Asian Journal of English Language Teaching Vol. 8, 1998, pp. 55-80
© 1998 CUHK English Lanuage Teaching Unit

Does Self-Access Language Learning at the Tertiary Level Really Work?

Johanna Klassen
Champa Detaramani
Eva Lui
Mrudula Patri
Jenny Wu
City University of Hong Kong
This paper presents the results of an evaluation of the independent language learning programme for part-time university students taking a remedial English language programme at the Language Institute, City University of Hong Kong. Achievement in listening, writing, reading, and usage between control (51 students in the Classroom mode) and experimental (78 students in the Self-Access mode) groups was compared by using a pre- and post-test. Those studying in the Self- Access mode made more significant improvement in reading while more significant improvement in writing was made by students in the Classroom mode. Furthermore, data from questionnaires of 718 students in the Self-Access mode and in-depth student interviews were used to evaluate students' perception of the effectiveness of the programme. The results show that students found the Self- Access mode of learning useful and motivating and that it increased their confidence in learning English. Major factors influencing students' positive attitudes towards the Self-Access mode of learning included improvement in English proficiency skills, increase in confidence, usefulness of materials and organisation of the course.


What Is Independent Language Learning?

Independent, or Self-Access (SA) language learning, is learning a language through the use of a self-contained learning environment which provides an independent study programme with readily accessible materials, makes available a form of help -- either through answer keys or through counsel-ling, and possibly offers the latest technology (Dickinson, 1987). That is, students are offered an environment in which they are active participants rather than passive recipients of information.

In this student-centred environment students basically set their own curriculum. First, they analyse their strengths and weaknesses and clarify their objectives. Then they select materials relevant to those objectives, choosing not only the medium best suited to them, but also the level appropriate to their ability. Time management plays a significant role in SA learning. Students need to set priorities, decide when and where to study, and determine how to pace their learning. There is a system of record keeping to indicate their progress. Finally, they evaluate their learning and, if necessary, change their plan of action after receiving feedback from a counsellor.

Why Self-Access Language Learning?

Research indicates the effectiveness of moving towards student decision making rather than teacher decision making (Cotterall, 1995; Dickinson, 1995; Gremmo & Riley, 1995; Kember & Gow, 1994; Little, 1995; Victori & Lockhart, 1995). In the SA mode, students make important decisions regarding the level, speed, and content of their work. Students also have an opportunity to work in their preferred mode which encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning, thereby helping them to move towards autonomy. Research also suggests that students have distinct learning strategies and learn best when individual differences are taken into consideration (Gremmo & Riley, 1995; O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Wenden, 1991).

The Self-Access Centre at the Language Institute, City University of Hong Kong

The Self-Access Centre (SAC) at the Language Institute, City University of Hong Kong, which houses latest technology, is styled on a self-serve "supermarket" design. A major difference between this SAC and other self-access centres is the type of user. Most centres cater to students who voluntarily come into the centre; however, the majority of students who come to this SAC are completing a remedial English programme.

Course Structure

The remedial English Foundation Programme (EFP) is a compulsory module for all first year City University students who received a D or below in the public English language examination conducted by the Hong Kong Examinations Authority. There are two modes of learning in this remedial programme: the Classroom (CL) mode and the Self-Access (SA) mode. The CL mode has been in operation for five years with approximately 2,000 full-time (FT) students taking the module every year. They have two hours per week of CL instruction for 14 weeks, totaling 28 hours. Since the SA mode was introduced in November, 1993, the Language Institute has served approximately 1,100 part-time (PT) students per year. These students need to show evidence of 28 hours of work completed in approximately 16-18 weeks. Whether students take the CL or SA mode, they sit for the same exit exam at the end of the programme.

Stages of Learning

In general, university students in Hong Kong have had little experience in studying independently so there is a special need for them to be guided towards autonomous learning. The SA programme is thus divided into three progressive stages: directed (4 hours), semi-directed (14 hours) and self-directed (10 hours).

The three stages have been designed with specific goals in mind. The directed stage is intended for orientation and diagnosis purposes. The semi-directed stage is designed (1) to guide students towards independent learning of the four language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking; (2) to familiarise them with Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) programs; and (3) to assist students in organising their self-directed plan. The goal of the self-directed stage is to provide students with an opportunity to put into use the concept of independent language learning.

Monitoring Student Progress

Students receive written feedback (feedback 1 and feedback 2) from a counsellor after the directed and self-directed stages, and a 45-minute individual consultation after the semi-directed stage. Students are required to keep a record of their work in a record folder. The counsellor is required to credit students with hours according to the work submitted for feedback 1, feedback 2, and the consultation.

There are two requirements for students to fulfill: attendance and assessment. For the attendance requirement, students need to show evidence of work for a minimum of 22.4 hours (80% of 28 hours) of work in the SA mode. The assessment requirement is a pass consisting of 50% course work (carried out in the SA mode) and 50% end-of-course exam.


