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Take charge of your own learningImproving Autonomy through Study Groups and Self-assessment

Sophie Mersedes Martusewicz
Supraja Prabaker
Ellimaija Tanskanen


We aim to create tools for improving autonomous learning in ways that don’t overwhelm the university and its staff but that focus instead on how students can themselves improve their learning process and experiences.

The result is a guideline for students to reflect on individual courses and their personal goals and progress during them in small groups outside of the formal course framework. Through this, students can realize their agency in improving their own learning by taking a bit of extra time for reflection and to do it with peers, as groups will encourage students to voice their thoughts and develop them further. These group reflections can help students acquire better knowledge on how to make group work more meaningful, while creating a learning community to give a sense of importance and relatedness, which in turn promotes autonomy.

While the primary use of this template is outside of course frameworks, it can also be implemented in the curriculum by teachers in their course plan, or through tutoring parallel to courses.


Student autonomy is linked to better learning outcomes and a better satisfaction in learning. The curricula in academic education vary according to country, university and field of study and include various methods encouraging students more or less into engaging in autonomous learning. In addition to the educational philosophy behind a curriculum, many other factors such as resources available, sizes of classes, topics covered, teaching spaces and practices affect the agency given to students during university courses. Student autonomy springs from intrinsic motivation, interest and feeling of agency in learning, but can be developed with educators’ help throughout one’s academic path. Today, many programs focus mostly on the mere transmission of information to students. As in many education reforms, one limitation for change in teaching methods is resources available. Nevertheless, some changes can be implemented with few resources required from the academic institutions by focusing on the agency of students. To give students more tools to develop their autonomy in learning throughout their studies regardless of teaching methods adopted, we suggest developing a tool giving students the opportunity to organise group reflection workshops in parallel to formal courses to give them a feeling of agency and empowerment in their learning. This tool would give them the opportunity to situate themselves regarding their goals, improve their learning in the future and achieve a level of autonomy they strive for.

To tailor this project to real issues and needs and combine empirical data to scientific background, we started interviewing students of the RUG in regards their perception of autonomy and views on group studying, next to self-made questionnaires, assessing perception of autonomy and attitude towards study-groups. Students currently have a varying degree in autonomy. Some are setting goals and challenging themselves during courses autonomously by reflecting on their knowledge and personality in relation to the course’s content, while part is studying in a more passive or formally guided way. Over half of the students responding to our survey showed positive attitudes towards group work. About a third of the respondents organize independent group work outside of course demands. A big majority of respondents discuss the work process at least at the beginning of a group project, and over half both at the beginning and the end. Most students considered themselves to be rather active group members. As the main difficulties in group work, students expressed concerns such as unequal investment, workload and/or motivation of group members, unsuccessful coordination and communication, different work ethics especially in groups formed randomly. From the interviews we conducted, we conclude that students wish for more autonomy and better group work, however, are not aware how to go about that. Most students seek out to study with others to feel less alone in their studies and gain better understanding of the material, however, they stop meeting up and are lacking structure and plan. More students wish for a common understanding of the group’s goals and better structure in their attempts to study in order to feel better about their achievements and gain the most of studying with others. These observations support our idea and we believe that providing students with the right tools to study and support each other in groups would be beneficial for the experience of learning autonomy.


Our template

Our goal through this project is to encourage students to do more autonomous group work in order to enhance learning and self-assessment in groups, creating a better sense of community and improving students’ confidence. Simultaneously, giving students the opportunity and choice to work in these extracurricular reflection groups aims to empower them.

The template we developed focuses on the importance of creating a safe study environment together with other students. Studying in groups promotes feelings of belonging and commitment. The sense of commitment stems from having others within this group holding each other accountable for achievements and promises made. Those factors play an important role in the development of autonomy in students. Moreover, we perceive study groups as a great opportunity to boost the students confidence and knowledge, as they exchange valuable information discussing examination material in depth. The improved confidence, understanding of material and sense of relatedness to the study are important factors which underpin the development and perception of autonomy (Macaskill & Denovan, 2013). Importantly, self-evaluation within a group gives the students the opportunity to get feedback from others and discuss new ways to improve possible flaws through the brainstorming effect created by the group discussion (Brown, 2017). This template works regardless of whether the students are preparing for the same course or not.

To achieve this, we have created an instructional template (click here) to guide students during courses to work in small, independently formed groups outside of the formal curriculum to reflect on their learning process. The template is divided in three parts, each of which is meant to be used at different stages of the course. The first part is an initial reflection on expectations and content of the course, personal strengths, weaknesses and goals and how to make the most of the course. The second part is meant to adjust students’ learning strategies and keep their initial focus for the course in mind and perform optimally. Finally, the last part is a reflection and evaluation of the course in general and each student’s performance during in relation to their initial goals and thoughts. The final part also aims to make students look forward to using the knowledge acquired to their advantage in the future and improve their skills in autonomous learning throughout their academic path.


