Autonomy development: tutor, learner and peer roles, learner training and the balance between support provision and autonomy scaffolding

The development of the skills presented in the introductory article on learner autonomy requires the combined effort of tutors, learners and learner peers. This article will discuss their vital role in this process and ways in which a balance between support provision and autonomy scaffolding can be achieved.

 text by Maroussa Pavli

Tutor, learner and peer roles

Tutors, student and peers are very important in contexts promoting learner development. Gibbs (2013) supports that in those contexts students do not simply consume knowledge offered by tutors, but they construct knowledge in a personal way in the context of learning environments that include teaching among other aspects. Learners become knowledge co-producers and collaborators with tutors and peers. The tutor is not considered to be a knowledge-provider, but a coach, moderator, facilitator, advisor and uses learner performance to monitor their progress and suggest areas requiring improvement.

These environments focus on learning, not teaching, and emphasise the role of peers in knowledge production. Peers are important in group work and feedback provision. Learning also takes place through independent learner work, self-assessment and reflection on experiences either individually or within groups which is encouraged by tutor. In this environment student confidence and motivation are increased and this leads to feelings of empowerment. The creation of these learning contexts is mainly the responsibility of tutors. It goes without saying that selecting appropriate materials and tasks and utilizing effectively in teaching is of paramount importance, as they will provide opportunities for the learner to take control of their learning.


Learner training in autonomy

However, for self-directed learning to be promoted, learners should first become aware of what it entails and its significance. Training learners in autonomy should not be a one-off (part of a) session, but an integral part of the teaching and learning process throughout a course.


In our capacity as HE tutors, we need to focus on the aspects below:

  1. Introducing and explaining the importance of learner autonomy and associated skills.
  2. Scaffolding learner autonomy by not only selecting suitable materials, approaches, tasks, but also assisting them in goal identifying or suggesting suitable goals and time management by setting or negotiating a timetable.
  3. Introducing the importance of student reflection on their learning experiences and fostering the development of their reflective skills


Balancing support provision and autonomy scaffolding

Achieving a balance between providing required support to learners and assisting them in becoming more autonomous can be a complex ‘mission’. Depending on aspects such as previous educational experiences and cultural background presessional and insessional learners in EAP may have varying degrees of autonomy and tutors need to be able to decide how much support each individual needs at a specific point in their learning process. Support offered by the teacher at the start can and should gradually be reduced if autonomy- building is our goal.


Suggested action stages from providing support to fostering autonomy


  1. Limited autonomy learners are explicitly provided with instructions on the steps to follow and what to do in each step.
  2. Learners with some autonomy can be encouraged to think about the steps, suggest ideas and negotiate a time for the completion of each step.
  3. Learners who seem to be more autonomous or have been through the first two stages can/ should be able to start deciding for themselves what course of action to follow and when to do so.


The pace at which learners can go through the steps above is influenced by learner diversity. In addition to educational and cultural dimensions, Thomas and May (2010) discuss this diversity in terms of disposition (assumptions, motivation, confidence) and circumstances (geographical location, time available for study, age) and believe that they should be taken into consideration in teaching and support provision. If they are not offered enough support and the pace it too fast, learners who need more assistance will be demotivated. If too much tutor support is available and the pace is too slow, we deprive learners of the opportunity to become more independent faster and sooner.

EAP lecturers are sometimes expected to provide individual tutorial support which can benefit learners considerably, but they may often find themselves in a challenging position, since it presupposes understanding the uniqueness of each student, which is shaped by experiences and personal circumstances responses (Morgan and Houghton 2011) and tailoring their response to this uniqueness.

I applied this kind of ‘tailoring’ in a case with one of my personal tutees on a presessional course in 2020. The student had to submit a draft of an academic essay part on a topic of his choice within a specific deadline. Only a few days before the submission deadline, he expressed his wish to change his topic, which would mean finding new academic resources, note-taking, essay outline planning, producing a draft of 800 words and submitting his work on time. That kind of change at such a late stage is not encouraged by the university since it can result in issues affecting the quality of submitted work and, as a result, the learner’s overall performance and successful course completion. For example, because of time constraints timely tutor feedback on the new topic and his draft work before the official submission day may not be provided to the student and his work and/ or may be unable to meet the submission deadline. Although I discussed these risks with the learner in detail, he seemed adamant about the topic change and said he could easily control the whole process successfully. I had lengthy discussions with him acknowledging his hard work, but also stated my clear and firm position against this unwise decision. I told him that the final decision would be his and that he had to carefully consider all aspects. After all this effort, I finally managed to discourage him from making the change. He worked on his original topic, submitted his work within the deadline and his overall performance on this component met course requirements. After submitting his essay, he told me that he had realised the importance of time management, better use of tutor feedback and action planning for his academic future and autonomy.

This experience showed me the importance of balancing respect towards learner attitude, feelings and wishes with a clear presentation of possible consequences of a decision. A learner should have access to all the information about an issue (i.e. university attitude towards a last-minute change of topic, possible risks pertaining to this kind of decision, strong recommendations about their course of actions), but the final decision should be theirs, after the prons and cons have been weighted.


Cawkwell, J. and R. Scudamore (revised 2019) Nottingham Recognition Scheme: Influential Perspectives on Teaching and Learning. Nottingham University

Gibbs, G. (2013). Implications of ‘Dimensions of Quality’ in a Market Environment. Higher Education Academy. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/implications-dimensions-quality-market-environment

Morgan and Houghton (2011) Inclusive Curriculum Design in Higher Education https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inclusive-curriculum-design-higher-education

Thomas, Liz and Helen May (2010) Inclusive learning and teaching in Higher Education https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inclusive-learning-and-teaching-higher-education