Autonomous Learning in Saudi Writing Classroom: Teachers’ and Students’ Beliefs, Attitudes, and Practices

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Abstract The development of learner autonomy (LA) is an important factor in learning to write in a foreign language. In Saudi Arabia, however, English as a foreign language (EFL) writing instruction is still traditional and largely teacher-centred, even at the university level. As a result, such autonomy is difficult to achieve in EFL writing, a skill in which Saudi students receive few practice opportunities. The reasons for this are under-explored but are likely related to the beliefs of teachers and students themselves. The purpose of this study is to explore teachers’ and students’ beliefs, attitudes, and practices of autonomous learning in a Saudi university preparatory year level (foundation year). The study also explores the barriers and supporting factors around promoting learner autonomy in EFL writing classrooms. In addition, by comparing classrooms where teachers employ more or fewer autonomous practices, the study explores the development of students’ writing with and without an autonomous learning class environment. Finally, the study explores the autonomous approach students develop while studying in both classroom groups. This exploratory study uses a mixed method research design. Quantitative data were gathered through surveys from 16 female EFL teachers in the preparatory year, and from a survey at the start and end of the year among 91 students within four classes. Based on teacher responses to the questionnaire, four teachers and their writing classes were classified as autonomous (Group A, two teachers) or non-autonomous (Group B, two teachers). Further qualitative data regarding teachers’ and students’ beliefs, practices, and writing development were collected through interviews, classroom observation, and writing samples. The findings revealed that teachers appeared to believe in the importance of LA in learning EFL writing, but did not always translate these beliefs into practice due to fixed teaching/learning restrictions outlined by the university. It was also found that time and group type significantly affect students’ practices, attitudes, and beliefs. Moreover, students’ writing accuracy was improved in the autonomous group more than in the non-autonomous group. Lastly, some of the autonomous writing strategies were totally missing in EFL writing classes. These findings suggest a need for the modification of EFL writing curricula so that they relate more to students’ cultural backgrounds and real-life experiences as this would promote autonomy through increased interest. Furthermore, less central university control regarding the fixed examination system and more attention to students’ learning needs and proficiency levels would help promote LA in writing classes. This study ultimately showed that EFL students have the ability and willingness to learn to write independently. The autonomous approach to learning also helped students improve their writing. However, the lack of resources, the deanery’s regulations, and discouragement and guidance from teachers prevent EFL students from the effective implementation of LA in EFL writing classes.