This study investigated the effectiveness of the 3-stage structure (directed, semi-directed, and self-directed) of the EFP in the SA mode. The purpose was to examine how pedagogically sound the programme was in guiding students towards autonomous learning. Since the SA mode was developed as a substitute for the CL mode, students in both modes were required to take the same end-of-course examination. The study investigated whether students in the SA mode would make improvement in English proficiency similar to that of their counterparts in the CL mode. The study also investigated students' attitudes towards the SA programme. Thus the two research questions were:

To answer the first question, quantitative data from pre- and post-tests were used to measure the validity of the independent mode of learning. To answer the second question, quantitative data from student questionnaires, as well as qualitative data from student and counsellor interviews, were collected.



The subjects in this study, as indicated in Table 1, included a total of 769 ethnic Chinese students taking the EFP.

Table 1 Composition of Subjects
Research Question Subjects involved Remarks
CL Mode SA Mode
1. (Using Pre- and Post- Tests) 51 78 The 78 SA students also completed the questionnaire for research question 2.
2. (Using Questionnaires) 0 718 The SA questionnaire was irrelevant to CL students.
Totals 51 + 718 = 769 Students

Data Collection Instruments

Pre- and Post-Tests. To study the improvement made by CL and SA students, we gave students a test at the beginning (pre-test) and at the end (post-test) of the programme. The same paper was used for both tests in order to obtain a reliable measure of students' improvement in their language skills. Although such a "repeated measures" design was not perfect (Seliger & Shohamy, 1989, p. 139), it was used to make the measurement of improvement more reliable as our subjects, coming from two groups (PT and FT) and receiving different treatment, were not homogeneous. The testing of oral skills was not conducted since testing would have involved many part-time students who had different work schedules.

The pre- and post-tests given were a condensed version of the Higher Level English Examination (1989 and 1990 papers) set by the Hong Kong Examinations Authority. The percentage of the weighting of the skills in the tests was: reading (35%), listening (15%), writing (26%), and usage (24%).

Questionnaires. To obtain information on students' perceptions of the effectiveness of the course and attitudes towards the SA mode of learning, we asked students to complete a Student Evaluation Questionnaire (Appendix A) at the end of the programme. The rating scale used was the 5-point Likert scale, with 5 representing strongly agree and 1 strongly disagree. Students were assured of confidentiality of their comments and were not required to write their names on the questionnaires.

The questionnaire included 40 items which elicited information on the EFP course conducted in the SA mode. (Question 39, not applicable to this study, requires students to rate the SA counsellor. Questions 1-38 and question 40 are dealt with separately since the former are objective while the latter, regarding workshop attendance, is open-ended.)

In writing the questionnaire, care was taken to use objective wording, i.e., to provide balanced options as suggested in the literature (Converse, 1986; Henderson et al., 1987; Schuman & Stanley, 1981). Questionnaires had been piloted with students from the previous year.

Counsellor and Student Interviews. In order to collect in-depth information on variables such as students' attitudes towards some of the issues, semi-structured interviews with volunteer students were conducted. In preparing the 16 interview questions, care was taken to ensure that the questions were comparable to the questionnaire items. The interview consisted of "specific and defined questions" that were preset, but which still permitted "some elaboration in the questions and answers" (Seliger & Shohamy, 1989, p. 167). The questions were phrased in such a way that students could give clear yes or no answers, but they were also encouraged to give detailed comments.

Based on student interview questions, 22 counsellor interview questions were developed, including questions on counsellor training, work-load, etc. Additionally, counsellors had the opportunity to comment on the present course structure and make recommendations for changes. In this report, only the findings on questions that are common to both student and counsellor interviews are reported to support or verify findings.

Data Collection Procedures

Pre- and Post-tests. All students, both the CL and SA mode, were sent letters requesting voluntary participation in the pre- and post-tests. A total of 51 CL students and 78 SA students sat for the pre- and post- tests. Students from the CL mode for included 57% from Arts and Business disciplines and 43% from Science and Technology. In the SA mode, 72% were from Arts and Business and 28% from Science and Technology. The same marker was used for both tests to ensure consistency in marking. After each test, students were given written feedback on their performance.

In order to ensure accurate measurement of improvement made in the tested language skills by students after taking the programme, the scale for writing, listening, usage, and reading was rescaled to carry equal weighting, i.e., 25% each. Means and standard deviations were first obtained for the pre- and post-test results.

Questionnaires. Students were given the Student Evaluation Questionnaire in the absence of the counsellor. Data obtained included responses from 718 students.

Interviews. After the programme was completed, 46 voluntary students (6.5% of the population) were interviewed by 4 counsellors (investigators). The interviews were tape-recorded with students' permission. Counsellors were also invited to attend a voluntary interview. Interviews of 9 out of 17 counsellors (approximately 51%) were tape-recorded by 5 investigators.

