A Dynamic Model for Autonomy: Self-Assessment as Reflection

Maria Giovanna Tassinari, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Tassinari, M. G. (2018). A dynamic model for autonomy: Self-assessment as reflection. Relay Journal, 1(1), 47-54.

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Keywords: learner autonomy, assessment, self-assessment, reflection, dynamic model, language advising

Self-assessment, as the independent judgment of the learner on their own competencies or achievements, ideally based upon self-determined criteria (Kleppin, 2005, p. 107), aims at raising the learner’s awareness of their strengths and progress within the language learning process and is therefore crucial in autonomization processes. Beside self-assessment of language proficiency, self-assessment of learning competences and competences for autonomy should be integrated into the language learning process. However, since autonomy is a complex and fluctuating construct, it is advisable to encourage self-assessment with qualitative and dynamic tools which allow learners to reflect on their competences and goals at different times of the learning process and with different focuses. The dynamic model for autonomy (Tassinari, 2010, 2015) was conceived to describe autonomy in its complexity and to support reflection. In this contribution, I will briefly describe the dynamic model and illustrate a procedure for self-assessment and reflection in self-directed learning contexts.

The Dynamic Model for Autonomy

The dynamic model for autonomy is based on a definition of autonomy as a complex construct of learner competences, as the metacapacity of the learner to control and self-direct their own learning in different ways according to their needs and to the situation. As a multidimensional construct, autonomy entails following components:

      • a cognitive and metacognitive component (cognitive and metacognitive knowledge, awareness, learners’ beliefs, represented in the model as ‘structuring knowledge’);
      • an affective component (feelings, emotions, represented in the model as ‘dealing with my feelings’)
      • a motivational component (willingness, motivation, represented in the model as ‘motivating myself’);
      • an action-oriented component (skills, learning behaviors, decisions, represented in the model as ‘planning’, ‘choosing ‘materials and methods’, ‘completing tasks’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘evaluating’);
      • a social component (learning and negotiating learning with partners, advisors, teachers, within and outside the institutional context, represented in the model as ‘cooperating’);
      • a metastrategic component (the capacity to orchestrate all components, represented in the model as ‘managing my learning’) (Tassinari, 2010, pp. 124–126).

As shown in Figure 1, the dynamic model (www.sprachenzentrum.fu-berlin.de/slz/index.html) takes the form of a sphere and entails all these dimensions, closely intertwined, as shown by the arrows connecting them. Although all these components closely interact with each other in the autonomous language learning process, having these distinctions among them is useful to both learners and teachers or advisors, as actors of the learning and supporting process, so that they can better reflect on different competences, skills and strategies according to their needs and use opportunities that present themselves in the language learning context to improve and enhance them.

    • Figure 1. The Dynamic Model for Autonomy (Tassinari, 2010)

      The descriptors

      Each component of the dynamic model has a set of descriptors, with specific statements about competencies, skills and behaviors, formulated as can-do statements (for example, ‘I can organize a time and a place for my learning’; ‘I can set myself a task’; ‘I can recognize my strengths and weaknesses as a learner and reflect on these’). Together, these descriptors constitute a checklist covering manifold aspects of autonomous language learning; however, they are not intended to be exhaustive or normative, but rather serve as a spectrum of competences which function as a tool in raising learners’ awareness of autonomous language learning processes. In addition, for each component learners can formulate their own descriptors. The full list of descriptors is available online.

      Similarly, in common with the descriptors of language portfolios, these descriptors are provided with a qualitative answer system (‘I can do it’ ‘I would like to learn it’, ‘This is not important to me’). This means that there is no hierarchy among the components and the descriptors, in order to allow learners to choose freely the components and the descriptors upon which they would like to reflect and assess themselves.

      The dynamics

      This model is structurally and functionally dynamic. It is structurally dynamic, because each component is directly related to all the others. It is functionally dynamic, because learners undertaking self-assessment can decide to enter the model from any component and move freely from one component to another without following a given path, according to their needs and purposes. For example, they can start with ‘planning’ if they would like to focus on this aspect of the learning process (for example, ‘I can analyze my own needs’; ‘I can set myself goals’; ‘I can put together a learning plan’); and then move to ‘evaluating’, or to ‘motivating myself’, or to any other component they want to reflect upon. This dynamic feature is an essential characteristic of the model, and makes it possible both to account for the complexity of learner autonomy and to operationalize the construct, breaking it down in smaller portions. On the online version of the dynamic model, the interrelationships among the components and the descriptors are represented by hyper-textual links.

