Tips and Tricks for Autonomous Learning
On this page you will find a collection of useful tips to get the most out of your self-directed language learning. We wish you all the best!
First step: Definition of objectives
Gain a better understanding about the level of your language skills in order to plan your next steps. You can check your language level against the Checklists of the European Language Portfolio, the Self-assessment grid of the CEFR and/or with a placement test such as Dialang. Then, you can consult the Checklists to choose learning goals specific to relevant language-related situations. You will then have a more concrete understanding of, for example, what reading comprehension at B2 level means. The Checklists can be used at various intermediate stages as well as at the end of the learning process to evaluate your overall progress.
Second step: Planning
Planning your learning depends firstly on the time you have available to reach your objectives. In other words, within what time frame and how intensively can you or are you willing to learn? What is important is that you develop a realistic plan and not let yourself be distracted by your dreams or wishes. If you are not (yet) able to do this, learning autonomously is a good opportunity to learn how.
It is best if you write your plan at the beginning so that you can later compare it to your learning process. In that way, you can check how realistically you have planned your learning in order for me to draw conclusions for further plans. When you formulate your plan, you should answer the following questions as concretely as possible:
- What do I want to learn? Skills, content
- What do I want to learn with? Learning materials
- Where do I want to learn? Learning locations
- When do I want to learn? Learning times
- How often do I want to learn? Learning frequency
- How do I want to learn? Methods, strategies, learning tools
- How do I want to practise the individual skills?
- With whom do I want to learn? Social learning
What do I want to learn? Skills, content
The decision about the content is guided entirely by your individual interests. Depending on whether you are learning the target language for everyday use or for specific purposes, e.g. for study or professional purposes, you should select the corresponding content. Which language skills you give priority to depends on what you already know. As a beginner learning a new language, it makes sense for you to learn the receptive skills of listening and reading comprehension as well as vocabulary at the start. This will allow you to immerse yourself in the language and to develop a feeling for the new sounds, words and sentences before you move on to more challenging tasks. As an advanced learner, you should give priority instead to improving the skills of speaking and writing and, depending on your needs, to acquiring specific vocabulary. This information is of course general, and you can and should always define your own priorities. The more specifically you define your learning objectives, the less chance there is of getting lost amongst the wide variety of possibilities.
What do I want to learn with? Learning materials
It is worthwhile investing some time in the selection of learning material. To find something suitable, you can first select material using the online search tool and then try it out in the Self-Access Centre. Alternatively, you can browse in a specialised bookstore or in the language section of other libraries, e.g. the cantonal and university library BCU/KUB, the intercultural library, e.g. LivrEchange, search for appropriate websites on the Internet with targeted key words, or ask lecturers of the target language to advise you.
When learning autonomously it is essential that the answers to the exercises are included. It is also advisable to try out various learning materials. As a lower-level learner, you can for instance, combine a compact textbook for autonomous learning, which contains a relatively steep learning progression, with additional material that is as authentic as possible. As a higher-level learner, you can look for suitable, authentic listening and reading texts from the ever-growing range of options on the Internet. You can also engage in face-to-face or online tandems to communicate interactively in both oral and written forms, thus helping yourself and your partner via peer correction.
Where do I want to learn? Learning locations
Choosing your place of learning depends on the learning material selected. For example, when using books, a computer or when practising your pronunciation, you would look for a quieter and more comfortable study space where you can also write down important information or record yourself. Alternatively, you could work on listening with an Mp3 device, smartphone or tablet, or on developing your vocabulary with flashcards while travelling on the train or bus.
On the other hand, the ideal study space depends on your preferences as to where and how you can most effectively learn. You may have to try different situations first. Do you need background music and stimulating tea with sweets to encourage and sustain your motivation to learn? Or on the contrary, do you learn with greater concentration in complete silence without any distractions? Or perhaps you are able to work effectively in both of these environments, depending on your learning objectives?
When do I want to learn? Learning times
The ideal time for learning is dependent on how you organise your time. Choosing when to learn is often determined by other priorities such as your studies, work, and social life, which then leave you with the necessary time slots to dedicate to learning. To develop self-discipline, it is helpful to plan your learning so that you can study in a rhythm which is as regular as possible and at set times. This way, you can simulate the external obligations of a course, which some learners need as encouragement to learn when their motivation and stamina weaken.
How often do I want to learn? Learning frequency
The more frequently you work with the target language, the more effectively you will train your vocabulary memory and language skills. This is also why immersion in the language in its natural context - for example, by studying abroad in the target language’s culture – is the most effective way to learn the language. If you learn outside the culture of the target language, then you should take the following into consideration: a short and intensive period of learning, for instance, an hour a day for three months, uses the power of both short- and long-term memory, and will help you to reach your goals faster. For this reason, this method of learning is often more satisfying than extensive learning over a longer period of time. Even so, after an intensive period of learning, you must continue to spend time on the target language once or twice a week so that what you have learned stays in your long-term memory. In addition, for both memory and language skills training, a frequent, short review - for instance, twice a day for half an hour – is much more effective than an extended period of learning once a week or even less frequently.
How do I want to learn? Methods, strategies, learning tools
Not all learning methods are equally effective for all learners. As an autonomous learner, you must often first discover for yourself what strategies and resources suit you, in that you try out different options and observe how successful they are for you. If your memories of previous learning experiences are mostly about ineffective and de-motivating learning environments, then you might be able to get some new ideas from books and websites with instructions on how to learn effectively by yourself or even from other autonomous learners.
How do I want to practise the individual skills?