Data Analysis. The control and experimental groups had a similar background in English since they were students who scored D or below in the public English language examination. However, a t-test was performed to assure the compatibility of the two groups at the beginning of the treatment. The SPSS package was used for analysis. For the questionnaire the scoring procedure was: 5 = highly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neutral, 2 = disagree, 1 = strongly disagree.


The following data include results obtained from pre- and post-tests, student questionnaires, as well as student and counsellor interviews.

Pre- and Post-Tests

There was no significant difference between the control and experimental groups at the beginning of the course since the corresponding p-values of the t-test were all larger than 0.01 (Table 2). Therefore, any difference in the results at the end of the course was due to the treatment and not incompatibility of the groups.

Table 2 Comparison of Students in CL and SA Mode at the Beginning of the Course
Variable CL Mode SA Mode t p
Writing 10.35 3.63 9.35 3.55 1.472 0.144
Listening 13.99 5.13 11.81 4.58 2.306 0.023
Usage 14.85 4.26 13.17 4.24 1.809 0.073
Reading 10.66 4.14 9.06 3.92 1.818 0.071
Overall 49.84 12.98 43.39 12.35 2.398 0.018

According to the t-test (Tables 3 and 4), students in both the CL and SA mode improved in reading, listening, writing, and overall performance (p = 0.000 at 95% confidence level). Although it is encouraging to see improvement in both modes, we cannot rule out the maturation effect since the same test was used on both occasions.

Table 3 Pre- and Post-test Results: Improvement of CL Mode (n = 51)
Variable Pre-test Post-test Improvement Made
M SD M SD Difference in M SD t p
Writing 10.35 3.63 12.75 3.96 2.4 3.17 5.40 0.000
Listening 13.99 5.13 16.80 4.01 2.81 3.61 5.55 0.000
Usage 14.85 4.26 15.26 3.82 0.41 2.91 0.39 0.321
Reading 10.66 4.14 14.24 4.52 3.58 3.94 6.50 0.000
Overall 49.84 12.98 59.04 13.28 9.20 7.16 8.70 0.000

Table 4 Pre- and Post-test Results: Improvement of SA Mode (n = 78)
Variable Pre-test Post-test Improvement Made
M SD M SD Difference in M SD t p
Writing 9.35 3.55 10.64 3.61 1.29 2.38 4.81 0.000
Listening 11.81 4.58 14.64 5.35 2.83 4.16 6.04 0.000
Usage 13.17 4.24 13.58 3.91 0.41 3.23 1.13 0.264
Reading 9.06 3.92 14.28 4.65 5.22 3.67 12.63 0.000
Overall 43.39 12.35 53.14 13.26 9.75 7.23 12.95 0.000

A 2-tailed t-test was conducted to investigate if the improvement made by the CL and SA mode students was significantly different. Results (Table 5) show that at 0.05 significance level, CL students improved more in writing, the difference in improvement being 1.1043 (p = 0.025), while SA students made more improvement in reading, the difference in improvement being 1.6316 (p = 0.018). From the p-value obtained for overall improvement (-0.675), the difference in improvement made in the CL and SA mode cannot be viewed as significant.

Table 5 Comparison of Improvement Between the CL Mode and SA Mode
Variable CL Mode SA Mode Difference in Improvement t p
Writing 2.40 3.17 1.29 2.38 1.1043 2.26 0.025
Listening 2.81 3.61 2.83 4.16 -0.0165 -0.02 0.981
Usage 0.41 2.91 0.41 3.23 -0.0003 0.00 1.000
Reading 3.58 3.94 5.22 3.67 -1.6316 -2.40 0.018
Overall 9.20 7.16 9.75 7.23 -0.5441 -0.42 0.675

Student Questionnaires

Percentage of Agreement and Disagreement. Frequency counts for the 38 questionnaire items were computed. Students rated these statements on the following 5-point scale:

1 & 2 = Disagree   3 = Neutral   4 & 5 = Agree

For question 26 "I would prefer to study in the classroom mode rather than studying in the self-access mode," the scale was reversed since agreement to studying in the SA mode indicated a positive attitude.

The frequency counts indicate that the majority of students either neutrally responded to or agreed with a large number of the items on the questionnaire. The percentage of agreement ranges from 28.9% to 62.9% while disagreement ranges from 6% to 34.6%. The percentage of students who selected neutral ranges from 31.1% to 53.8%. Only items with an agreement of more than 50% and disagreement above 21% are discussed in this paper.

As Table 6 shows, Among the 38 statements, the items students most agreed with were "The consultation was useful" (62.9%) and "I would prefer a combination of classroom mode and self-access mode of learning" (57.3%). Student opinion regarding the opening hours of the SAC was somewhat divided (34.6% disagreed with the opening hours, 34.2% were neutral, 31.2% agreed). The other item with a high percentage of disagreement was the usefulness of the CALL programs (28.8%), as indicated in Table 7.

