Learner autonomy: A theoretical phantasm?

Susann Schuster*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
88 Downloads (Pure)


Supporting the autonomous learner in the classroom is an innovative attempt to foster learner engagement and learning outcomes. Some proponents go so far as to stress the importance of the concept of learner autonomy for lifelong learning. The literature suggests several instruments (i.e. portfolios, diaries, learning contracts or individualised learning plans) in order to engender learner autonomy. Over the past 30 years, the literature has engaged extensively in elaborating the theoretical framework of learner autonomy and its practical application in the classroom. Aiming to equip students for lifelong learning, strong focus has been put on identifying the components of the autonomous classroom, and its academic and behavioural effects on students. According to various case studies, a number of schools have been identified to have tested or permanently adopted an approach fostering the autonomous learner. However, the majority of the findings focus on descriptive analyses of case studies. Contributing to these findings, this paper discusses findings of an empirical study nestled within the Australian schooling system. Its objectives were threefold. Firstly, it aimed to identify whether the concept of learner autonomy has been widely adopted by schools or whether it remains a theoretical concept rather than a feasible one. Secondly, it attempted to identify how schools define the concept of learner autonomy and thirdly, how this concept is generally implemented by schools. Drawing upon the existing literature, this paper argues that learner autonomy is more than a theoretical construct as it is implemented by the majority of Australian schools. However, its definition and application varies significantly amongst schools and school types. This indicates that learner autonomy must be considered as a flexible concept that takes various shapes that extend beyond commonly cited concepts in the literature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)159-180
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Learning
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Bibliographical note

Copyright Common Ground and The Author/s. Article originally published in International journal of learning 18(4) 159-180. This version archived on behalf of the author/s and is available for individual, non-commercial use. Permission must be sought from the publisher to republish or reproduce or for any other purpose.


  • Education
  • Learner autonomy
  • Learning plans
  • Lifelong learning

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