Promoting students’ experience of autonomy enhances their intrinsic motivation, educational studies reveal.  However, promoting this sense of freedom and self-determination in students is easier said than done!  Consider…

“Research shows that students say they like and prefer to have teachers who tell them what to do and then show them how to do it over teachers who give them choices and ask them to discover how to solve problems….The same research, however, shows that the students of autonomy-supportive teachers actually show more positive educational outcomes.”  –Johnmarshall Reeve, Motivating Others

I recall one of my students saying, “I wish you’d just tell us exactly what you want us to know.  I’ll memorize it, and you’ll see it word for word on the final exam.”  I’m reminded of a cartoon depicting a classroom: Up front is a big audio tape player and in all of the students’ chairs are perched little tape recorders; there are no “humans” in the classroom.  Consider…

“The challenge is to be autonomy supportive even with individuals who pull on us to control them.  It is the more passive, compliant, and defiant individuals who are more in need of an optimal interpersonal context–of involvement, autonomy support, and sensitive limit setting–but it is these individuals whom we have the hardest time giving it to.” –Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do

I find being an autonomy-supportive instructor to be one of my greatest challenges as an educator.  But, when the students “get” it, oh, lordy, what a feelin’!

APPLICATION: How can I structure the learning environment so my students experience autonomy?

1) STUDENT-CHOSEN RULES:  I ask students to choose the rules they will impose upon themselves in order to achieve the outcomes and experience they want from the course.  Another option is to allow them to determine the consequences of breaking their own rules.  This strategy was employed by former professional basketball coach Pat Riley with his players; you can read about how he does it in his book, The Winner Within.

2) DECISION-MAKING PROCESS:  Instead of solving students’ problems or giving them advice, teach them a decision-making process. I use one called the Wise Choice Process, a six-step decision-making process that usually reveals that students know what their best choices are and that, as adults, they are free to determine what they will do about their problems.  The Wise Choice Process is explained in Chapter 2 of On Course.

–Skip Downing, Facilitator, On Course Workshop, 

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