Second language learning at a distance: Metacognition, affect, learning strategies and learner support in relation to the development of autonomy. Volume 1: Introduction to the published work

Hurd, Stella (2008). Second language learning at a distance: Metacognition, affect, learning strategies and learner support in relation to the development of autonomy. Volume 1: Introduction to the published work. PhD thesis The Open University.



This work is based on nine articles, two book chapters and one set of conference proceedings published between 1998 and 2007 on independent language learning in universities. I also refer to papers I have published that are concerned exclusively with language learning and teaching in adult education in order to contextualise my research. The publications selected for this work chart my evolution as a researcher and teacher, moving from a conventional adult education setting to self-access in a new university and finally distance learning at the Open University, UK. At each stage of this educational journey, autonomy took on an increasingly significant role, with distance learning at the extreme end of the spectrum, a setting which required autonomy to be firmly embedded in theory and practice.

The thesis is divided into two main parts: (1) autonomy (2) metacognition and affect, strategies and learner support. The narrative draws together these themes, and explores links between the constructs, and their interrelationships. Publications 1-5 focus on the concept of autonomy and the issues it raises for learners and teachers in both self access and distance learning settings. The first three articles investigate autonomy in self-access contexts. The fourth and fifth publications concentrate more specifically on the distance language learning context. These five articles and chapters examine definitions and interpretations of autonomy; its psychological and social dimensions; its relationship to critical reflection; its place in successful language learning; and its function as a key transferable skill for vocational and other purposes. Finally, the role of autonomy and its practical application – self-regulation or self-management – is discussed in specific relation to distance language learning.

Publications 6-12 explore metacognition and affect in independent learning settings, the role of language learning strategies to promote self-regulation in the development of autonomy, and issues for learner support. In this section, the focus is mainly on distance language learning, (reflecting my move to the Open University, UK), although many of the arguments are equally applicable to independent language learning settings in general. The role of metacognition is discussed from the dual perspective of knowledge of self, and skills used to manage the learning process (Flavell, 1976). Affective factors, notably beliefs, anxiety and motivation, are explored in relation to the special characteristics of the distance language learning environment, in particular the call on affective resources in the absence of a teacher. This leads naturally to an examination of the strategies that distance learners employ to cope with the demands of their learning setting, and to implications for learner support.

This work makes an important contribution to the field of distance language learning through its focus on the centrality of the learner, the processes involved in second language acquisition (SLA) at a distance, and the need to explore related concepts from the learner's perspective. The empirical studies I have carried out using both quantitative and qualitative research instruments take forward the state of current knowledge in the field by offering original insights into the perceptions, thoughts and feelings of distance language learners and the strategies they use to manage in a distance context. Underpinning my research is a view shared by a growing number of researchers in applied linguistics today that 'language learning, more than almost any other discipline, is an adventure of the whole person, not just a cognitive or metacognitive exercise' (Oxford & Burry-Stock, 1995: 18).

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