Encouraging Learner Autonomy in the Japanese University Classroom: A Survey Plus Pedagogical Suggestions

Keiko Okada

Hokkaido Tokai University

Shoji Shimabayashi

Ryukoku University


本稿は、過去3年間JALTで発表した大学英語授業改善のまとめである。Okada and Shimabayashi (2000a, 2000b) では、早期に英語学習につまずき、具体的にどうしたらよいかは考えず、授業の内容には娯楽性の高いものを望む、という特徴を持つ学生の実態を報告しBrown (1994) に基づいて授業改善の提案を行った。Okada and Shimabayashi (2001) では、自立した学習者育成のために教師がすべきことを授業前、中、後に分けて報告した。この報告ではこれらをまとめ、今後の課題として教室外で学生が使用できる自主教材の開発の必要などを検討する。


This is the final segment of our three-year joint project that we have reported in past JALT Proceedings. The goal of this project is to foster learner autonomy in a Japanese university setting. In Okada & Shimabayashi (2000a, 2000b), we found that the students in our university tended to 1) drop out of the English program at an early stage, 2) be unaware of how to study English, and 3) be fond of entertainment-type language learning materials. We felt it necessary to change the situation and made suggestions based on Brown (1994) about how to create students who can study outside the classroom. In Okada and Shimabayashi (2001), we discussed what language teachers could do before, during, and after class to augment learner autonomy. This year, we will summarize and examine what we have done so far, and suggest future improvements.




There have been a large number of research projects and papers that deal with the issue of motivation in second language acquisition (henceforth SLA) since Gardner and Lambert’s (1959, 1972) classic study. SLA itself has many variables: for example, the learner’s age, first language, cultural background, past learning experiences, etc. These factors are entwined with the level of the L2 proficiency each learner eventually achieves and motivation is considered to be one of these important factors (Schumann, 1975, among others). Not only is research in motivation interesting as a research topic for theorists, it is also critical in successful classroom teaching. As teachers are confronted daily with the reality of teaching a second/foreign language, we find it important that the theories put forth by researchers be applicable to classroom instruction. As teachers, we need to see the results in our students. As Scharle and Szabó (2000) state, we would like to rear learners who “accept the idea that their own efforts are crucial to progress in learning, and behave accordingly (p. 3).” But how can we accomplish this aim?

This article is the final part of our three-year project addressing learner autonomy in a Japanese university setting. The structure of the article is as follows: We will first look at the results of a student survey and determine the tendency of our students’ attitudes toward language learning.  Then, we will describe our efforts to improve the English program of our university to make it both more suitable and encouraging to the target students. Lastly, we will consider future challenges that we will have to meet in order to reach our goal of encouraging learner autonomy.


Needs Analysis


Research in motivation often utilizes a survey. Other than Oxford’s (1990) well-known survey in learning strategies, there have been numerous motivation-related surveys in SLA, for example, the learner’s notion of “self” (Syed, 2001) and even the teachers’ motivation in teaching (Kassabgy, Boraie, and Schmidt, 2001). Believing that a survey should reflect the learner’s true attitude toward learning, we decided to give a survey to our students in the academic year 1999-2000. We had just started teaching at Hokkaido Tokai University (henceforth HTU), but we were already aware that we had to take measures to improve the situation since many students were weak in English. Specifically, the students did not have the knowledge of basic grammar that they should have gained in junior and senior high schools.

Under the assumption that every learner should attain a certain level of proficiency if appropriately instructed, we jointly undertook action research on how to improve the situation.  In order to understand our students and their profile in learning English, we administered a survey based on Tada et al. (1997), summarized below:


Table 1. Survey Outline



1. to know students’ feelings toward learning English

2. to develop effective teaching curricula


1. HTU Students (1st year): total 136 (120 males and 16 females)

2. X University students (1st year): total 47 (46 males and 1 female)[1]


1. experimental group: fall, 1999   2. control group: spring, 2000


Q1-a  Do you like learning English?

Q1-b (to those who answered No to Q1-a)  When did you come to dislike learning English?

Q2   Do you think knowledge of English is necessary for surviving in the coming century?