      A Dynamic and Dialogical Approach for Self-Assessment

      A prerequisite for the self-assessment process is the learner’s willingness to assess their own learning competencies. Therefore, the use of the dynamic model is voluntary, rather than imposed. The self-assessment can be conducted either in language advising or in classroom settings. Whereas in advising settings the advisor can suggest the self-assessment to the learner individually, in classroom settings the teacher can link the self-assessment process to a series of peer and/or group activities aiming at developing autonomy.

      The steps of the self-assessment process are:

      a) Getting started;
      b) Choosing components and descriptors;
      c) Assessing one’s own competences;
      d) Comparing perspectives.

  • In the first stage, learners are encouraged to reflect on their previous experience as well as their beliefs regarding autonomous language learning. In advising settings, this reflection can be conducted by the learner alone before the advising session, as a written text, using the prompts in the ‘Getting started’ section (for example, ‘How do you understand autonomous language learning?’; ‘What is your opinion about autonomous language learning?’; ‘Do you already have experience of autonomous language learning? If so, describe it briefly.’). Alternatively, the learner can discuss this topic with the language advisor during the advising session. In classroom settings, the reflection can be conducted with a peer or in small groups and eventually discussed in plenary. This process of reflection can be very useful, since learners’ perceptions, beliefs and previous experiences may strongly influence their attitude towards (autonomous) language learning, their decision-making, and, ultimately, the learning process itself (see Barcelos & Kalaya, 2011; Cotterall, 1995, 1999; Navarro & Thornton, 2011).

In the second phase of the self-assessment process (choosing components and descriptors), it is important that learners autonomously decide which aspects of their learning process they would like to reflect upon and thus select themselves the focus of their self-assessment according to their needs, choosing one or more components and, for each component, the descriptors they believe are relevant to their particular language learning process. In classroom settings, the teacher can also suggest specific tasks, such as implementing an individual learning plan, or choosing resources and tasks for individual objectives, and link them to the reflection upon the respective components and/or descriptors.

The third step is the actual self-assessment (assessing one’s own competences) with the descriptors, comparing the statements with one’s own experience in the language learning process. In advising settings, this step can be tackled when the learner is alone, rather than in the advising session, so that they are free of pressure regarding time and can answer the questions within an environment in which they feel comfortable. In classroom settings, the self-assessment can be done with a peer. Exchanging views with a peer can be useful for learners who are not experienced in self-assessment.

The final phase (comparing perspectives) involves discussing the outcome of the self-assessment with the advisor (or with the teacher in classroom settings). This is a key element in the assessment for autonomy, since it integrates the assessment within a pedagogical dialogue where the advisor and the learner reflect together and compare their perspectives on the learner’s competences and on the learning process.

This pedagogical dialogue is the core of the assessment process and crucial for the development of learner autonomy (Little, 1995). In language advising settings, the reflective dialogue can be structured according to the learner’s needs and attitudes (see Kelly, 1996; Mozzon-McPherson, 2012; Kato & Mynard, 2015). The pedagogical dialogue enhances reflection and supports learners in the self-assessment process, which can be very challenging for learners if they are not used to it.

While the descriptors allow the learner’s inner perspective to interact with an external perspective on autonomous language learning, the pedagogical dialogue with the advisor (or the teacher) offers to the learner a further external perspective on their reflection, and has the potential to unleash meaningful interaction, to bring to the surface and to elicit learner’s beliefs and understandings.

Through this process, learners are enabled to reflect deeply, without constraints on their learning. After having chosen themselves the focus of their self-assessment, in the advising session they can initiate relevant topics for discussion, gain insights into their own attitudes and competences and establish the basis for future decision-making. This capacity for reflection and consequent action is both the aim and the outcome of the assessment process.

This assessment is merely formative and qualitative, resulting in enhancing metacognitive processes and, most importantly, it can be repeated, when and as needed, with the learner changing the focus, if they need so. The dynamic model’s features and the qualitative, recursive approach contribute to making the self-assessment of autonomy a dynamic process.

