Are we moving the goalposts?

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” [1]

One of the aims (or learning outcomes) of a university education is often that students should become ‘autonomous learners’, in that, broadly speaking, they should develop into people who actively pursue their own education rather than being taught exactly what they need to know*. But whether or not students do develop into autonomous learners depends, fundamentally, on whether autonomy is a fixed trait (as supported by some studies) or something that can be developed over time, or through particular experiences (as supported by others). On top of this, it is all very well for universities to set out to develop autonomous students, but do the students see themselves as becoming increasingly autonomous?

This is something we (me, Dom Henri and Graham Scott) wanted to explore [2]. Over the course of a couple of years, we distributed 825 questionnaires to our students, across all the years of a university degree. Some of the students got the questionnaire more than once, so we have data from the same students at different time points, as well as data from different degree levels**. The questionnaire was designed to measure how autonomous students perceive themselves to be, with questions like “I take responsibility for my learning experiences” and “I enjoy finding out about new topics on my own”, scored on a 1-5 “how strongly do you agree” scale. The scores are combined together to create an score of how autonomous each student perceives themselves to be.

What we found was (initially) a bit disappointing. There was no evidence that students thought they got more autonomous as they went through their degree programmes. Does this mean that autonomy is fixed, and students actually don’t get any better at learning for themselves as they move through their degree? Are we wasting effort trying to make them into independent knowledge-seeking-learning-loving graduates? Well, no. There are other things associated with autonomy that we know increase during degrees [3], so why do students not perceive themselves as becoming more autonomous? Is it, we wondered, because we are moving the goalposts?

Self-perception is often associated with the feedback we receive. So a student feels good about themselves if they achieve the grades they expect, and feel more confident when they think they are where they ‘ought to be’ [4,5]. So perception of autonomy might well be affected by things other than actual autonomy, but because we didn’t measure actual autonomy, we can’t say how the two are related. But at university, we expect autonomy to increase over time (it’s one of our stated goals!), so we give tasks that require increasing levels of autonomy, so the gap between where students think they are, and where they think they ought to be, could easily stay the same as they move through their degree programmes.

Because we’re all ecologists at heart, we thought this sounded very much akin to a Red Queen Effect [6], where organisms must continually evolve in order to stay in the same place (not go extinct), named after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass [1]. So because we expect students to become more autonomous, we are effectively moving the goalposts as students progress through their degree. We do this in lots of other, perhaps more concrete, ways too, like expecting more in the way of critical analysis in essays as students move through their degrees. So perhaps students aren’t going to perceive themselves as more autonomous if we continuously expect them to become more autonomous, and the gap remains the same.


Alice & Red Queen

John Tenniel. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. 1871. Wikimedia Commons


Does it matter if students don’t think they are as autonomous as we perhaps want them to be? Well, I think it might. Autonomy is a learning outcome because it’s something employers are looking for. When applying for a job, students need to be able to express various things that might be associated with their autonomy. If they don’t think they are autonomous, that’s might do them a disservice in their applications. That would probably be OK, if there weren’t gender differences in perception of autonomy. Females routinely (in our study and others) report themselves as being less autonomous, less capable, than male students, when there is no reason to expect that they are, and so they could be placed at a disadvantage in the job market. If you don’t see yourself as autonomous and capable, you’re not likely to say you are in an application. And that definitely matters.

Which means that we should do something about it.


*There are lots of different definitions of what constitutes an autonomous learner, but generally they include things like taking ownership of learning, confidence in their own ability, engagement with student-led learning, and ‘deep’ rather than ‘surface’ learning.

**Dear students. Thank you so much for agreeing to fill in these questionnaires so often. It’s really helpful and we’re doing it because we want to understand how you think and feel so that we can make things better for our students in the future.


[1] Carroll, Lewis (1871) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 2
[2] Henri, DC, Morrell LJ & Scott, GW (2017) Student perceptions of their autonomy at University. Higher Education [open access]
[3] Thomas, L, Hockings, C, Ottaway, J and Jones, R, (2015). Independent learning: Students’ perspectives and experiences. Higher Education Academy
[4] Ainscough, L, Foulis, E, Colthorpe, K, Zimbardi, K, Robertson-Dean, M, Chunduri, P and Lluka, L (2016) Changes in Biology Self-Efficacy during a First-Year University Course. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 15(2): ar19
[5] Fazey, DM and Fazey, JA (2001) The potential for autonomy in learning: perceptions of competence, motivation and locus of control in first-year undergraduate students. Studies in Higher Education 26 (3): 345-361
[6] Van Valen, Leigh (1973). A new evolutionary law. Evolutionary Theory1: 1–30


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