Q3-a  Do you want to be more proficient in English while you are in college?

Q3-b (to those who answered Yes in Q3-a)  What are the ways you plan to study English?

Q4   What are the kinds of learning activities you wish to do in a college English classroom?       



Results of the Survey -- Comparing Two Universities –


In comparing the results of the survey conducted on the students of HTU and X University, three characteristics of HTU students’ learning preferences and styles became evident.


HTU students came to dislike learning English at a very early stage of learning.


Table 2. Answers to Question 1-a

Q1-a: Do you like learning English?




X University







Not sure




Table 3. Answers to Question 1-b

Q1-b: When did you come to dislike learning English?[3]




X University

1st year, JH[4]



2nd year, JH



3rd year, JH



1st year, SH[5]



2nd year, SH



3rd year, SH




The results revealed that there is a significant difference (p≤ .05) between the two universities with regard to Q1-b. Almost four out of ten HTU students said they did not like learning English, and almost six out of ten said they started to dislike it in the first year of junior high school[6] This is in striking contrast with X University students where almost half of the students started to dislike learning English when they were in their first year of senior high school. This represents a gap of three years, i.e., the entire junior high school period, particularly the first year, seems to have severely affected the attitudes of HTU students toward language learning.


HTU students know English is important and they want to be more proficient while in college, but they are not sure how they want to learn English.


Table 4. Answers to Question 2

Q2: Do you think knowledge of English is necessary to survive in the coming century?




X University







Don’t know




Table 5. Answers to Question 3-a

Q3-a: Do you want to be more proficient in English while you are in college?




X University








Table 6. Answers to Question 3-b

Q3-b What are the ways you plan to study English?




X University

have not thought about it



English language programs on TV or radio



English conversation school



self study



study with friends



study in class







The above tables clearly show that both sets of university students realize the importance of English proficiency and they wish to be more proficient. However, many HTU students said they did not know how. Forty percent of HTU students and 24% of X University students answered they had not thought about how they plan to study English. The difference between these two groups was statistically significant at the .05 level.


HTU students are looking for entertainment-type activities.


Table 7. Answers to Question 4

Q4: What are the kinds of learning activities you wish to do in a college English classroom?[7]




X University

studying with a textbook



materials related to my major



reading materials (newspapers or magazines) in current topics



movies, songs, TV shows



conversation practice for travel overseas



computer assisted language learning



grammar practice






studying with a textbook




The answers to Q-4 clearly show that HTU students are looking for “fun” activities and X University students tend to be more interested in reading academic materials related to their major, and newspaper and magazine articles on current political and economic issues.


Brown’s (1994) Ten Axioms and Our Teaching Guidelines


Brown’s (1994) ten axioms

              The results of the survey revealed three characteristics of HTU students’ attitudes toward language learning: 1) disliking English at an early stage of learning; 2) not knowing how to study English; 3) looking for “fun” materials. Keeping this tendency in mind, our task as university educators is to motivate them to learn more and to develop such curricula that can improve their performance. We agreed that we should design our teaching guidelines based on Brown’s (1994) ten axioms for good language learning:


Table 8. Brown’s (1994) “Ten Commandments” for good language learning



Teacher’s task

Strategic techniques


Lower inhibitions

Sing songs; group work


Encourage risk-taking

Praise students for making sincere effort


Build self-confidence

Have students make lists of their strengths


Develop intrinsic motivation

Remind them about the reward for learning


Engage in cooperative learning

Direct students to share their knowledge; group work


Use right-brain processes

Use movies and tapes; do skimming exercises


Promote ambiguity tolerance

Keep theoretical explanation simple


Practice intuition

Praise students for good guesses


Process error feedback

Tape record students’ oral production and give feedback


Set personal goals

Encourage or direct students to go beyond the classroom


In order to practice what Brown (1994) advocates, we introduced a number of new approaches in our classroom instruction in the first two years of our research, keeping the following in mind:


1. To encourage students who do not like learning English, we need to find ways to enhance their self-confidence.

2. To direct students who do not know how to improve their English, we have to introduce teaching materials that will augment learner autonomy. To achieve this goal, it is vital that students have a chance to read, write, hear or speak outside the classroom. 

