Introducing autonomy to your students: A simple discussion activity

Peter Mizuki, Nihon University


Quick guide

  • Key words: autonomy, oral fluency, discussion, group work
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: A few minutes
  • Activity time: 30 minutes
  • Materials: Uniform small slips of paper approx. 9 cm by 12 cm


In this simple activity, students participate in a free-conversation activity of their own making. The activity invites students to create questions for each other, and then to engage each other in answering those questions. I found that students enjoyed doing this activity mainly because the discussion is based on topics of their choice, reflecting their own interests rather than the interests of the instructor or a textbook.

I have often used this activity with intermediate discussion classes and as an icebreaker in new classes, to allow students to become more familiar with one another. It can be used with pre-intermediate students as well.


Step1: Divide the class into discussion groups.

Step 2: Give each student a uniform size slip of paper (large enough to write at least one discussion question).

Step 3: Each student then writes down a discussion question. Common questions, for example, are: What did you do during the spring vacation? or (with fourth-year university students) How’s your jobhunting going?

Step 4: The instructor collects the slips of paper and places the questions face down in a pile in the center of the room.

Step 5: After the slips of papers have been collected, model the activity by picking up a slip of paper from the pile of discussion questions, reading the question aloud to the class and calling on various students to respond. Then tell them to do this activity in small groups of three or four, asking each group to select a leader. Doing this activity in small groups helps lower student anxiety and encourages students to speak up more.

Step 6: The group leaders choose a discussion question from the pile; they then read the discussion question to the group and lead the discussion by asking each group member to express an opinion on the target question.

Step 7: After each person has expressed their opinion on the question, the leader of the group then takes another discussion topic and puts the old one on the bottom of the pile. If the group dislikes the topic or question they are free to pick another topic.

Step 8: The activity continues until all the slips of paper have been discussed or the instructor senses the students have spent enough time doing the activity. While the students are doing the activity the teacher should monitor the students’ progress by walking among the groups of students, offering encouragement and advice to groups if the students are too quiet or do not seem to understand what to do.


One definition of autonomy is: “the right (sic.) of learners to determine the direction of their own learning” (Benson, 2001, p. 2). This definition of autonomy supports the simple activity explained above, which empowers the learners to discuss their own personal, real world experiences and interests as opposed to topics unrelated to the learners’ experiences.


Benson, P. & Voller, P. (1997). Introduction: Autonomy and independence in language learning. In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. London: Longman.