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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Four Ways to Boost Student Autonomy

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A student’s sense of autonomy, or control, plays a large part in determining his or her motivation. Students who feel the teacher and/or environment is controlling have a much shallower pool of motivation to draw from. The good news is a teacher’s instructional style and orientation (controlling vs. autonomy-supportive) play a large part in influencing children’s perceptions of the classroom environment. For those who want to increase their students’ sense of autonomy and internal motivation, listed below are fourstarting points.

Provide Choice

The jumping off point for any teacher wanting to increase motivation through perceived autonomy is to throw out the laminated lesson plans. Rigidly structuring every aspect of every lesson keeps too much control in the hands of the teacher rather than the students. Teachers create a controlling environment by limiting any real choices in what or how students learn. When teachers dictate every single lesson and worksheet, motivation will suffer greatly.

Many wonderful resources exist that provide simple ways to offer choice to students without creating a chaotic environment. One such example is the use of a menu. In one variation, students have a series of tasks to choose from that are worth various points. Students need a certain amount of points to complete the menu but how they get there is up to them. They can do many lower level tasks, fewer higher level tasks, or a combination of the two. Another example is the use of a Tic-Tac-Toe board. Similar to a menu, this device allows students to choose three tasks to complete to make a Tic-Tac-Toe. If the teacher has a common task she’d like every student to complete, she can place it in the center square and tell students that their Tic-Tac-Toe must include the center square.

Teachers can also offer students choices in the order in which they complete tasks. This works best when there are several routine matters that occur on a regular basis. These can be spiral review worksheets or vocabulary cards. Instead of controlling how the students complete the tasks, let them choose the order. In the end all the students complete all the tasks. However, by offering choice, students are much more inclined to persist and remain motivated through completion.

Decrease Controlling Factors

In addition to offering choice, teachers can support autonomy by ridding their classrooms of controlling factors. For instance, the use of tangible rewards is common in the lower grades but students can view them as controlling. Rather than being motivated by stickers or candy, students might see those rewards as tools used to manipulate them. In the same way, threats are extremely controlling. By threatening students with some form of consequence, teachers are communicating control to their students. Threats might get the job done but at the cost of student autonomy.

Directives are similar to threats in that they present a decision already made to the students. Rather than being consulted or even informed, teacher directives serve notice to the students that they are not in charge. Threatening deadlines also decrease rather than support student autonomy. Granted, there are days on which assignments are due. However, looming days of academic judgment should not overshadow students to the point where they feel controlled.

Finally, competitive pressure is a motivational mixed bag. While some students thrive under competition, others shy away from it. Rather than do away with it altogether, teachers should use competition sparingly and gently. Friendly games can energize a classroom whereas teacher-led competition that pits one group against another is very controlling. Students should not feel forced to compete or pushed to win at all costs.

Reduce Evaluative Pressure

In schools today, high-stakes tests have seemingly taken over. With so much of a school’s accountability ratings riding on the backs of test scores, many districts have rolled out a series of benchmark tests to get students ready for the big test(s) each year. Designed to mimic the big state test, excessive benchmark testing inadvertently creates coercive, controlling environments.  

Regardless of what type of ribbon you try to wrap around a benchmark test, it’s still going to communicate pressure. Focusing on multiple benchmarks throughout the year sends the message that the state test is extremely important. So important, in fact, that students have to take mini-state tests just to “get used” to slogging through a lengthy test in four hours or less. Lost in the shuffle, however, is teaching and learning. When schools get taken over in “testing season” by benchmarks and boot camps (i.e., cram sessions before a big test), external control is maximized.

Classroom tests can also exude pressure if the teacher uses them incorrectly. If a large percentage of the final course grade rests on one test, the pressure that exerts will reduce student autonomy. Rather than a final course grade reflecting hard work and learning, students see that most of their grade rests on a single exam. As they get older, students figure out that test-taking has its unique set of skills that does not line up with learning. Some students who know a lot test poorly due to anxiety while others with shallow knowledge are great at memorization and always do well.

Communication Style

What you say is usually overshadowed by how you say it. The tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions you use speak louder than your words. Teachers that want to be supportive of student autonomy can say all the right words in all the wrong ways. Normally, this stems from only a surface level commitment to respecting student autonomy. What teachers truly believe will come through their words and dominate their communication.

Please understand that enhancing student autonomy does not equal giving up all rules and regulations. Choice does not equal anarchy. In fact, some classrooms with high levels of student control have many guidelines and restrictions. For most students, having rules and structure is not what chafes. Instead, it is how teachers communicate those limits. When forced upon them by a benevolent dictator (e.g., teacher), even the best boundaries can negatively impact student autonomy.

Treat the class as a republic. Unlike a true democracy, where every citizen votes, a republic has elected representatives who make decisions for the people based on their desires. You, as the teacher, still make the decisions in the classroom. What you can do, however, is include students in that process. Let them discuss whether they should learn math before or after lunch. Allow them to create classroom helper roles. Work together to create a list of classroom rules enforceable by everyone. Bring students into the conversation and your communication style will help support student autonomy.

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