3. To help students realize the importance of academic English, it is necessary to have them find out how they can use English to improve their performance in their chosen fields (i.e., majors). We need to create appropriate teaching materials for that purpose.

4. To achieve the above goals, we need to realize that language education does not happen only inside the classroom. We need to examine three phases of classroom management, namely, before, during, and after class.


Our Approaches


              We were more concerned about what we taught in class in the first year of teaching, and we became aware that the overall system of language education should include before-, in- and after-class activities in the second year. The following sections demonstrate our approaches in the academic years 1999 through 2001.


Before-class Preparations

              The importance of pre-class preparation cannot be overemphasized. More concretely, it is vital to set teaching goals, create an appropriate teaching curriculum, and decide grading criteria. We decided that we should hand out a detailed course syllabus in class in addition to the general syllabus posted on the school website in English I.[8]

Shimabayashi tried a new approach for evaluation. In his English I class, he asked his students to set up their own grading criteria, i.e., how they want to be evaluated by the teacher (see Appendix I). As a result, students unavoidably had to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses in order to receive a good grade. This aims to have students study harder in their strong areas by giving them some limited liberty in setting up their grading criteria.


In-class Activities:

As we already reported in Okada & Shimabayashi (2000a), good in-class activities were 1. task-oriented; 2. group-oriented; and 3. project-oriented. The following table shows examples of our teaching. In creating and using these activities, we heavily relied on the ten axioms of Brown (1994). We received quite good student feedback from these in-class activities (See Appendix II).


Table 9. Examples of our in-class activities


target skills




Listening activities using movie DVDs (Armageddon, Titanic, etc.)



Translating the scenario of a Japanese film “Totoro” into English and a movie “Philadelphia” into Japanese



Reading activities from the book “Attitude is Everything”


Studying chemical symbols on the internet / Studying the Solar System



Reading “Mathemagics”[10] in an engineering English I class



Viewing a National Geographic Video “The Incredible Human Machine” and do listening and vocabulary exercises in a biology English I class

four skills

English presentation on a topic each student chose and did research on their own

listening  grammar

Listening to songs and studying the grammar items used in them


Writing marathon (submitting via e-mail)


Reading marathon (read a graded reader and send reaction via e-mail)



Studying TOEIC preparation program in the computer room



After-class Pursuits

              Most teachers would agree that classroom instruction alone is not sufficient to improve students’ language skills. It is crucial that we give good homework assignments to increase the hours students study at home, and that we give good advice to students as to how to study there.

              Shimabayashi conducted in-class activities using a movie and gave listening assignments that students could not complete without watching the film again. This means students had to rent a video to finish the homework. According to the student survey at the end of the semester, some students rented a video, watched it several times and liked it. This type of after-class activity is favored by our students probably because the materials are highly entertaining, but they also motivate students by exposing them to English at home as well as in class.

              Okada has started to create an original grammar CD-ROM. In a communication-oriented classroom, grammar explanations should be limited to the minimum, but they still remain important. In an attempt to solve this dilemma, she started to create an original CD-ROM that explains basic grammar items, such as “conjunctions” or “subjunctive mood” on an animated screen. She also plans to create a website that explains the grammar items that students encounter in their English I textbook. There are two merits in requiring students to study the items outside the classroom: 1. more classroom time can be devoted to communication-oriented activities; 2. the students can go back to the website as many times as they want in order to understand the grammar items. The following shows some pages from her project:


Examples of the grammar CD-ROM pages




Conclusion and Future Research


This article wraps up our joint action research on augmenting learner motivation in a Japanese university setting. What we explained here will not apply to all university students since we tried to tailor a program that suits the specific needs of HTU students. However, the basic idea should be applicable to any language learning setting: It is important that we have our vision/goal of teaching, know the learning needs of students, and work hard to develop a curriculum that encourages students to be responsible learners as stated in Scharle and Szabó (2000).

