3 Key Elements of Self-Directed Learning

May 23, 2013

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Collaborating for Learning Conference (May 15 & 16, 2013) at the University of Calgary.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Gary Poole, from the University of British Columbia, gave a talk on a self-directed learning program at UBC.

Dr. Poole highlighted three key elements of self-directed learning that differentiate it from traditional learning:

  1. The learner identifies the goals of their project and their learning process.
  2. The learner designs the means for attaining those goals.
  3. The learner defines the criteria to determine if the goals were met.

In order for learning to be truly self-directed, teachers and advisors must surrender the need to control the learning process, program design and even the assessment. Faculty and program coordinators become guides, helping students find their way if they get lost, helping them to cultivate self-managment and self-monitoring skills and — at all costs — resisting the urge to prescribe how learning should happen.

Self-directed learning teaches students to take control of their own path and then take full responsiblity for their own success or failure, being reflective and aware every step of the way.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

How to create excellent online discussion board questions

January 26, 2013

This semester I have incorporated an activity into my online courses. Students are required to facilitate the online discussion board for one or two weeks, depending on which course they are in. We use an online learning platform called Blackboard, but there are a number of different platforms available.

Here is a handy 1-page resource I created to help my  students develop and facilitate great questions that enhance learning, keep participants focussed and encourage in-depth online discussions.

View this document on Scribd

Click here to download your own copy of it: How to facilitate a Blackboard discussion


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Can TV can help you learn another language?

May 24, 2012

Recently someone asked me if watching TV in another language is a good way to learn that language. The answer is… it depends. There are a number of benefits and also a number of factors that may not benefit the learner. Here’s my take on it:

The good

Watching TV exposes you to authentic language, spoken by native speakers. The vocabulary and grammar that students are exposed to in textbooks is carefully controlled to make the learning process methodical. However, real life is not so methodical. By watching TV, you can get a sense of what authentic language sounds like.

You get accustomed to the real rate of speech of the language. Languages are spoken at different speeds. Proper language learning materials will often slow down the speech so that learners can process what they are hearing more effectively. TV is an excellent way to get used to the regular speed at which native speakers talk.

You can learn colloquialisms and slang. Learners often want to master informal jargon and slang not only to understand native speakers, but also to sound like they “fit in”. TV shows often showcase popular slang at the time the show was produced. Slang is presented in a particular social context, among speakers who are likely to use it. The downside to this is that learners still have to master when and how to use the slang in an acceptable way in their own social circles.

The bad

The grammar and syntax of TV are not always correct. TV may represent authentic language, but let’s face it, the real world is far messier than a textbook. TV is a lousy place to learn proper language structure.

Learners can develop language habits that may cause others to laugh at them. TV characters often develop, in part, due to the way the writers script their characters. Sometimes they are given particular words or sayings that, after many repetitions, will become part of their character’s “brand” (Quick! Who do you think of when you hear, “Bazinga!” or “Beam me up, Scotty” or “D’oh!”) Language learners need to know how to distinguish between what is an accepted part of normal speech and what is peculiar to a particular show or character. If they miss the mark, they may find themselves the object of some ridicule.

The ugly

Frustrations can escalate quickly. Learners may find they become frustrated easily when they can not understand a TV program. This may be more likely to happen if they are watching a show with a group of native speakers or others who are more advanced. For the “Type A” personality who demands nothing short of absolute perfection from themselves, watching TV can be a frustrating experience because until your proficiency levels are high, it is unlikely that you will be able to absorb much of what happens.

My recommendations

Watch the news. Newscasters are trained to speak clearly and articulate their words precisely. They also do not use much slang. If you also follow the news in your native language you may have a sense of what some of the news stories are about, giving you contextual clues that can help you understand what is being said.

Avoid comedies. As much as we may love comedy shows in our native language, they are almost impossible to understand in a foreign languages, unless you are already very proficient. Comedy shows tend to use more slang and colloquialisms, making them harder for a language learner to decipher.

Use subtitles in the target language to help you. The “closed captioning” function of your TV to also project the written script of what is being said. Be aware that this service is not always 100% correct, but reading at the same time you are listening may decrease your frustration levels.

Use subtitles in your native language if you have to. If you are really a beginner and the TV show or movie is completely out of your grasp, then use the translated subtitles if your system allows you to. This is not the ideal situation, but it is preferable to sitting there in complete misery as you try to muddle your way through a program and not understanding a word of it.

Live interaction trumps watching TV – Get out and talk with people. For a language learner (or for anyone, really), social interaction with real, live people is probably a more effective way to develop your language skills. If you do not have access to native speakers in your area, then watching TV is not a bad way to get exposure to authentic language. But real-time face-to-face interaction helps you build both listening and speaking skills simultaneously.

Related post:

Learning to Talk Like Jesus: How TV shows in Sweden support the Aramaic revival in the Middle East –  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1q7


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Success Strategy for Post-Secondary Students: Get to Know Your Profs

October 7, 2011

As part of my Effective Learning course at the University of Calgary, I prepared this 3-page success strategy for university students to help them understand the importance of getting to know their instructors.