Table 6 Percentage of Agreement and Disagreement -- Items with Agreement Percentages Higher than 50%
Item no Statement Agree % Disagree %
11 The consultation was useful. 62.9 6
27 I would prefer a combination of classroom mode and self-access mode of learning. 57.3 11.2
1 The course was useful. 54.6 10.6
10 The teacher-student communication through Feedback-2 was useful. 52.9 8.6
5 The information on the course guide (the yellow booklet) was clear. 52.5 11.6
8 The group discussion was good for testing my oral ability. 52.5 10.7
6 The information on handing in of folders was clear. 52.4 9.1
12 The materials in the SAC were useful. 52 8.2
13 The instructions on the worksheets were clear. 51.8 10.9
38 Now that I have completed the course, I want to continue to use the SAC to improve my English. 50.6 11.9

Table 7 Percentage of Agreement and Disagreement -- Items with disagreement percentages above 21%
Item no Statement Agree % Disagree %
37 The opening hours of the SAC were sufficient. 31.2 34.6
16 The CALL programmes were useful. 31.2 28.8
26 I would prefer to study in the classroom mode rather than studying in the self access model. 41.9 22.2
36 Whenever I had language problems, I preferred to talk to the counsellor on duty. 32.5 21.6
29 There were adequate audio players in the SAC. 37 21.5
25 I feel learning in the SAC mode was as effective as learning in a classroom. 33.5 21.4

Factor Analysis. Factor analysis was conducted on all 38 items in an attempt to use fewer variables to explain students' attitudes towards the course in the SA mode. Only variables with a factor loading of .5 and above were selected for discussion in this paper.

Seven underlying factors were identified (Table 8). The total cumulative proportion of the variance explained by the seven factors is 52.3%. Factor 1 accounts for 27.7%, and factors 2 to 7 account for 24.6%.

Table 8 Factor Analysis of Student Questionnaire
Factor Variable (Factor Loading) Contribution to the Total Sample Variance
1. Improvement in Language Improvement in speaking (0.77)
Improvement in listening (0.75)
Improvement in reading (0.66)
Increase in confidence (0.66)
Improvement in writing (0.65)
Usefulness of course (0.56)
2. Availability of Facilities Adequate videos (0.77)
Adequate audios (0.75)
Adequate AACs (0.73)
Adequate interactive videos (0.73)
Adequate computers (0.67)
Adequate books (0.51)
3. Opening Hours of SAC Adequate opening hours (0.58) 2.8%
4. Usefulness of Materials Interesting materials (0.69)
Interest in using SAC in future (0.60)
SA learning: interesting & motivating (0.55)
Realistic worksheet levels (0.53)
5. Clarity of Instructions Clear instructions: folder submission (0.75)
Clear instructions: course guide (0.74)
Clear instructions: materials (0.66)
Easy retrieval of materials (0.53)
6. Student-Counsellor Communication Usefulness of feedback 1 (0.76)
Usefulness of feedback 2 (0.76)
Usefulness of consultation (0.63)
7. Preference of Mode Preference of classroom mode (0.83)
Preference of SA + CL (-0.640)

Factor 1 includes improvement in speaking, listening, writing, reading, increase in confidence, and usefulness of course. The identifiable factor underlying these variables seems to be students' perceptions of improvement in their English proficiency. With this improvement, their confidence in using the language appears to have increased leading to a positive attitude towards the usefulness of the course. Hence, this factor is labeled improvement in language?

Factors 2 and 3 are related to the environment of the SAC. Factor two includes adequate number of videos, audio players, AACs, inter-active videos, computers, and books. Students' positive impression of the equipment in the Self-Access Centre may be based on whether they had access to them when needed. Factor 2 is therefore labeled availability of facilities?and the variance explained by this factor is 6.3%. Factor 3 includes only adequate opening hours which is labeled opening hours of SAC? and the variance explained by this factor is 2.8%.

Factor 4 is associated with materials and motivation to study in the SA mode and includes interesting materials, interest in using the SAC in the future, SA learning: interesting and motivating, and realistic levels on worksheets. It is labeled usefulness of materials? and the variance explained by this factor is 4.8%.

Factor 5 which pertains to administration and SAC facilities and includes clarity of submission of folders, course guide, instructions in materials, and retrieval of materials is labeled clarity of instructions? and the variance explained by this factor is 4.2%.

Factor 6 includes usefulness of feedback 1, 2, and the consultation. The underlying identifiable factor is how much help students obtained from the counsellor at different stages of the course. This factor is therefore labeled student-counsellor communication? and the variance explained by this factor is 3.4%.

Factor 7 includes preference of CL mode and preference of a com- bintion of SA and CL mode. The choices students were given include studying in the normal CL mode or a combination of both. This factor is labeled preference of mode? and the variance explained by this factor is 3.1%.

The negative value of the preference of SA and CL (-0.640) indicates that students who preferred the CL mode tended not to prefer the combination mode; conversely, those who preferred the combination mode tended not to prefer the CL mode.

Workshops. The information from workshop attendance provided information regarding the percentage of students who attended workshops and the reasons that kept them from participating.