Assessment Practices for Autonomy

The self-assessment of autonomy within a pedagogical dialogue as illustrated above is valuable not only for the learner, but also for the advisor or the teacher, since it provides insights regarding strengths and weaknesses of the learner and to pinpoint areas in which learners need further guidance or support on their development towards autonomy. For the learner, this is in many educational contexts a still rare opportunity to reflect on their own language learning, to externalize their own beliefs and attitudes towards language learning, to review or confirm their own assessment, or to address questions, if need be.

At the end of this process, learners should be able to make more informed decisions about their further learning.

However, since learners may not be used to this reflection, it is the duty of the advisor and/or teacher to design pedagogical practices enhancing reflection, and assessment procedures rewarding both for language proficiency and autonomy (Benson, 2010, p. 94). In addition, in order to overcome possible “learner resistance” (Cotterall & Malcolm, 2015, p. 171) towards new assessment practices, and encourage learners to engage in reflection, it is important to make the purposes of the self-assessment explicit within the process of autonomization.

Some Conclusions

The results of an investigation conducted on the dynamic model with students at the Freie Universität Berlin (Tassinari, 2010, 2015) show that a qualitative, dynamic approach to the self-assessment of learners’ competences, attitudes and behaviors in autonomous learning processes is very useful for learners in order to reflect on and even to regulate the learning process itself. The students’ feedback on  self-assessment strongly suggests that the dynamic model and the descriptors are appropriate tools to support this evaluation process, and to foster awareness, reflection and decision-making. In addition, the dynamic model has been successfully used for self-reflection in other autonomy-fostering contexts, such as self-directed English language learning courses (Beseghi & Bertolotti, 2013), and teacher education (Brandt & Dönhoff, 2013; Magno E Silva, personal communication).

The strength of self-assessment with the dynamic model is its dynamic and recursive nature, which makes it particularly suitable for assessing autonomy in its ongoing and fluctuating development.

Nevertheless, since self-assessment is difficult, “one of the most difficult things in autonomous learning processes”, as one of the students in my investigation affirmed, it is crucial to integrate it into autonomous language learning curricula, and to support it by means of appropriate pedagogic practices and reflective dialogue.

Notes on the contributor

Maria Giovanna Tassinari is Director of the Centre for Independent Language Learning at the Language Centre of the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Her research interests are learner autonomy, language advising, and affect in language learning. She is co-editor of several books and author of articles and chapters in German, English and French.


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Benson, P. (2010). Measuring autonomy: Should we put our ability to the test? In A. Paran, & L. Siercu (Eds.), Testing the untestable in language education (pp. 77–97). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Beseghi, M., & Bertolotti, G. (2013). Fostering autonomy in university language students: A self-study programme. Paper at the IATEFL LASIG Conference Learner Autonomy in Second Language Pedagogy and Research. Challenges and Issues, Hannover, 27-28 September.

Brandt, A., & Dönhoff, I. (2013). On the road to autonomous language teaching: practice meets teacher education. Paper at the IATEFL LASIG Conference Learner Autonomy in Second Language Pedagogy and Research. Challenges and Issues, Hannover, 27-28 September.

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Cotterall, S., & Malcolm, D. (2015). Epilogue. In C. J. Everhard & L. Murphy (Eds.), Assessment and autonomy in language learning (pp. 167–175). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2015). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kelly, R. (1996). Language counselling for learner autonomy: The skilled helper in self-access language learning. In R. Pemberton, E. S. L. Li , W. W. F. Or & H. Pierson (Eds.), Taking control: Autonomy in language learning (pp. 93–113). Hong Kong, HK: Hong Kong University Press.

Kleppin, K. (2005). Die Förderung der Fähigkeit zur Selbstevaluation beim Fremdsprachenlernen. In E. Burwitz-Melzer, & G. Solmecke (Eds.), Niemals zu früh und selten zu spät: Fremdsprachenunterricht in Schule und Erwachsenenbildung. Festschrift für Jürgen Quetz (pp. 107–118). Berlin, DE: Cornelsen.

