows effective and high quality learning. On the basis of the distinction made by Earl Stevick, the authors analyze both the internal and the interrelational affective aspects which support effective and autonomous learning: motivation, self-confidence, self-esteem, beliefs about one self and one’s learning process, the feeling of having the opportunity for choice and meaningful learning and a supportive classroom atmosphere based on reciprocal respect, support and collaboration among learners and between learners and teacher.

Jian (Tracy) Tao and Xuesong (Andy) Gao investigate agency and learner behaviours in the Asian context from a sociocultural perspective. In particular, they question the notion of teacher-dependence, stereotypical for the Asian context and through the analysis of learners’ narratives in a tertiary vocational educational institution show that learners’ behaviours and strategic choices are strongly influenced by contextual and cultural factors, such as the achievement-oriented and ← 10 | 11 → competitive educational context, and previous learning experiences. In this perspective, they interpret the learners’ teacher-dependence as part of autonomous language learning behaviours emerging from interaction between contextual conditions and learner agency, associated with language learners’ choice, action and consciousness.

Carol Everhard illustrates an experience with students at the School of English of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. As an instructor on an applied linguistics course related to ‘Self-Access and Foreign Language Learning’, she combined theory and practice of self-access language learning, giving EFL students of mixed competencies the opportunity to set up and run a self-access centre in different phases. First, learners selected and displayed materials, then adapted them and created new ones according to their interests and needs. They also organized the opening of the self-access centre, and, finally, they were involved in peer-mentoring of younger students in order to raise awareness. The aim was to encourage the exchange of experience and knowledge to maximize learning and promote ownership of learning.

In her chapter, Flávia Vieira makes a case for enhancing research practice on autonomy in teacher education contexts, claiming that teacher research, even if it may have a low impact on actual educational policies, has a great transformative potential for teachers’ own beliefs, attitudes and practices. With a critical view at trends and constraints in mainstream academic research, she emphasizes the importance of transformative research, which aims at combining the rigour and relevance of research with a concern for developing context-sensitive, flexible empowering practices in language education. To illustrate this, she describes a framework defining quality dimensions for designing teacher research and gives examples from an investigation on a project aiming at exploring the possibilities for negotiating self-direction in a classroom school context.

Hélène Martinez’s contribution focuses on the question of how multilingual learners’ competencies can enhance their autonomy. Starting with the analysis of an interview with multilingual students of romance languages, Martinez delves into the analysis of the definition and components of multilingual learning competence and of autonomy as a complex learning and action-oriented competence and compares the two sets of competences. On the basis of her analysis, she develops multidimensional criteria for designing reflective tasks aiming at developing both language skills and autonomous language learning competencies.

Christoph Ehlers describes an experience of learning-by-teaching in a course on language teaching methodology in a Masters program on teaching Spanish as a foreign language at the University of Seville. In order to link the development ← 11 | 12 → of strategic expertise with the acquisition of theoretical knowledge, students are invited to develop a micro-unit of work for language teaching either in their native language or in another language of their choice, and to actually teach it to peers and external audience at the ‘Babel Marketplace’. The experience is structured as a recursive process of planning, executing, reflecting, evaluating and adapting the micro-unit, following the principles of reflective practice and of micro- and macro-approaches to language teaching. Excerpts of a student’s diary illustrate the range of reflection and the quality of learning that such an experience fosters.


This volume seeks to foster the development of teacher and learner autonomy in language learning in higher education. It pools the insights and experiences of a group of international researchers who present their reflections and research on different aspects of autonomy and related issues. Although autonomy is acknowledged as one of the main goals of education, in higher education the need for accountability and standardisation of learning outcomes may constitute external limitations to its development. In order to overcome teaching traditions and mainstream academic culture, teachers may need to reorient themselves and face the challenge of a substantial change involving their own and their learners’ beliefs, their practice and their role in the institution.

Biographical notes

Manuel Jiménez Raya (Volume editor) José Javier Martos Ramos (Volume editor) Maria Giovanna Tassinari (Volume editor)

Manuel Jiménez Raya is Full Professor and Head of the English and German Department at the University of Granada, Spain. His main research interests are pedagogy for autonomy, experiential learning, modern language teacher education, and case pedagogy. He has published numerous articles and co-authored several books on FLT methodology and teacher education. José Javier Martos Ramos is an Associate Professor of the German Department at the University of Seville, Spain. He teaches German linguistics at undergraduate and graduate levels. His research interests include the relationship of students' attitudes towards autonomous foreign language learning, the use of educational applications and interactional linguistics. Maria Giovanna Tassinari is Director of the Centre for Independent Language Learning at the Language Centre of the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Her research interests include learner autonomy, language advising, affect in language learning and teaching, as well as formal and informal learning, on which she publishes frequently.


Title: Learner and Teacher Autonomy in Higher Education: Perspectives from Modern Language Teaching