Of the 718 questionnaires, 603 students (84%) responded to the open-ended question of workshop attendance. Of the 603 students, only 251 students (35%) attended workshops, and the majority of those who did attend (98%) found the workshops useful. The main reasons provided by students who did not attend workshops included time scheduling problems and lack of information.

Student Interviews

A total of 46 students were interviewed and, in general, the results support the questionnaire findings. Interviewees responded positively to the learner training that they received and evaluated the course guide as being very clear. This is consistent with the generally positive rating for the course guide in the questionnaire results (Table 6). The majority of students believed that they knew their strengths and weaknesses in learning English after taking the programme and felt confident that they could make a self-study plan.

With regard to student-counsellor communication, 33 students agreed that they benefited from feedback 1 and 2, while 42 students were happy with the consultation. Students commented that the written feedback was useful, especially in pointing out their areas of weaknesses. Similarly in the consultation, they enjoyed the opportunity of practicing speaking skills and the immediate feedback received from the counsellor on accuracy, especially in their essays.

As far as resources were concerned, 42 students agreed that the materials in the SAC were useful, offering a wide range in the choice of media, variety and level of difficulty.

With regard to the preference of the mode of language learning, 38 students preferred the combination of the SA mode and CL mode. When examining the reasons for the preference for the combination mode, it was found that students enjoyed the flexibility (an important consideration for mature PT students) and the choices available to them in the SA mode, but favoured more guidance from the counsellor. A common response was, "I enjoyed working in the SAC, but I want to see the teachers more often."

There are also positive results indicating students' intention to use the SAC in the future (44 students); however, many added the escape clause, "If time permits...."

The negative finding of the student interviews, which is supported by the questionnaire, is the opening hours of the SAC. Many students (33) thought that the opening hours of the SAC should be extended, e.g., to that of the library. They felt that longer opening hours, especially during the weekends, would give them more flexibility.

There are, however, student interview findings which do not support the student questionnaire results. With respect to usefulness of the induction, relatively few interviewees (12 students) made positive comments about the induction programme. Their main concern was the environment of the induction, i.e., the noise, large group size, etc.

Although students expressed preference for more teacher input in the programme, very few of those interviewed (5 students) attended workshops. They justified their non-attendance by claiming that they were ignorant of the provision, that they had time clashes or that they were too busy. Another area of teacher input was service of counsellor on duty in the SAC. Many students expressed that it was fear which stopped them from asking the counsellor for help, in addition to the embarrassment of speaking to strangers in public or asking for help in front of other students, etc.

A considerable number of students (19) agreed that learning in the SA mode was as effective as studying in the CL mode, yet when they were asked specifically which mode they preferred, 7 students preferred the CL and only one student the SA mode.

Counsellor Interviews

The results of 9 counsellor interviews (51% of counsellors) were tabulated to determine if the findings supported those of the student questionnaires. When asked if counsellors thought that students had benefited from the individual consultation, 8 counsellors gave positive responses, supporting the findings of the student questionnaires. Counsellors felt it was useful because they could use this opportunity to establish rapport with their students. During this face-to-face meeting they could offer individual help for specific language problems, especially in discussing student essays. The consultation also gave them an opportunity to confirm their impressions regarding students' strengths and weaknesses.

Regarding the preference of mode, counsellors had strikingly similar responses to the students. Two-thirds (6 counsellors) preferred the combination mode because it had the advantages of flexibility and teacher guidance at the same time.

While an overwhelming majority of students said that the materials in the SAC were very useful, only 3 counsellors agreed with this viewpoint; the rest expressed doubt as to how useful the present SA materials were in helping students improve their English. Some said that they had detected gaps in the skills represented in the worksheets.

Apart from the consultation, counsellors also gave written feedback to students on the quality of work evident in the record folder. While students felt that these written comments on prescribed forms were useful, only 2 counsellors shared this view. Five counsellors said these forms were too tightly structured to allow room for meaningful comments.


Student Performance in Pre- and Post-Tests

"Is the improvement made by students in the SA mode comparable to that of the students in the CL mode at the end of the programme?" The results of the pre- and post-tests suggest that students made improvement in listening, reading, and writing in both the SA and CL modes. The overall improvement in the SA mode, however, was not significantly different from the overall improvement made by students in the CL mode. These results suggest that both modes of learning were effective since all students made improvement.

As mentioned, the improvement in reading by the SA and CL mode students showed that students in both modes made improvement; however, improvement made by SA students was much higher. This greater improvement can be explained by the fact that the SA students worked on their own and thus had to read more as they received most of their instructions on paper. They did considerably more reading than the CL mode students who had a teacher giving them verbal instructions and explanations in class.

On the other hand, students in the CL mode made greater improvement in writing than those in the SA mode. This result can be logically explained. In the CL mode, students had more feedback from teachers using a process writing approach. The classroom teachers commented on many drafts of their work which appeared to have helped them. In contrast, students in the SA mode saw a counsellor only once throughout the programme (in the 45-minute individual consultation), so the personal input they received on improving their writing was limited.

