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  • Writer's pictureHeather Saigo

Empowering Students Through Autonomy: Strategies for Instructors

As an educator, it can be frustrating to see students lose motivation and disengage from their studies. However, one of the most effective ways to support student persistence is to promote a sense of autonomy in the classroom. When students feel a sense of ownership and control over their learning, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated. In this post, we will explore how autonomy affects student persistence and provide strategies for teachers to promote autonomy in their learning environments.


Autonomy Promotes Intrinsic Motivation

When students have freedom to choose their learning activities, set their own goals, and provide input on scheduling and deadlines, they can become more engaged and interested in their studies. Autonomy enhances their sense of volitional control over their learning, which has a positive effect on intrinsic motivation. When students are intrinsically motivated, they approach activities with curiosity and enjoyment, and tend to experience better outcomes. Studies have found that autonomy support can improve academic performance and persistence. Teachers can support student autonomy in several ways:


1. Invite Dialogue and Use Non-Judgmental Language

By using language that encourages autonomy, teachers can create a positive and supportive classroom environment. Instead of giving strict instructions and using words like "must," "have to," or other controlling language, try more inviting phrases. Phrases that invite conversation and dialogue, such as "explain," or "consider," are more likely to strengthen students' sense of autonomy. Talking with students also provides educators with information they can use to create choice opportunities (#2) and connect new information with prior knowledge (#3).


2. Give Students Choices

Giving students choices in their learning can significantly increase their motivation and commitment. By allowing students to choose the topic or projects that align with their interests and strengths, teachers can help foster a sense of ownership over their learning. This can result in increased engagement and student persistence.


3. Explain the Reason and Purpose

Explaining the purpose and rationale behind learning tasks or projects helps students understand why they are learning certain concepts or skills. Find examples that connect the concept to the students' prior experiences so the new information feels relevant. Show how the information is applied in real-life situations. When students understand the value in their work, they are more likely to feel motivated to learn.


4. Cultivate Curiosity

Fostering a sense of curiosity and exploration can help students find things that excite and interest them. Encouraging students to ask questions, explore different perspectives, and pursue their own inquiries help them pursue topics that genuinely interest them. Providing opportunities for self-directed exploration taps into a sense of play and discovery that supports student autonomy.


In conclusion, autonomy plays an essential role in student motivation and persistence. By implementing strategies such as providing choices, explaining purposes, inviting dialogue, and cultivating curiosity, teachers can promote autonomy and support student persistence. When students feel a sense of control over their learning, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated, resulting in better educational experiences and outcomes.


Relevant Data and Evidence


If you would like to learn more about autonomy, motivation, and education, here are some peer-reviewed journal articles with additional information.

  • Deci, Edward, and Richard Ryan. “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior.” Psychological Inquiry 11, no. 4 (October 1, 2000): 227–68. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01.

  • Patall, Erika A., and Jeanette Zambrano. “Facilitating Student Outcomes by Supporting Autonomy: Implications for Practice and Policy.” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 6, no. 2 (October 2019): 115–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732219862572.

  • Vansteenkiste, Maarten, Nathalie Aelterman, Gert-Jan De Muynck, Leen Haerens, Erika Patall, and Johnmarshall Reeve. “Fostering Personal Meaning and Self-Relevance: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Internalization.” The Journal of Experimental Education 86, no. 1 (2018): 30–49.

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