My students reported that it helped them think of their profs as “real people”. Some of them said it had never occurred to them that their professors were once where they were (!)

Feel free to share this with your own students or university-age children.

Read the full version or download a copy:

View this document on Scribd

Related posts:

Success Strategy for Students: How to Make Sense of Scholarly Research Articles

Success Strategy for Students: How to Cite Class Notes 

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

New report says learning styles are bogus.

September 4, 2011

School girl on stairsNPR recently published an article entitled, “Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely”. Journalist Patti Neighmond reported on research being conducted by psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia who reportedly claims that “it’s a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it’s presented”. He goes a step further to say that “teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners.”

The article quotes another researcher, Doug Rohrer, from the University of South Florida who dismisses the notion of learning styles completely because he has allegedly “not found evidence from a randomized control trial.”

Rohrer’s words indicate that if studies are not “randomized control trials” that they are worthless. While I agree that such studies have their place in research, particularly in medicine and the hard sciences, I would argue that the human learner is comprised of more than neurology or cognition, and that emotions, perceptions and learning abilities can not simply be measured using randomized control trials. Not to mention cultural differences. Anyone who truly believes that culture does not influence learning styles need to investigate the matter on a deeper level.

The article goes on to say that teachers should “mix things up” in the classroom. Well, that I agree with. (Elementary, my dear Watson.) When we teach, we are teaching groups of students, not individual learners.

But to tell me that I as a language teacher should not “tailor instruction to different kinds of learners”, all I can ask is “Really?!” So, when I have had deaf or hard of hearing students in my class, I should not have increased or emphasized visual aids in my class? Or when I had a blind student, that I should not have repeated the information more than once or twice, so that she could be sure to hear it properly?

Really, I just shake my head at fellow scholars who say such things. Honestly, do these same scientists also support eugenics, to ensure that all humans learn in precisely the same way and that the effectiveness of the methods employed can be empirically proven using only randomized control tests?

The article claims that Rohrer advises against using the notion of learning styles, because there is no proof they they actually mean anything.

That made me ask, “Is it really possible that there is no proof that learning styles work?” In less than 30, I found ten studies — just focussed on language learning — that counter Rohrer’s position. While I did not find the “randomized control tests” that he demands as the only acceptable evidence, I did find numerous other studies (including a few control studies, though they were randomized).

If I can find ten studies in less than 30 minutes, relating specifically to language learning, how many studies have been conducted across the disciplines, over the past several decades? Can we really say that learning styles are bogus? What are your thoughts?

Control studies

Eme, E., Lacroix, A., & Almecija, Y. (2010). Oral Narrative Skills in French Adults Who Are Functionally Illiterate: Linguistic Features and Discourse Organization. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53(5), 1349-1371.

Tanyeli, N. (2008). The Efficiency of Online English Language Instruction on Students’ Reading Skills. Paper presented at the International Technology, Education and Development Conference (INTED). Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED504676

Research studies (non-control)

Erton, I. (2010). Relations between Personality Traits, Language Learning Styles and Success in Foreign Language Achievement. Hacettepe University Journal of Education, 38, 115-126.

Kucuk, M. G.-K., E. ; Tasci, D. (2010). Support Services and Learning Styles Influencing Interaction in Asynchronous Online Discussions. Educational Media International, 47(1), 39-56.

Lincoln, F., & Rademacher, B. (2006). Learning Styles of ESL Students in Community Colleges. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 30(5-6), 485-500.

Psaltou-Joycey, A. (2008). Cross-Cultural Differences in the Use of Learning Strategies by Students of Greek as a Second Language. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 29(4), 310-324.

Psaltou-Joycey, A., & Kantaridou, Z. (2009). Plurilingualism, Language Learning Strategy Use and Learning Style Preferences. International Journal of Multilingualism, 6(4), 460-474.

Turner, M. (2010). Using Student Co-Regulation to Address L2 Students’ Language and Pedagogical Needs in University Support Classes. Language and Education, 24(3), 251-266.

Wang, L. (2007). Variation in Learning Styles in a Group of Chinese English as a Foreign Language Learners. International Education Journal, 8(2), 408-417. Retrieved from ERIC: http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ834277

Wong, J. K.-K. (2004). Are the Learning Styles of Asian International Students Culturally or Contextually Based? International Education Journal, 4(4), 154-166. Retrieved from ERIC: http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ903817

Zhang, L.-F. (2007). Intellectual Styles and Academic Achievement among Senior Secondary School Students in Rural China. Educational Psychology, 27(5), 675-692.

Scholarly studies (Conceptual and theoretical)

Abraham, R. (1978). The Nature of Cognitive Style and Its Importance to the Foreign Language Teacher.

Jones, S. (1993). Cognitive Learning Styles: Does Awareness Help? A Review of Selected Writings. Language Awareness, 2(4), 195-207.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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