Student Attitudes Towards taking the EFP in the SA Mode

"What are students' perceptions of the effectiveness of the EFP in the SA mode?" To answer this second research question, quantitative data from end-of-course student questionnaires and qualitative data from student and counsellor interviews were collected.

Improvement in English Proficiency. One important conclusion that can be drawn from the questionnaire results is that students' perception of improvement in English proficiency is associated with course usefulness. Also, Factor 1 (improvement in language) from factor analysis which includes improvement in the English proficiency and usefulness of the course accounts for 27.7% of the cumulative variance. In other words, improvement in English proficiency is one of the major factors influencing students' positive attitudes towards the SA mode of learning. Therefore, students will evaluate a course positively if it is a value-added one. The EFP in the SA mode is a remedial English course where students expect to improve their English proficiency skills. When such an expectation is fulfilled, they will have a positive attitude towards the course.

Increase in Confidence. The increase in confidence is another factor influencing learners' positive attitudes. This finding is supported by the questionnaire in which 301 students (42% of 718) agreed to an increase in confidence after the SA mode of learning. A typical comment collected in student interviews was, "I was confused and suspicious of learning in the SA mode in the beginning, but I am motivated now, less afraid to study on my own." It appears that the initial feeling that the SA mode was <%2>a com- pletely new and difficult approach became less frightening as time progressed. Student confidence presumably began to build up when students discovered that they could handle this mode of learning. The three-part structure (directed, semi-directed, and self-directed learning) appears to have been useful in leading students towards autonomous learning.

Usefulness of Materials. Another factor that contributes to positive student attitudes towards the SA mode of learning is the variety and quantity of the materials provided in the SAC. Half of the students who filled in the questionnaires (359 students) agreed that the materials were useful. Most students appreciated the variety and choice of learning materials in the SAC, which are streamed according to the level of difficulty, making it easy for the students to select the worksheets/books with which they are most comfortable working. In addition, the freedom which allows them to choose topics that are interesting to them reinforced their perception that the SA materials were useful, interesting and motivating. Many students commented that the worksheets were interesting and useful because they addressed their weaknesses in language use. As Sheerin (1989) states, an essential prerequisite to self-access learning is the provision of materials within an organised framework so that students get what they want. Apart from the printed material, students also expressed enthusiasm for the variety of available materials such as audio cassettes, videos, movies, computers, and other multimedia resources. They found these materials more interesting alternatives to the traditional pen-and-paper tasks. However, usefulness of the CALL programs was rated unfavourably by 206 students (28.8%). One reason for this seems to be that the programs were time consuming.

Responses given in the counsellor interviews showed a different picture. Only three of the nine counsellors interviewed found the materials useful. The main area of concern was the provision of answer keys. Some counsellors expressed concern over exclusively providing answer keys, commenting that providing answer keys was not comparable to face-to-face feedback in a classroom situation. Speculation regarding the difference of opinion suggests that counsellors were more critical of the pedagogical values of teaching materials. Further research is required to ascertain if the present materials provide adequate stimuli for independent learning and whether the answer keys provide adequate feedback.

Course Administration. Students had positive attitudes towards the direction given in the course guide and information provided on handing in folders. Since schedules were posted weeks in advance, students could prepare for deadlines and pick up folders on days when they already had classes. Clear instructions for aspects such as course administration play an important role in promoting students' positive attitude towards the course since learning in the SA mode is a new experience for students.

Preference of a Combination Mode (Self-Access and Classroom). The two items in the questionnaire that most students agreed with were the usefulness of the consultation and the preference of a combined mode of study. The face-to-face consultation was useful because students gained valuable feedback from counsellors. They not only had an opportunity to ask questions to clarify doubts about the programme, but they could also discuss specific language related problems. This finding is not surprising, as Hong Kong students adopt a passive role and expect their teachers to spoon-feed them and "are conditioned to believe that in order to learn one must be taught...Farmer (1994, p. 14) as well as Scollon and Scollon (1994) express a similar view -- the teacher is expected to exercise auth-ority, i.e., to look after, nurture, and take care of her students.

The preference for a combination mode of study is also confirmed by the interview data. Students considered that a combination mode possessed combined advantages of the two modes. They would have teacher guidance and, at the same time, have the freedom to choose materials appropriate to their individual needs. They felt the course would not be as boring as in the traditional classroom mode. A bias towards this combination mode indicates the desire for flexibility with the retention of teacher guidance. A covert reason for students' positive attitudes towards this combination mode, however, may be related to their heavy workload. One other source of information that adds weight to this assumption is that few students attended workshops. Although this was an opportunity where teacher input was provided, the majority (90%) of those who did not attend workshops claimed that they had time-scheduling problems. Most PT evening students with daytime jobs need to attend evening lectures and tutorials with their parent department three nights a week. If students needed to take the EFP in the classroom mode, they would have to attend classes four times a week which would not appeal to them.

