What are autonomy-supportive behaviours and why are they important to teachers?

Motivational theories of students and student learning represent one side of the motivational equation in student learning. The other side is teacher behaviour. Students bring their own array of motivational tools to the classroom, however, teachers can either facilitate or thwart students’ use of these tools (Deci, et al., 1991; Reeve, 2009; Reeve, et al., 2004). Self-determination theory suggests that when students feel autonomous they will have positive academic outcomes. Teachers can facilitate this with autonomy-supportive teacher behaviours.

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Teacher motivational style has been shown to have an effect on student motivation, particularly in the area of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Jang, Reeve, & Deci, 2010; Reeve & Halusic, 2009). Self-determination theory states that teachers have a teaching style which ranges along a continuum from highly controlling to highly autonomy-supportive (Deci, et al., 1981). An autonomy-supportive teacher will facilitate student needs, display interest in the students likes, offer activities for which students have an interest and preference for, and give students opportunities to pursue their own interests. Controlling teachers will interfere with student thinking, negate students’ feelings towards tasks, place extrinsic motivation and pressures on students, adopt only the teachers perspective about the task and the learning that needs to take place, and pressure students to think, feel or behave in a particular way (Reeve, 2009).

When teachers think about student motivation and engagement from their own perspective, they override the perspective of the student and the teacher’s style becomes controlling. Teacher intrusion into student motivation and engagement leads students to forgo their intrinsic motivation for the activity to respond to the external motivational pressure from the teacher. At this point there no longer is an internal perceived locus of causality (deCharms, 1968) as the student is now motivated by an extrinsic form of regulated behaviour. Extrinsic motivation has detrimental effects on students’ engagement, persistence, interest, and their learning outcomes (Reeve & Lee, 2013).

Teachers will assert controlling motivation style in two ways, either via indirect (external) control or via direct (internal) control (Assor, et al., 2005). Controlling behaviour includes using external sources of motivation such as directives, deadlines, incentives, consequences, threats of punishment, neglect to provide explanatory rationales, reliance on pressuring language, displays of impatience, and reactions of negative affect. Some examples of controlling language (directives) used by teachers to motivate students to do their work are “get started”, “no, do it this way”  (Assor, et al., 2005). Two-word commands such as “hurry up”, “stop that” , “let’s go” (Reeve, et al., 2004) and compliance hooks such as “should”,  “must”, “got to” (Ryan, 1982) are examples of controlling language because this type of language is rigid, evaluative, and pressure inducing.

In contrast, an autonomy-supportive teacher style is one in which the teacher adopts the student’s perspective, welcomes students’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and supports students’ motivational development and capacity of autonomous self-regulation (Reeve, 2006b). Autonomy-supportive teachers develop in students greater mastery motivation for tasks, higher perceived competence and intrinsic motivation (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981), and have overall higher academic performance (Boggiano, et al., 1993).

A meta-analysis of autonomy-supportive research by Reeve (2009) found that the majority of the reported findings demonstrate that students relatively benefit from autonomy-supportive teacher behaviour and learning environments, and suffer from controlling teacher behaviour and learning environments. More specifically, Reeve (2006a) found that autonomy-supportive teacher style improves student engagement through student behaviour such as increased focus, persistence, and interest in tasks. In sum, an autonomy-supportive teaching style supports students’ internal perceived locus of causality, experience of volition, and sense of choice (Reeve, 2009). These are internally regulated behaviours leading to autonomous or intrinsic motivation according to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

To support autonomy in for example a music lesson, teachers could find ways to coordinate instructional activities around student’s interest. When doing activities which are not interesting, such as homework or practice, frame the activity around an intrinsic goal and provide explanatory rationales for the work. For example, “As you learn these chords it will give you the opportunity to play some of your favourite songs”. Framing activities like this helps students to internalise an uninteresting activity into something purposeful and of value. The explanatory rationale is an opportunity for the teacher to explain why the activity is an authentic use of the student’s time.

Again, the teacher’s language is important. The language of an autonomy-supportive teacher needs to be non-evaluative and informational to minimise external pressure. Non-controlling language is achieved through words like “I suggest”. Other autonomy-supportive language found to motivate students are phrases such as “If you choose”, “You might”, “We ask you to”, “You can decide” (Vansteenkiste, et al., 2004).

Teachers’ teaching style appears to have effects on student motivation. Teaching in ways which are supportive of students’ psychological need of autonomy can lead to positive learning outcomes through improvement in the student’s intrinsic motivation. The subsequent effects of increased intrinsic motivation are more persistence, focus, engagement, greater task mastery motivation, and an increased perceived sense of competence.


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Boggiano, A., Flink, C., Shields, A., Seelbach, A., & Barrett, M. (1993). Use of techniques promoting students’ self- determination: Effects on students’ analytic problem- solving skills. Motiv Emot, 17(4), 319-336.

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