Autonomy-related psychological characteristics of students in higher education
Autonomy in learning has long been recognised as an important outcome of higher education. However, not only is learner autonomy not directly measurable but there appears to be no consensus, within the psychological literature, about its definition. This study proposed that, from a number of theoretical perspectives, certain psychological characteristics underpin learner autonomy in students. Of interest were the nature of and changes in these characteristics during the first two years of study at university. Students from across the university were measured on self-perceptions, motivation, locus of control and approaches to study. Data was collected at first year registration and at six-monthly intervals across the next two years. Analysis of the data compared the autonomy-related vanables across time, age and sex From the results it appeared that most of the variables were relatively stable over time, that sex differences were not generally apparent and that age differences were less widespread than onginally hypothesised. Factor analysis of the locus of control data raised some interesting issues about students' definitions of ability which are discussed. Some of the findings within motivation suggest that external regulation may be an important feature of an autonomous learner's reasons for studying, contrary to theory. When divided by level of self worth high self worth students scored significantly higher on autonomy-related variables than did those with low self worth which, given the nature of the classification of the groups, was surprising. A similar division using deep approach scores was less convincing but nevertheless in line with the hypotheses. Correlational analyses revealed significant, moderate associations between autonomy-related variables as predicted and factor analysis confirmed relationships between variables as hypothesised. Regression and other analyses however, indicated that there was no strong link between 'high' autonomy characteristics and degree classification. The findings are discussed in relation to the proposals concerning autonomy and it is concluded that, whilst most undergraduates report encouraging patterns of autonomyrelated psychological characteristics, the complexity of the concept of autonomy in learning demands much more research. The positive implications of the findings in this study are discussed in relation to the current threats to autonomy within the higher education context.