The template is to be proactively and independently used by students with their peers during courses. To promote the tool among students, it can be shared to university staff responsible for tutoring, especially regarding first-year students, as well as study counselors and other supporting staff. Student tutors and teachers’ assistants are another way to reach students. As a third source, university newsletters, emails, portals, as well as media such as Ukrant or social media accounts officially or unofficially linked to the university can be leveraged to present the template and its use. While being firstly directed towards independent use by students with minimal interference required from university staff, our group reflection can also be used within courses or formal tutoring. The implementation of the tool by teachers during courses as a part of the formal curriculum or study counselors during mentoring sessions has the added value of engaging also students not yet as autonomously oriented to try the template and get the positive learning experience that it can bring, possibly encouraging them to implement the tool in the future more autonomously. Depending on the teacher’s favored methods as well as the size of the class, the formation of groups and the monitoring of the work can be done in a more or less autonomous way. In bigger lectures, teacher’s assistants could be used to facilitate the reflection work without overloading the teacher, or students could be given the freedom to work as a group more independently and seek the teacher’s advice if it is deemed needed.

Outside of formal class settings, one way to ensure that the template would be used not only by already fairly autonomous and motivated students but also by those struggling with this, encouraging the formation of groups with students of different levels of autonomy can help boost everyone’s learning. Working with friends is often the default, but while disseminating the template through the various channels mentioned above, it is important to stress that working with people you know less can be beneficial for all parties and help bring on board those less likely to participate otherwise. Through the gradual implementation of such a reflection tool by part of the student population, we hope to trigger a domino effect as the template gets more normalised in study practices and an increasingly bigger student population gains interest in it. In a city such as Groningen with a dense network of students, making use of the networked connections between students can facilitate spreading the model.


Learner autonomy is defined through a certain number of key themes: responsibility or ownership of outcomes (internal locus of control), confidence in skills or ability to achieve (self-efficacy) and engagement with student-led learning (self-regulation) (Chan, 2001; Fazey & Fazey, 2001; Macaskill and Taylor, 2010; Macaskill & Denovan, 2013); and, the “surface” vs. “deep” approach, where autonomous students independently attempt to expand their knowledge base instead of focusing on prescribed material (Henri et al., 2017). Our project promotes students’ drive for independently furthering their own knowledge and with that promoting their development into being autonomous learners. As learning autonomy is beneficial for learning results and engagement with the material, we believe that students can benefit greatly from improving their own autonomy.

While increasing learning results and satisfaction (Chemers et al., 2001; Ghanizadeh, 2016; Levesque et al., 2004; Littlewood, 1999; Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), autonomous learning has been shown to be important for lifelong learning (March et al., 2001). Research into autonomy has shown that this process requires the students to identify with the task and find motivation for the task within themselves. This means that the students’ perceptions of control significantly affect their engagement and students will not perform at their best when they feel that they are forced to complete a task (Maja, 2019). Henceforth, we are trying to develop a tool, which enhances students intrinsic motivation to study and by giving them a more structured opportunity to study with others, we predict to also enhance their identification with the task and sense of belonging. A positive sense of belonging within the study has been also shown to positively affect the development and perception of autonomy (Macaskill & Denovan, 2013).

As outlined above, autonomy requires students to experience confidence in their own skills and ability to learn. Students, especially first-year students, experience doubts in their own abilities to study and usually describe their confidence in their skills to be moderate to low (Macaskill & Denovan, 2013). A study by Macaskill and Denovan (2013) utilises approaches developed from positive psychology with the aim of increasing student self-confidence to facilitate the development of autonomous learning in first-year undergraduates. The results of this study have shown us the importance of confidence when it comes to students’ perception of autonomy and their engagement in the studymatieral. Additionally, self-confidence has also positively correlated personal initiative, engagement in learning, finding resources and opportunities for learning, persistence in learning and resourcefulness within this study. Those are core requirements for the development of  learning autonomy.


For students to experience autonomy it is important for them to self-assess in order to understand their own skills and be able to develop more autonomy, confidence and identification with the courses and tasks at hand (Lee, 2005). It is necessary for the learners to be more involved during different levels of learning from goal setting , defining content and working mechanisms in order to self-assess themselves. The prototype template aims to guide students through each of those steps and assist the students in properly assessing themselves. Advantages of self assessment experiments for learner’s autonomy are as follows: Identification of their strengths and weaknesses in a more specific manner, objective view of their performances and conduct targeted practices. However, some research  suggests that the whole process of regular self-assessment could be time consuming and difficult to perform frequently. But, a regular self assessment can in fact put the students in-charge of their learning process as they can monitor their performances and plan how to improve their areas of weaknesses (Lee, 2005).

Study Groups

Group studying comes with lots of advantages, especially when the target groups are big like a classroom. Generally, people working in a group have similar goals and thus are a great support and source of motivation for each other (Brown, 2017). They tend to develop an improved social behaviour and interpersonal relationships through sharing a common workspace. This is often healthy for individuals looking to develop social skills, shy or looking for any sort of help. The choice to work in groups and stay in it often requires a lot of self- determination and represents the ability of an individual to take responsibility for their actions and the other members of the group. It depicts the proactive behaviour they possess and has the potential to attract others attention to the problems they want to analyze, leading to more approval and better solutions (Brown, 2017). Group studying has been believed to facilitate experimentation and reflective communication rewarding by developing more meaningful relationships. It also helps in recognizing and resolving errors, which otherwise goes unattended. It is of utmost necessity to eliminate the mistakes and their causes for the betterment of the individual and for the successful completion of the task (Gil & Mataveli, 2017). Furthermore, Group autonomy is proven to have direct positive effects on a team and indirect benefits on an individual basis ( Mierlo et al., 2006). Henceforth, after analysing the benefits of studying within groups we started building the template and tool around groups in order to maximize the learning experience and development of autonomy.


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