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2 thoughts on “A Dynamic Model for Autonomy: Self-Assessment as Reflection”

  1. Dear Giovanna,

    I very much enjoyed reading about your Dynamic Model for Autonomy. This tool can raise learner awareness of, and make palatable, the complexity of learning a language. (As you said, it is not merely cognition). What impressed me most about this tool is the amount of choice learners have in what to reflect on in the self-assessment process, that they can ‘move freely from one component to another without following a given path.’

    There is one section, however, that I wonder if you could give more clarification on. You wrote, ‘A prerequisite for the self-assessment process is the learners’ willingness to assess their own learning competencies.’ First, I would like to know what you mean by ‘willingness’ – Is this a reference back to a famous definition of autonomy by Littlewood? Is willingness something that can be quantified, and if so who measures it? – to be honest, this is not a word I feel comfortable/qualified to use about my students so I hope you can enlighten me. Secondly, ‘competencies’ – Is this referring to ability (current) or capacity (future) or both?

    As a learning advisor, nowadays I tend to discuss learning with individuals. However, reading how your tool can be used in classes took me back to trying to encourage self-reflection in class in my previous job as an eikaiwa teacher (see also Macdonald, 2018, this issue for an insight into that world). I co-created a tool (the Learning Strategy Tree) which I used to encourage my students to reflect on their learning and to view language learning beyond the cognitive dimension. However, I was only able to do this because ‘counselling’ was part of the curriculum, and I was given two lessons per year in which to do this. I completely agree with your sentiment that this kind of reflection or self-assessment needs to be integrated into the core curriculum, and an advantage of doing this in a classroom setting is that peer feedback is massively helpful.

    I hope we can work together to drive the self-assessment of autonomy, currently a ‘rare opportunity’, towards becoming an essential part of pedagogic practices across all forms of education.

    Thank you,

  2. Dear Huw,
    Thank you for your feedback on my paper. Your comments and your questions gave me the opportunity to think about aspects of the Dynamic Model and of my paper I probably took for granted.
    I will start by your first comment, learners’ choice within the Dynamic Model. In fact, the amount of choice on the one hand may let some learners feel that they cannot cope with it; on the other hand it gives them the opportunity to just focus on what they feel relevant for them at the moment. What I experienced during the research for my PhD and later in my advising sessions is that some learners feel they have to go through all the components, while others just go to one component and stick to it. And it is not surprising that many of them start by motivating myself and dealing with my feelings. As you say, cognition is not all.
    I come to your second comment on willingness. When I wrote this, I just meant that in language advising settings, learners have the choice to use the Dynamic Model for reflection and self-assessment or not to use it. Similarly to many other tools, for example the tools illustrated by Kato and Mynard (2015), I just offer learners the choice to do it or not to do it. While writing the paper, I did not explicitly refer to Littlewood’s model of autonomy, although his 1996 paper is one I read several times and took inspiration from to design the Dynamic Model. Indeed, the willingness to undergo a reflection and self-assessment process with the Dynamic Model requires, as Littlewood writes, “both the motivation and the confidence to take responsibility.” (Littlewood, 1996, p. 298). Some learners may not have the motivation and the confidence to critically reflect on their language learning process, but they would become open, “ready” to it within the advising process and/or in the pedagogical relationship with a teacher. It was Sara Cotterall who investigated learners’ readiness to autonomy (Cotterall, 1995). To sum up, willingness or readiness to undergo a self-assessment process is a prerequisite to do it. I agree with you that it would be very difficult to measure willingness, and I never tried to do it. In the advising process, it is enough that the learner states his/her willingness and/or readiness. If we would decide to measure it, as researchers, we would probably need tools from the field of psychology.
    Coming to your question on competencies, it refers both to current abilities and future capacities.
    Self-reflection in the classroom. I totally agree with you: integrating self-reflection in the classroom has also the advantage of enabling peer feedback and empowering learners to more autonomy. I am very interested in the Learning Strategy Tree you created and in how you use it in the classroom. Can we meet an discuss it? It is really true what you write, that having counselling in the curriculum helped you to act differently as a teacher. I think we need more and more to develop counselling skills and to integrate a counselling posture in the teachers’ toolbox.
    Finally, I do thank you so much for your comments, and I would be pleased to work together to integrate the self-assessment of autonomy into the pedagogical practices of language educations.
    Best wishes

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