Future Use of the SAC. Students' positive attitudes toward the SA mode, supported by the perception of improvement in English proficiency, might have led students to consider SA learning to be effective which, in turn, could have affected their decision to use the SAC in the future. Half of the students who responded to the questionnaire agreed that they would use the SAC in the future. Students interviewed said that they would use the video and audio tapes in the future if time allowed.

However, most counsellors did not hold quite as optimistic a view as the students. Although the majority were of the opinion that students had the ability to self-diagnose their strengths and weaknesses after completing the course, only half believed that these students would be able to create their own study plan in the future. This response can be interpreted as saying that knowledge of one's strong and weak points is not always sufficient for independent learning. Furthermore, the majority of counsellors predicted that work pressure and personal obligations would prevent students from actually pursuing independent learning in the future.

Limitations to the Study

In retrospect, one always finds areas which could have been improved. This certainly is true for this study. It is possible that the 5-point Likert scale allowed students to be non-commital. As students were not required to take a positive or negative stand, some may have taken the middle road, especially those who were tired of endless course evaluations at the end of a semester.

In order to preserve anonymity, students were not asked to give personal information on the questionnaires. However, it would have been valuable for the researchers to i) correlate each student's high or low improvement from the pre-test to the post-test with the perception of improvement in the language skills, and ii) correlate questionnaire results to each student's performance in the post-test or results in the end-of-course examination. This could have provided valuable information.

Another factor influencing the results may have been the status of the subjects of the study. It would have been ideal to have both control and experimental groups taken from the same (PT) population. This, however, was not possible since PT students would then have had to attend a fourth evening of classes.

A factor that was overlooked in the design of the questionnaire was the absence of items which explicitly elicited information regarding student attitudes towards the SA mode of learning. Most of the questionnaire items were concerned with course evaluation.

A further drawback is that the questionnaire did not lend itself to meaningful comparison with the questionnaire for FT students. Valuable information regarding the pros and cons of the SA and CL modes might have been obtained if more items of the two questionnaires had been comparable.

Conclusions and Implications

The major conclusions drawn from this study are:

Since Hong Kong students have little experience in self-access learning, subjects in this study indicated strong desire for more teacher input. In this regard, several suggestions can be made. It is recommended that students be provided with more extensive learner training packages. It is possible that they would then feel more comfortable with the SA mode. To provide students with immediate and personalised feedback, interactive multimedia materials capable of individualised feedback should be introduced. At the time of the study, these resources were not incorporated into the programme. Interactive packages give students more individual feedback and could have influenced the present results found in writing, making improvement in the SA mode more comparable to that of the CL mode.

Another way to deal with the need for more teacher input may be to have a programme consisting of a mixture of the SA and CL mode, as suggested by students. This would enable them to feel psychologically secure with a teacher, to whom the students could refer for guidance and feedback. Moreover, it would allow students to enjoy the flexibility of the SA mode of learning. The possibility of a mixed mode was also supported by some counsellors who indicated in both the questionnaires and interviews that weak students would benefit more from a mixed mode. This leads to the question, "What is the ideal percentage of time that students should spend studying in the three stages of the SA mode?" The present time ratio is as follows:

directed 4 hours or 14.3% (of 28 hours)
semi-directed 14 hours or 50%
self-directed 10 hours or 35.7%

If student preference is taken into consideration, more time would be spent in the directed stage. This would require the provision of more materials for diagnosing strengths and weaknesses, along with provision of more suggested pathways for students to follow in the next stage: semi-directed. A possible percentage for each stage would then be:

directed 10 hours or 35%
semi-directed 10 hours or 35%
self-directed 8 hours or 30%

Whether this is the right balance between guidance and independence, however, requires further research.

The present research also indicates that counsellors were a little skeptical of autonomous learning and the existing materials. This may be due to the fact that the SA mode is still a relatively novel experience for most counsellors, and most have not had formal training in facilitating independent learning. As a result, their inexperience may have affected their attitudes. If the system is to be maximised, not only should there be more learner training packages for students, but also more counsellor training sessions.

Another area that needs evaluation and revision is the existing set of SA materials. Preferably, this would be done by an expert or a team of experts in the SA field.

Results of this study should only be viewed as findings of one research project. More large-scale studies of a curriculum-based programme will need to be carried out to support the results of improvement in Hong Kong students' English language proficiency and their perception of satisfaction with the autonomous mode of language learning.


The authors wish to thank Dr. Dail Fields, Dr. Anna Kwan, and Mr. Eric Wong of City University of Hong Kong for their expert advice on the statistical procedures adopted in analysing the results. We would also like to thank our research assistants, Sarah Wang and Peggy Fung, for their help. We are grateful to Dr. David Kember and the Action Learning team for their assistance and advice. Finally, we show our gratitude to Mr. Matthew Leung, Head of Language Institute, City University, for providing us with the students to carry out this extensive research.


