Supporting every teacher: learning to learn – beyond the online classroom

Dr Claire Dembry

In previous posts we’ve looked at what teachers can do to get the most out of online classrooms. But how can we encourage students to learn once their lesson is over? In this blog post, Dr Claire Dembry from our ELT Research Team, looks at how and why we should encourage students to become independent learners, what is ‘learning to learn’ and offers some practical suggestions on how this might work in your situation.

Let’s be honest – getting students to devote time to learning English beyond their lessons can be a real struggle at the best of times. But what happens when there’s so much uncertainty and distraction? You can’t be there for them in face-to-face classes to provide a sense of accountability. What practical things can you do to encourage your learners to take charge of their own learning?

What is learning to learn?

For learners to make good progress with English, we know that they need to do more than just work through the activities you set for them. They need to engage with the purpose and usefulness of their lessons, and really see what this means for them. They have to want to learn! Along with this, they need to learn strategies and behaviours that can help them to become better at learning things more generally, including English. This involves:

  • Making learning goals that are personal and meaningful to them – what do they want to achieve?
  • Finding learning strategies that work for them day-to-day – how do they actually ‘do’ learning?
  • Reflecting on their achievements – what did they do well? What can they do to improve?


Why is this important? We know that autonomous learners feel more motivated, manage their learning better and show improved performance long-term. So how can we actually do this? Here are four ideas you could try:

Helping your learners learn to learn

1. Goals

It sounds simple, but ask your learners what they want to achieve. This could be something short term e.g. ‘learn new words to describe films I watched on Netflix’. Or, much longer term; ‘pass my English exams and get into University’. Both types of goals are really useful. Perhaps you could do this collaboratively as a class? Encourage your learners to add their goals to an online shared document, like on Google Drive and regularly reflect on their progress towards them. (This could also give you lots of ideas about how to make the topics you cover in your lessons really engaging for them too!).

Along with these personalised goals, try describing what you’re going to cover in each lesson and ask learners what they think this will help them get better at. For example, you could say ‘today we’re going to talk to each other about our dream holiday… what will this help you be better at?’ This will raise awareness of the lesson aims and help them to personalise how this could be useful for them.

2. Strategies

Now that teaching and learning has moved online, how have your students changed how they organise their notes? Are they taking notes on paper? Or electronically? Encourage them to think about what works best for them. Is it helpful for them to record short voice notes to listen back to? For example, show them how they could categorise vocabulary learning both online, e.g. using Cambridge Dictionary to create personalised wordlists and quizzes, and offline in more traditional vocabulary notebooks.

3. Accountability

Maybe you could assign your students study buddies. Someone from their class, or from a different class, who they can work with virtually and to whom they’re accountable. They could text each other in English, have short video calls or leave each other voice notes. Depending on your learners, this could be related to a particular speaking or writing task, or just to check in on how things are going and provide support.

4. Reflection

Encourage students to keep a learning diary in some form. This could be typed in a document shared with you and/or the whole class. It could be a drawing they share and talk about. Or a video or podcast they record at the end of each week and sent to one of their classmates. For example, they could talk about three new things they’ve learned, two things they’ve really enjoyed in their learning that week and one thing they’re going to do next.

Clear methods & expectations

Learners might need lots of scaffolding and structure from you at first in order to incorporate these ideas into their learning routines if they’re not used to working independently. You might need to assign specific learning strategies for them to try, like using newer online tools or making mind maps and diagrams to record new language. You might need to have clear methods for how you expect them to reflect on their learning, and build this in to your routine at the start and end of each lesson and each week. As this becomes more familiar, you can give more choice to students on strategies to use and how to set their objectives and reflect on the progress they’re making.

We’d love to hear more suggestions from you about how you encourage independence in your learners, and how this is working in your online environment – get in touch and let us know!

Find out more about Learning to Learn as part of the Cambridge Life Competencies in this short video and in our guide here

Why not encourage your learners to watch this video on learning strategies for beyond the classroom too.



If you would like to read more blog articles from the Supporting Every Teacher series, click here

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