Shifting the Balance: promoting autonomy and self-reflection in ESP

Barbora Chovancová and Štepánka Bilová
Masaryk University Language Centre, Brno, Czech Republic,


The modern trend in language teaching emphasises the need to develop skills that enable students to become self-sufficient in their future life with a foreign language. We describe two different learning situations in which learner autonomy is promoted; the first being an elective ESP course for students across university entitled “English Autonomously”, the second, a standard ESP course for Law Faculty undergraduates. While the former is primarily about student self-reflection and setting one’s own learning goals, our experience shows that it is also possible to introduce elements of autonomy into the latter, more structured course.

Languages at university level – wider choice

University graduate profiles invariably list excellent foreign language proficiency among the skills students should master at the end of their studies (Lehtonen and Karjalainen: 2008, also implied by Nekvapil and Nekula: 2006). To achieve this goal, undergraduates are offered language courses of various kinds. Masaryk University Language Centre runs not only standard courses of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP), which are usually faculty specific (e.g. English for Lawyers), but also a special course entitled “English Autonomously” (EA) available to students across the University.

The English Autonomously course – students in a new role

The initial inspiration to implement an autonomous learning course came from the ideas of teachers at the University of Helsinki Language Centre (Karlsson et al: 1997). It was met with enthusiasm from students, teachers and managers alike. The first course was piloted in 2014, and it has been run every term since.

How does it all work? As the name itself suggests, the chief aim of the EA course is to promote student autonomy in language learning. The students who attend this course are given a framework within which they need to operate, however, it is up to them to focus on whatever language needs they may have. The whole process starts by a session for all enrolled students, where they begin to reflect on their own language learning. They also identify their strengths and weaknesses as English learners and start thinking about goals they would like to reach by the end of the course. All this is later individually discussed and finalized with counsellors. Every student will book three individual counselling sessions with one teacher and select relevant modules (strings of three sessions on a particular topic) from a long list offered.

Tools for reflection – learning about oneself

For many students, reflecting on their own learning is a completely new experience and a new skill that has to be taught (Little: 2005). In the end-of- course evaluation, they often rank this as one of the most valuable outcomes of the course. Instead of being just passive recipients in classes and doing what their teachers tell them to, they can now actively evaluate and prioritize areas for self-study and self-improvement.

In counselling sessions, students have the opportunity to discuss and share their plans with the teacher who helps them to refine them. The starting point is the student’s learning history, a document revealing positive but also negative experiences that the learner may have had and that can still shape the learning process. Students can record their history in any form:  on paper or online, in texts or diagrams, blog posts or voice and video recordings. The point is to realize what implications the history has for their present and future learning.

Another effective instrument for reflection and planning discussed in counselling sessions is the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis. Students sometimes hold certificates declaring their level of English according to the European language level scale (CEFR), however, they are rarely consciously aware of their learning styles and what choices they have. With the help of questionnaires, they find out what type of learners they are, what learning strategies they prefer and generally, what areas they can reflect on. A very common student comment after such practice is “I have never thought about learning English this way”.

Reflective diaries – an indispensable tool

Keeping a learning diary is a compulsory requirement for the course. Like with the learning history, the format is not specified but emphasis is put on its reflective aspect. The issue of privacy is strictly delimited; students can share the diaries with the counselors only if they want to. However, experience has shown that even though they only need to prove the existence of the diary, most of them are eager to share them with the counsellors, or indeed with the general public (e.g. in on-line blogs).

Keeping on track – the issue of credits

Since a substantial part of the responsibility for learning is shifted on to students, a record needs to be kept of the number of hours spent learning so that the student can get credits for the course. Inspired by the University of Helsinki autonomous learning program (Karlsson et al: 1997), students are asked to draft a contract that would list all their planned language learning activities and record the amount of time they devote to the tasks. This contract is reviewed, signed and, if necessary, also amended in the counselling sessions. In the final meeting, the counsellor and the student together decide if the student should receive credits for the course.

Autonomy in standard courses – tentative attempts

After the success of the EA course, an issue has been raised whether it is possible to introduce features of autonomy into standard ESP/EAP courses. Some of the anticipated problems may be lack of student cooperation, big groups or the need for teachers to redefine their own roles. While the former two require careful planning, the latter proved to solve itself. Our experience has shown that once the teachers get used to the idea and can see it works in real life, they start finding ways to implement features of autonomy into standard courses. An example of this practice may be the exam preparation of students in English for Law courses where they are asked to get familiar with a mock test and afterwards evaluate their performance and device a revision plan that would enable them to prepare for the exam according to their particular needs. Similarly, in the course entitled English for International Trade Law, students are asked to keep records that serve not only as vocabulary logs but also as reflective diaries on the learning process.

To conclude, autonomy and self-reflection of a language learner are extremely relevant skills for success in acquiring a foreign language. They can be successfully taught within specialised courses but it is also beneficial to introduce features of autonomy into standard university ESP and EAP courses.


Karlsson L., Kjisik F. & Nordlund J. (1997). From Here to Autonomy. Helsinki University Press.
Karjalainen, T. & Lehtonen, S. (2008). University graduates’ workplace language needs as perceived by employers, University of Helsinki.
Little D. (2005). The Common European Framework and the European Language Portfolio: involving learners and their judgements in the assessment process. Language Testing, Vol. 22, Issue 3.
Nekvapil, J. & Nekula, M. (2006). On Language Management in Multinational Companies in the Czech Republic, Current Issues in Language Planning, Vol. 7, No. 2-3.