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Appendix A Student Evaluation Questionnaire

Language Institute
City University of Hong Kong
English Foundation Programme (SA)
Student Evaluation Questionnaire
(Return both the questionnaire and the survey form)

The purpose of this questionnaire is to obtain feedback from you about the EEP course conducted in the self-access mode. Your honest comments will help us improve this programme.

1. Enter your course code number under Reference No. of the survey form and fill in the appropriate frame in each box. Do not use the last two columns under the Reference No.
2. Rate your opinions on the following scale:

Strongly Agree Strongly Disagree
5 4 3 2 1

A. Course Information
1. The course was useful. 5 4 3 2 1
2. The course was of appropriate level of difficulty. 5 4 3 2 1
3. The course increased my confidence using English. 5 4 3 2 1
4. The induction programme was effective. 5 4 3 2 1
5. The information on the course guide(the yellow booklet) was clear. 5 4 3 2 1
6. The information on handing-in of folders was clear. 5 4 3 2 1
7. The 4-hour Orientaton adequately prepared me for the Core Skills Practice and Self-Directed stage. 5 4 3 2 1
8. The group discusson was good for testing my oral ability. 5 4 3 2 1
9. The teacher-student communication through Feedback-1 was useful. 5 4 3 2 1
10. The teacher-student communication through Feedback-2 was useful. 5 4 3 2 1
11. The consultation was useful. 5 4 3 2 1
B. Materials in the SAC
12. The materials in the SAC were useful. 5 4 3 2 1
13. The instructions on the worksheets were clear. 5 4 3 2 1
14. The explanations for the answers were clear. 5 4 3 2 1
15. The levels indicated on the worksheets were realistic. 5 4 3 2 1
16. The CALL programmes were useful. 5 4 3 2 1
17. The materials in the SAC were easy to locate. 5 4 3 2 1
18. The materials in the SAC stimulated my interest in learning English. 5 4 3 2 1
C. Self-Access Learning
19. The self-access mode of learning was interesting and motivating. 5 4 3 2 1
20. My ability in reading English has improved after taking this programme. 5 4 3 2 1
21. My ability in writing English has improved after taking this programme. 5 4 3 2 1
22. My ability in speaking English has improved after taking this programme. 5 4 3 2 1
23. My ability in listening to English has improved after taking this programme. 5 4 3 2 1
24. I learnt how to make a study plan and can apply it in my future studies. 5 4 3 2 1
25. I feel learning in the SAC mode was as effective as learning in a classroom. 5 4 3 2 1
26. I would prefer to study in the classroom mode rather than studying in the self-access mode. 5 4 3 2 1
27. I would prefer a combination of classroom mode and self-access mode of learning. 5 4 3 2 1
D. Self-Asscess Centre
28. The atmosphere in the SAC was suitable for studying. 5 4 3 2 1
29. There were adequate audio players in the SAC. 5 4 3 2 1
30. There were adequate video players. 5 4 3 2 1
31. There were adequate computers for CALL programms. 5 4 3 2 1
32. There were adequate AAC players. 5 4 3 2 1
33. There were adequate inter-active video players. 5 4 3 2 1
34. There were adequate books. 5 4 3 2 1
35. Whenever I had language problems preferred to talk to my classmates. 5 4 3 2 1
36. Whenever I had language problems I preferred to talk to the counsellor on duty. 5 4 3 2 1
37. The opening hours of the SAC were sufficient. 5 4 3 2 1
38. Now that I have completed the course, I want to continue to use the SAC to improve my English. 5 4 3 2 1

E. Teacher Evaluation
39. If you had the same counsellor for your Counsultation and Feedback 2, how would you rate his/her assistance during the course?

Excellent Acceptable Very poor
7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For questions on this page, please write your answers on the question paper.

Have you attended any workshops? yes no
If yes, were they helpful? yes no
If they were not helpful, how can we improve them?

If you did not attend any workshop, please state why.

Any other comments about the course?

Thank you for your time and assistance.

Johanna Klassen has been active in the field of teaching English and German for 20 years, the last 11 of which she has been teaching English at City University of Hong Kong. In 1994, she was the recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award; in 1997-1998, she was the project leader for 5 large-scale grants to produce 5 CD-ROMS for teaching English.

Champa R. Detaramani is a senior lecturer in the English Department at City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include attitudes and motivation towards learning English, independent language learning, self-access language learning centres, medium of instruction, and issues related to teaching EAP and ESP.

Eva Lui is a lecturer in the English Language Centre at City University of Hong Kong. From 1995-97, she led the English Foundation Programme for college students and was a member of the restructuring team for the course in self-access mode run by the former Language Institute.

Mrudula Patri has been working at City University of Hong Kong for the past six years teaching English. Apart from teaching, she is also interested in material development. Her areas of research include self-access learning and language attitudes. She has recently published a research study on the current language attitudes of Indian adolescents in Hong Kong.

Jenny Wu was educated in English Language and Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She then went to Japan to pursue studies in Chinese Linguistics and Literature. Her current interest is in literacy, culture, and language education. She is a lecturer in the English Language Centre of City University of Hong Kong.