English Language Learner Autonomy in the Vietnamese Higher Education Context: Enabling Factors and Barriers Arising from Assessment Practice

Dissertation, The University of Adelaide (2019)
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Learner autonomy has gained particular attention in Vietnamese higher education since a major education reform launched in 2005. Although a number of studies have been conducted to investigate the concept in the Vietnamese higher education context, most of them have focused on exploring teachers’ and students’ perceptions and beliefs around the concept of autonomy (T. V. Nguyen, 2011; Dang, 2012; Humphreys & Wyatt, 2013; T. N. Nguyen, 2014), and on the possibility of promoting it in Vietnamese universities (Trinh, 2005; L. T. C. Nguyen, 2009; Q. X. Le, 2013; Phan, 2015). There appear to be no studies on the demonstration of learner autonomy and the potential factors, including factors relating to assessment practice, that support or inhibit its demonstration in the Vietnamese higher education context. Building on a social constructivist paradigm and sociocultural theories of learning, this qualitative case study aims to investigate the demonstration of learner autonomy in the context of assessment in English as a foreign language (EFL) classes in a university in Vietnam, and the (potential) factors in assessment that facilitate or constrain the demonstration of learner autonomy in that context. The data were collected through participant observation of teachers’ and students’ practices in three EFL classes at the university during a complete semester, one-on-one semi-structured interviews with three teachers and sixteen students, and post-observation interviews with the three teachers and their students. Additional data which characterised the context of the study were gathered and included documents at the researched university relating to higher education policies, assessment policies, English teaching and learning policies, EFL curriculum and syllabus, test samples, and English teaching textbooks. The study found that students generally demonstrated a low level of autonomy in the classroom despite their positive attitude towards the concept and their awareness of its role in English learning. Primary contributing factors included negative washback of current assessment systems on teaching and learning practices, prescribed assessment practices in the class, teachers’ and learners’ limited and divergent understanding about the concept of learner autonomy, and their limited understanding about the role of assessment in learning in general and in learner autonomy promotion and development in particular. The study also found that students who stated that English was relevant to their personal needs were generally more autonomous outside of the classroom than inside it. Findings from this study support the view that learner autonomy reflects the relationship between learners and the learning environment, and is an emergent product of the interaction between learners and contextual factors including their teacher, their peers, the learning task, class rules and values, and university values and regulations. The study’s findings are significant, as they highlight the social dimension of learner autonomy and the importance of facilitating favourable conditions for teachers to provide learner autonomy and for learners to manifest it. The study also highlights the need to reconsider assessment practices to promote learner autonomy.
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