We are confident that some concrete results have been borne out of our efforts in the past three years. However, we also know that there is a lot more to be done. For future improvements, we would like to suggest the following: It is necessary to address university English education not on a personal level, but on a school-wide level. Committees need to be established to discuss the overall system of English education at the level of the entire university. Personal endeavors have limits. We argue that improvements in language education should not be limited to the personal level (like this article), but should be expanded to the school-wide level in order ensure that each student can receive equally high level language instruction.


Appendix I


A grading criteria request form as part of Shimabayashi’s English I syllabus:

“In this course, I will give you a grade based on the criteria you request at the beginning of the semester.  Fill in the form below and submit it.”






Participation & Assignments


60 %

40 %

Basic Ratio





Possible Ratio Range





Your Request






Appendix II


Some representative student comments in the survey at the end of the semester:


“The experience of giving a presentation in English gave me a lot of confidence.”

“I felt like I learned about how to live, not just English.” “I began to study at home.”

“It was fun working with friends in a group, teaching them and being taught by them.”

“I am very happy I had a chance to talk about my own experiences to my friends.”





Brown, D. (1994). Teaching by principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy. Prentice Hall.

Gardner, R. and Lambert, W. (1959). Motivational variables in second language acquisition. Canadian Journal of Psychology 32, 191-200.

Gardner, R. and Lambert, W. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second-language learning. Mass.: Newbury House.

Kassabgy, O., Boraie, D. and Schmidt, R. (2001) Values, rewards, and job satisfaction in ESL/EFL. In Dörnyei, Z and Schmidt, R. (eds.). Motivation and second language acquisition. University of Hawai’i Press.

Okada, K. and Shimabayashi, S. (2000a).  How to create PEP students. In the Proceedings of JALT Hokkaido Chapter 2000, 52-59.

Okada, K. and Shimabayashi, S. (2000b).  Eigo-o nigateto-suru gakusei-no dooki zuke-to shidoohoo (Motivating and teaching students who think they are not good at English).  In the Bulletin of the Research Institute for Higher Education Programs, Hokkaido Tokai University, 13, 1-10.

Okada, K. and Shimabayashi, S. (2001). How to create PEP students part II. In the Proceedings of JALT Hokkaido Chapter 2001, 68-72.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies. Heinle and Heinle.

Scharle, Á. and Szabó, A. (2000). Learner autonomy. Cambridge University Press.

Schumann, J. (1975). Affective factors and the problem of age in second language acquisition. Language Learning 25, 209-35.

Stryker, S. and Leaver, B. (eds.). (1997). Content-based instruction in foreign

language education. Georgetown University Press.

Syed, Z. (2001). Notions of self in foreign language learning: a qualitative analysis. In

Dörnyei, Z and Schmidt, R. (eds.). Motivation and second language acquisition. University of Hawai’i Press.

Tada, M., Tanimoto, H. and Yamaguchi, H. (1997). Eigo-ni kansuru gakusei-no ishikichoosa (Student survey on English learning).

In the Bulletin of the Research Institute for Higher Education Programs, Hokkaido Tokai University, 10, 135-144.



* We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their helpful comments. The remaining errors are of course ours. This project was partially supported by Matsumae Shigeyoshi Research Fund, Tokai University Educational System.



[1] X University is a large national university in the Sapporo area and is considered one of the top universities in Hokkaido.


[2] There are more questions in the original survey.  For the complete version, contact the authors.


[3] This question was asked to those who answered No to Question 1-a.


[4] JH stands for junior high school (equivalent to grades 7-9 in the US school system).



[5] SH stands for senior high school (equivalent to grades 10-12 in the US school system).



[6] In an additional question that does not appear here, many students specifically said they started to hate the subject of


      English in the first trimester of instruction.  (Most Japanese public schools have three terms in an academic year.)



[7] The numbers do not add up to 100% since this was a multiple-answer question.



[8] English I is an introductory English course focusing on reading and writing, taught by Japanese teachers.



[9] Content-based instruction is shown to be effective even at an elementary level.


      See Stryker and Leaver (1997).



[10] “Mathemagics” is an elementary arithmetic book originally written for English-speaking children.

Last modified: Tuesday, 6 September 2016, 10:59 PM