Dec 13

The Secret to Building Intrinsic Motivation in Students: Autonomy

December 13th, 2017 by Austin Butler

Why do people strive to obtain power?

Traditionally, most people have thought that a quest for power comes from a desire to control other people, to be in charge.

A recent study from Columbia University, though, turns this idea on its head.

According to the study, people who seek power do so not because they want to control others, but because they want to control themselves.

People strive to get power in order to resist the influence of others and choose their own destiny. Through power, people gain autonomy.

In recent posts, we’ve been taking a deep dive into answering the question: how can we boost intrinsic motivation in students?

As it turns out, autonomy is one of three factors, along with relatedness and mastery, that helps foster intrinsic motivation in students.

Read on to find out why autonomy can be so powerful in the classroom and how to reap its benefits.

Why Autonomy?

What is it about a sense of autonomy that makes students want to do their best work in school?

Human beings are more inclined to want to do something and do it well if they have some degree of choice.

If a child is told he must mow the lawn at a certain time in a certain way, he is likely to complete the chore but by doing the bare minimum.

Conversely, if he has a choice of several chores or the flexibility to complete said chores when and how he chooses, he will likely feel more motivated to do a job well.

Adults are the same way. The sense of ownership that comes with autonomy has a motivating power.

While we obviously can’t let students do exactly what they want through the entirety of a school day, there are plenty of ways to build choice and autonomy into classes.

Ways to Build Autonomy into Your Class

Give Assignments as Menus

Why do people enjoy eating out at restaurants so much? Sure, it’s nice to have someone else do the dishes, but one of the main reasons is because we love choices!

At a restaurant, each person can eat exactly what he or she wants.

Bring this element of choice to your classroom with menus. Instead of having every student complete the same task in the same way, give kids a menu of tasks from which they need to complete the ones that interest them.

Use Individualized Learning Programs

There are plenty of ways that you can use technology to bring autonomy into your classroom.

There are individualized learning programs to teach everything from typing, to foreign language, to math skills.

Many of these programs let students move at their own pace and make choices about the program’s appearance and how they demonstrate mastery.

Swap Exams for Projects

Assessments are often the least autonomous part of the classroom.

Despite the name, a multiple choice test is nearly entirely devoid of choice when it comes to autonomy.

Instead, consider working project-based assessments into your classroom.

Sure, these projects might take a bit longer to complete, but since the process is just as important as the product, students are bound to get more out of it than a test. And, this allows students to customize a project to fit their specific interests within a given topic.

Make the Process Flexible

Making even small concessions about how students do their work can boost productivity.

Give students the option to sit on the floor and use a clipboard for part of class, or let students choose between writing answers by hand or typing them on the computer.

Oftentimes even tiny opportunities to control their own work environment can boost student investment in a task.

Get a Grade

Consider giving students periodic surveys where they can give you feedback and make suggestions for the class.

Keep surveys anonymous so that kids are honest, and be transparent about reviewing the results with the class and letting them know what changes you will be making to class as a result.

Students will feel empowered knowing that they have a voice in the class culture and work they do.

Through building opportunities for student autonomy, you can help kids actively participate in and make decisions about their own education, thus making them more invested in the learning.


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