1. What was the pedagogical strategy that you intended to implement in your course to promote autonomy in your students? Why did you choose this strategy? How could this strategy potentially benefit you as well as your target students?
The strategy I implemented was language advising. The group of students I worked with were preparing for a high-stakes public exam. I chose this strategy as it allowed me to broaden the focus of learning of the course from exam preparation to issues of independent language learning. As part of the course, I encouraged students to reflect on their individual needs in terms of preparing for the exam and advised them of useful resources and strategies. However, by the end of the course both the students and I felt it would be beneficial to continue meeting, both individually and in groups. It was thus actually once the course had finished that I felt the advising really kicked-off with weekly meetings allowing the students and I to focus on individual short-term exam preparation needs and longer-term language goals.
I chose this strategy for many reasons. I wanted to
- support these students in their preparation for the high-stakes exam by being able to hone in on individual language learning needs,
- broaden the focus of learning from exam preparation to wider goals of independent learning, thus supporting learner autonomy,
- consider how curriculum material could be amended to better support independent learning,
- gain insight into the effectiveness and practicality of the current advising systems in our self-access centre
- develop a deeper understanding of the professional development needs of tutors working in an advisory setting.
I also wanted the students to experience advising conversations. Most of them plan to become language teachers in Hong Kong and will therefore be involved in Assessment for Learning. Advising seems likely to become a key strategy for teachers working with School-based Assessment, which in part aims to support learner autonomy.
2. Did you explain to your students as to why you wanted to implement this strategy in your course? If so, in what way did you do it? If not, why not?
I don’t think I clearly explained the aims of advising within the course. We conducted peer and self- assessment as part of normal classroom learning and this led to group discussions about how the students could move forward.
However, when we started meeting individually at the end of the course, we discussed
- the purpose of the advising conversations (advising vs teaching)
- our respective roles within the conversations (advisor / advisee vs teacher / student)
- ways of recording our discussions (learner record)
- resources available to them on and off-campus.
During the first meeting, I tried to get the students to reflect on where they were with their language study, to identify short-term and long-term goals and to talk about how they approached language study outside the classroom. However, the conversations also sometimes digressed into their language learning histories and affective issues, such as how much they were enjoying learning English and how confident and motivated they felt.
I also tried to explain briefly the theory behind some aspects of successful language learning, namely analyzing needs, setting goals, making decisions, evaluating and reflecting on learning. However, I didn’t dwell on these hoping that the students would make the connection between these stages through taking part in the conversations. I suggested we record our conversations and the students’ activities and reflections using a learner record but I only briefly explained experiential learning.
I returned to the theories informing advising and independent learning at different stages with different students during the subsequent conversations. At the end of the term, we met as a group to share our experiences. Here I tried to pull together issues that had arisen in individual discussions, such as what it means to be autonomous, how successful independent learners learn, what role reflection plays in the process and what strategies the students had employed.
3. How did you monitor the implementation of this strategy? Were there any particular incidents or student comments/responses that struck you as to whether the implementation of this strategy was effective or not? If so, what were they?
As each advising conversations builds on the last, I was able to see quite easily whether or not the strategy was working. Understandably, different students came to the meetings with different activities to report on or issues to discuss. One student threw herself into finding out about listening skills; another decided she needed to read up on time management before she did anything else. These struck me as evidence that the strategy was working.
I could also check the students’ learner records between conversations. However, it quickly became evident that the students did not always keep these updated, even if they were working on their goals. The conversations themselves therefore became the main source of confirmation that the strategy was successful.
4. Did you encounter any difficulties when implementing this strategy? If so, what were they? Was it possible for you to do anything to improve the situation? If so, what did you do? If not, why not?
Yes. The implementation of advising with the group was quite fragmented. Once the course had finished, we had one month to work together before the students were placed in schools for teaching practice. The group requested we put the meetings on hold during the teaching practice period and reconvene once they returned to campus. I felt that we managed to pick up the discussions quite naturally when the students returned to campus but this break still felt like a disruption.
The second difficulty I encountered was with getting the group to update their learner records. The students reported to me that while they found it useful keep track of their learning, they also found filling out the record something of a chore. This did not really impact on the overall effectiveness of the strategy as I was working with a small group and found it easy to pick up the thread of the conversation from one meeting to the next. However, had the group been larger or the meetings less frequent, not having a record of learning to refer to would have resulted in much time wasting recapping earlier discussions and activity.
I was always able to recommend strategies and resources if the students requested. However, I was not always able to offer choice of resources to the students. I felt this was problematic as without choice the students weren’t able critically assess which resource was best for them and the pendulum edged back from learner-centred to directed learning. Sometimes it worked to our advantage with the student seeking out alternative resources themselves. Nonetheless, the issue of building up resources remains.
A major issue with implementing advising seems to be the time it takes. I strongly feel that I made progress with this group and that was in part because I was able to meet with each student for around 30 minutes every two to three weeks over three months. It is precisely because both the students and I were able to commit this time that I feel were able to establish rapport, work through key issues and practices and reach consensus. I also had the benefit of having worked with this group through a course. In that sense we had already done much of the groundwork, though maybe not explicitly, before we started the individual meetings. I feel this strategy would be more difficult to implement were I attempting the same with a larger group, with learners with lower proficiency levels or less motivation or with students who I had not taught.
5. If you were to implement this strategy again to promote autonomy in your future students, would you do anything differently? Why or why not?
The next time I implement this strategy, I’ll start with some theoretical input so that the students have the bigger picture. I’ll also experiment with formalizing peer support groups and perhaps encourage more peer advising. I will definitely set up a community page on our LMS and ask learners to share their strategies, successes and challenges. This might help support a sense of community as well as provide resources and advice. Finally, I think I would let the students decide how to record their learning. We do need a record of learning if the students are seeing different advisors but we can be more flexible if they are just working with one person.
6. What suggestions would you give to teachers who are interested in using this strategy to promote autonomy in his/her students?
I would highly recommend colleagues implement advising as a strategy to support learner autonomy, either with individual groups of students or as a part of self-access support. Advising, either integrated into the teaching and learning cycle or as an independent activity, can promote student autonomy and responsibility and promote a collaborative learning environment.
Teachers do however need to be aware of the time needed to establish the advising relationship, particularly in the early stages when the student may be adjusting to their new role. This requires planning and commitment.
Otherwise, I would suggest colleagues
- integrate basic learner training into the curriculum to ensure students become familiar with meta-cognitive skills & strategies
- clearly negotiate expectations of the purpose of the advising conversation and the respective roles of the advisor / advisee.
- reflect on the discourse of advising. Monitor the communication strategies you are using during the conversation.
- strike a balance between meeting the student often enough to build up a partnership in learning and leaving the student enough time to make meaningful progress.
- make sure each discussion builds on the last. If you negotiate a course of action, ask the student how it went. As well as encouraging the student to vocalize the process, you are also building up a picture of how the individual learns.
- always try to get the students to give themselves advice first. When you do give advice, keep it ‘doable’. Too much advice may overwhelm the student. Small successes can create a sense of progress.
- consider the resources you have available to recommend. Encourage the student to explore resources for themselves but be ready to offer specific help if they draw a blank.
- stay positive and supportive. Celebrate small successes!
For students, engaging in advising conversations can help develop autonomy by allowing them to take control of their learning with the support of an advisor who may be a teacher, a tutor or even a more capable peer. For the tutor, implementing advising can result in a greater professional skill set, build truly collaborative relationships with learners and allow for an ongoing conversation in support of learner autonomy.