Learner autonomy in a mainstream writing course

articulating learning gains

Sara Cotterall

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Citations (Scopus)


The starting point for this chapter was my interest in exploring gains in metacognitive knowledge about writing which occurred during a onesemester course in academic writing (WRIT 151) that I was teaching and coordinating. The course aimed to develop both learners' knowledge of the characteristics of effective academic writing, and, at the same time, their independence as writers. I was therefore interested in tracing possible links between individuals' understanding of the tasks they were engaged in, and their willingness and ability to attempt those tasks with diminishing amounts of support. To do this, I examined in detail an extended piece of reflective writing that each of the 15 learners in my workshop group submitted at the end of the course. The learners' writing provided numerous instances of sophisticated task knowledge, as well as examples of person and strategic knowledge (Flavell 1979). It is likely that the course's requirement that learners constantly reflect on and discuss their writing goals, strategies and difficulties helped develop their understanding of the essay writing process, and their confidence to approach future writing tasks independently. Exploring development in the metacognitive knowledge base of second language learners is an important issue for those committed to promoting learner autonomy. This is because metacognitive knowledge "is a prerequisite to the deploymof ... self-regulatory processes" (Wenden 2001: 62) involved in independent or autonomous learning behaviour. In other words, learners can only begin to develop independence in learning once they possess: (a) awareness of their strengths and weaknesses in relation to the tasks; (b) an understanding of the tasks they are engaged in; and (c) knowledge of strategies which can help them undertake such tasks. For learners such as those described here, gaining some independence as writers is of the utmost urgency, since most learning at university (at least in the New Zealand context) is assessed through essays and other written tasks. In this chapter, I first refer to previous research into the acquisition of metacognitive knowledge in language learning, and specifically into its role in second language writing. I then provide some background on the writing course and the learners, and explain how the development of metacognitive knowledge was a central and explicit course goal. In the main section of the paper, I present statements about metacognitive knowledge reported in the reflections of learners in the workshop group I taught, and consider the possible relationship between those instances of metacognitive knowledge and the development of learner autonomy. I then discuss some instances where the learners reported having transferred learning gained during the writing course to new situations. Finally, while acknowledging the limitations of this small-scale piece of research, I discuss some of the challenges for writing teachers and researchers which it highlights.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMaintaining control
Subtitle of host publicationautonomy and language learning
EditorsRichard Pemberton, Sarah Toogood, Andy Barfield
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherHong Kong University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9789622099234
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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    Cotterall, S. (2009). Learner autonomy in a mainstream writing course: articulating learning gains. In R. Pemberton, S. Toogood, & A. Barfield (Eds.), Maintaining control: autonomy and language learning (pp. 87-107). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.