For listening and reading comprehension, it is very effective to listen several times to interesting and authentic audio texts with their transcripts such as TedTalks , Euronews Website, or audio books with text (large range available in the Self-Access Centre).
To learn vocabulary, you need easily accessible tools like flashcards or an Internet vocabulary trainer such as Quizlet , Memrise and Anki, that you can download onto your smartphone/tablet, or small learning cards that you can take with you everywhere. Instead of learning words by themselves, it is important to learn them in context, for example, by writing a short context so that the word’s meaning and an example of its use are combined right from the beginning.
To improve your pronunciation, you need to imitate recordings of native speakers and record yourself so that you can listen again to compare and notice the specific differences. In this way, you can repeatedly practise bringing your own pronunciation closer to the phonetic model.
You can practice speaking and writing best with a partner who can correct you. This can be in person or, with today’s Internet technology, online (emails, chats, Skype, and learning communities such as Busuu, Lingq, Italki).
Who do I want to learn with? Social learning
In no way does autonomous learning mean learning alone. You will want to (or should) test what you have learned with native speakers of the target language to see if your language is understandable and accurate. If you still have inhibitions because you are afraid of making mistakes, it is best to speak with your speaking or writing partner about how to deal with your mistakes. Would you like to be corrected? If so, at what point and in what way? By choosing a suitable partner, you make a kind of ‘safe’ learning environment possible, in which your errors are handled with patience and understanding without any fear of being humiliated. You will also receive feedback that exactly fits your individual mistakes so that you can draw conclusions, which are useful for you to continue learning. If you cannot find anyone to be a partner amongst the network of people you know, you can try UniTandem in this Self-Access Centre, where there is a detailed description of how to learn in a tandem. Alternatively, you can also try the various tandem-learning sites or learning communities on the Internet.
Why is the reflection of your own learning process so important?
By reflecting on the way you learn, you can develop your metacognitive skills. The better you know yourself as a learner, the easier it is for you to plan, adapt and ultimately optimise your own learning process. It is important to understand the link between task requirements, personal effort, the use of learning strategies and successful learning.
In order to observe yourself when you are learning autonomously, it is very helpful to keep a learning log so that you can reflect on your learning strategies and evaluate your own progress. Writing things down will help you become more aware of your thoughts and to clarify them.
This record of your learning will allow you to track your own learning path from one experience to the next. Over the long term, as you look back and reflect, such a record will enable you to better understand how you learn. The beginning of a learning log might look something like this: Learning log example
How should I evaluate my autonomous learning?
If you have a learning partner, you can of course occasionally ask for feedback, correction, or explanation. However, while you are learning autonomously, the responsibility for a critical evaluation of your learning progress, strategies, and resources lies with you. By comparing each completed exercise with the answers, you can see immediately whether you need to repeat the exercise or whether you can either continue to the next learning unit or change to a new one. It is best if you can try out your skills with a partner in situations which require authentic communication. Your partner’s responses will quickly show you what was understood and what was not.
After finishing a learning unit, you can also measure your knowledge and skills with a test. Such tests can be found on the Internet or in books and software to prepare for tests and diplomas that are subject to a fee/charge. To reflect on your learning holistically, it is useful to consider both your own evaluations and those of others in the learning log. On this basis, at the end of each study period, you can deepen your understanding of the various aspects of your learning experience and evaluate your progress with more objectivity, in a summary report that can then serve as the starting point for further steps in your autonomous learning project.
How should I adapt my autonomous learning?
Success when learning autonomously depends largely on how effectively you can learn from your errors and failures and turn them into successful autonomous learning. This requires careful observation, critical reflection, and honest evaluation, as well as the will to view and understand errors as an integral part of the learning process. This willingness is based on the guiding principles of autonomous learning, which you need to adopt during the learning process, if you have not already done so:
- Because you are not afraid to make mistakes and are ready to learn from them, you also give yourself the chance to improve step by step
- Because you are open to other ways of learning and to creating and then improving your own learning resources, you give yourself the opportunity to learn something new and then test out its effectiveness
- Because you remain realistic about your learning objectives and patiently work towards achieving them, you gain self-confidence and satisfaction from your learning success, which is the basis for your continuing motivation
When taking into account your own self-reflections, and how you apply these considerations to the next steps on your learning journey, it is essential to maintain and nurture your desire to keep on learning. If you set learning objectives for yourself, you should not become discouraged when you encounter difficulties along the way. This will only cause you to lose motivation and out of frustration, you will likely stop learning altogether.
Where can I find further information about autonomous learning?
- On our Moodle platform you will find advice and links for your self-directed study of German (University internal use only)
- The European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) in Graz has published a short guide "How you can learn languages" summarizing the best ways to learn your target language
- Knowing how to go about learning a language can make all the difference to how successful you are. There is, however, no single 'correct' way of learning; everyone is different and you will soon find that some strategies work better than others. Get some learning tips from the BBC language learning website
- You may find more detailed suggestions for all aspects of foreign-language learning on the website how-to-learn-any-language
- There are more language learning tips and links to other advisory sites on the Omniglot website www.omniglot.com/language
- Language learning in SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) focusses on developing the ability to communicate in a second language, with special emphasis on languages for which there are few or no written or recorded resources
- The Polyglot Dream: An Italian polyglot explains what is important about learning various languages
- And this is the American shortcut to explain the secrets of success: www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/richard_st_john_s_8_secrets_of_success.html (3 min 30 video)
Books in the Self-Access Centre
- The books beginning with the code EFL-m-91... will give you plenty of ideas for your self-directed language learning