Independent, autonomous learners are a sight to behold. They show up for their first day of class armed with notebooks, pens, pencils and highlighters in an assortment of colors, as well as the iron will to learn.
They supply answers without being prompted. They complete all of their tasks and homework (and even ask for more!), and they dazzle you with a list of books they’ve read or movies they’ve watched in English…
But we all know that not all students are like that. There are some, by contrast, who must be told exactly what to do – all the time. What happens when we have autonomous and dependent learners in the same classroom? This poses a series of challenges:
How To Deal with Autonomous & Dependent Learners: Problems and Solutions
Problem: The eager beaver reads ahead and completes exercises before class
There are students who are so keen on learning that they’ll come to class having read the coursebook and underlined all of the new words (which they have carefully looked up in the dictionary). Some even go as far as completing the exercises and answering the questions!
SOLUTION: While it’s great for students to want to come to class prepared, they should understand that there are things you must do together – in class and as a group. Tell them that you understand that they mean well, and that it’s great that they are so motivated! But if they want something to do at home, you can give them similar exercises or suggest other books/materials they can work with in their free time. If they insist on “knowing” the answers before class, make sure they understand this gives them an unfair advantage over those who don’t prepare.
Problem: The eager beaver progresses faster
This is a very common problem to encounter. An autonomous learner is more naturally motivated, does extra work, pays closer attention and will soon enough leave their classmates behind. On the other hand, the dependent learner probably already feels insecure, and the feeling of lagging behind will only make them less motivated. In time, the gap will be even wider.
SOLUTION: The ideal situation would be to detect those students with a natural penchant for language learning and place them in a higher level. If this is not possible, give the fast learner extra work that is suitable to their level, but not specifically related to the class curriculum, perhaps something connected to a hobby they enjoy or books they may be interested in. The dependent learner on the other hand must be engaged and motivated by all means possible. You’ll find great ways to motivate teens, for example, in this article.
Problem: The eager beaver engages in bad study habits
Some students use techniques/strategies that, while not altogether bad, are not precisely what you try to promote in class. A good example is when students read a text, underline each new word they come across, look it up in a bilingual dictionary and write down the translation for the word in their own native language. As most ESL teachers encourage students to think in English, bringing long lists of words they have already translated is counterproductive to this effort.
SOLUTION: Teach both autonomous and dependent learners different types of reading techniques and encourage them to use them at home. These techniques include scanning a text for answers, skimming to get the general idea, among others. Train them to focus on figuring out the meaning of the word from the context, but if they feel the need to look something up, encourage the use of an English dictionary.
Problem: The eager beaver brings up topics that are irrelevant to the class
Autonomous learners often ask questions about vocabulary or expressions they have come across in TV shows, movies or the Internet. This in itself poses a series of problems. Maybe not all students will be interested in the topic, TV show or subject matter – it may be highly specialized, scientific in nature, or quite simply, completely irrelevant to what you have been doing in class.
SOLUTION: Make sure students understand that you are willing to answer their questions and help them understand something, but there has to be a time and place for consultations that have nothing to do with class. You may set aside a specific moment for these questions, either before or after class, or give them your email. But do not stray too far from your lesson plan to discuss an irrelevant topic, as it may only alienate unmotivated students further.
Problem: All of the above involves lots of extra work for the ESL teacher
Finding extra material for either the eager beavers or dependent learners is an added burden to the ESL teachers who have enough on their plate. Most of us have our course planned with an established curriculum and do not anticipate these challenges.
SOLUTION: As in most cases, the best solution is to share the burden. Talk to other ESL teachers, particularly those who teach the same levels, and put together a list of recommended readings, extra-curricular study materials and books you may all suggest students buy for additional practice. This way, when you come across a student who wants or needs the extra work, all you have to do is consult your list and make the necessary recommendations.
Need more ideas for effective classroom management?
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And if you have any tips for managing autonomous or dependent learners, we’d love to see them below!