Autonomy support

Autonomy support

My writing on this blog revolves mostly around student motivation. More precisely the events or behaviours that can affect student motivation. I write from a self-determination perspective and one of the important factors in motivating students according to self-determination theory is the support of autonomy. Autonomy in self-determination theory is a psychological need, and should not be mistaken as the ability to act independently. From this understanding we can start to develop ideas and themes surround behaviours and contexts which are autonomy-supportive in educational environments such as classrooms and music studio teaching. Although much of the writing here on autonomy-support pertains to classroom contexts, similar principals can be applied to studio-based teaching, as it is the behaviour and interactions between teacher and student which will have the most influence on autonomy.

Courtesy: Richard Lee

Assor, Kaplan, and Roth (2002) have identified teacher behaviour which is autonomy-supportive or autonomy-suppressive in style. Autonomy-supportive teaching behaviours included fostering relevance, allowing criticism, and providing choice. Fostering relevance is achieved through the explanation of how a task will contribute to the students’ learning goals and acknowledging the students’ feelings and thoughts concerning the task. Ensuring that the task is perceived in accordance with the student’s goals and interests is essential to creating and autonomy-supportive learning environment. Allowing criticism and dissatisfaction to be voiced by students and acknowledging students’ feelings toward the activity, further contribute to a sense of an autonomy-supportive learning environment. Autonomy-supportive learning environments can be facilitated by listening to students needs, providing information feedback, provide suitably challenging tasks and offering choice about work (Reeve & Jang, 2006).

Autonomy support can occur by allowing students to take an active role in solving their own problems, such as generating problem-solving strategies (Reeve & Halusic, 2009). Autonomy support may also increase the student’s feelings of competence and to become mastery-oriented learners (Dweck, 1999; Elliott & Dweck, 1988) in which to learning is guided by the development of skills, processes, and techniques for continued growth rather than subjective and normative comparisons to classmates to reference overall achievement (ego-oriented learning). Ego-oriented learning has been negatively associated with intrinsic motivation (Ryan, 1982).

Reeve (2006) has surmised autonomy-supportive teacher behaviours and classroom contexts. His demonstrates that teacher autonomy-support has been shown to be positive on student intrinsic motivation when teachers convey choice of activity to students (Deci, et al., 1994), respond appropriately to students with informational feedback (Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999), allow for students to voice their concerns regarding tasks (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Reeve, et al., 2004), and providing meaningful rationales for uninteresting work (Deci, et al., 1994). In contrast, controlling behaviours consist of the use threats and punishment to control behaviour and learning progress, giving incompetence feedback and quashing student voice (Deci & Ryan, 1987).

Teachers with a controlling orientation have been shown to decrease student intrinsic motivation and predict lower levels of student engagement (Deci, et al., 1981; Reeve, 2009; Soenens, et al., 2012). These teacher behaviours consist of suppression of student feelings and criticism regarding tasks and activities (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002), use of more controlling language (Reeve & Jang, 2006), and are more likely to give answers during tasks in a rote-like fashion rather than allowing students time to develop responses (Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999). Additionally, teachers are said to hold strong beliefs about control in their classroom, and this is often an unwitting result of the educational structure and system in which they work (Reeve, 2009).

Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) states that externally regulated activities, often encountered by students in schools, can be internalised when the context is supportive of psychological needs. These contexts can be found in the classroom and the teacher behaviour style (Reeve, 2006). Internalisation occurs when the students’ goals are supported through relevant learning material and experiences. To achieve this the teacher requires an autonomy-supportive teaching style.

Support of autonomy, competence, and relatedness results in better internalisation of externally regulated behaviour. Autonomy is a crucial contextual variable necessary for promoting moves toward intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Deci and Ryan (1987), write a state “of central concern to the issue of autonomy and control in human behaviour is whether people construe contexts as supportive of their autonomy (ie., encouraging to make their own choices) or controlling their behaviour (i.e., pressuring them toward particular outcomes)” (p.1025).

Accordingly, teacher behaviour has consequences for the development of self-determination in students (Vansteenkiste, et al., 2012). The development of autonomy in students can be supported or otherwise, in the actions, comments, and pedagogical teaching style of the classroom teacher. According to Ryan (1986) autonomy-support leads to favourable motivational patterns, a stronger sense of competence and higher levels of intrinsic motivation. When contextual factors are autonomy-supportive it can result in more intrinsic motivation, more creativity, increased cognitive flexibility, increased interest and persistence (Reeve, et al., 2004). Finally, autonomy-support assists students in internalising an activity, viewing it as important to their learning (Reeve & Jang, 2006) and moving their motivational orientation towards intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Deci et al (1981) showed a correlation between the control or autonomy orientation of the teacher and student perceptions of classroom climate. A higher perception of autonomy in the classroom climate by students predicted more intrinsically motivated behaviour and an enhanced self-esteem. Furthermore, the results demonstrated that all measures of intrinsic motivation were found to be related to teacher orientation. In contrast, controlling behaviour involves the exertion of pressure on students to work towards particular outcomes such as examinations or to do well in school. This pressure is regulated via control mechanisms such as contingencies, conditional rewards, punishments, or freedom and restriction of activities (Deci & Ryan, 1987).

In terms of controlling teacher behaviour orientation Assor et al (2002) found autonomy-suppressive behaviours included suppressing criticism, intruding, and forcing un-meaningful learning activities. In choosing to suppress criticism by students, teachers deny the opportunity of goal realisation and interest. This also represents interfering in the students learning trajectory, ultimately undermining students’ opportunities for self-direction and expression in their learning. Furthermore, interfering disrupts the natural learning pace of the student and prevents the student experiencing and completing an activity in their own learning style.

Similarly, rewards are considered the most disabling of intrinsic motivation and are a common form of teacher controlling behaviour within a school classroom context (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981). Extrinsic rewards undermine an individual’s intrinsic motivation due to a shift in perception of the locus of control from internal to external, therefore, they are considered controlling as they attempt to manipulate behaviour (Ryan & Deci, 2006). Likewise, social environmental factors such as forms of social control will either facilitate or thwart perceptions of autonomy. Controlling teacher behaviour relies on the use social controls such as conditional approval, status, high grades, monetary rewards, competition and pressuring to win (Vansteenkiste & Deci, 2003). Normally present intrinsic interest in an activity can be altered when external rewards are introduced (Deci, 1971).

Deci, Nezlek, and Sheinmen (1981) considered the orientation of the classroom teacher in terms of autonomy-support or control, and the effect of rewards administered by teachers within these orientations. Results showed that rewards used for control led to decreases in student intrinsic motivation. The rewards were experienced by students as controlling and external control limits one’s sense of self-determination (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). Teacher orientation towards control and the use of a controlling pedagogical style thwarts students’ development of autonomy and lowers the likelihood of the integration of externally regulated events.


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Soenens, B., Sierens, E., Vansteenkiste, M., Dochy, F., & Goossens, L. (2012). Psychologically controlling teaching: Examining outcomes, antecedents, and mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 108-120.

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Vansteenkiste, M., Sierens, E., Goossens, L., Soenens, B., Dochy, F., Mouratidis, A., et al. (2012). Identifying configurations of perceived teacher autonomy support and structure: Associations with self-regulated learning, motivation and problem behavior. Learning and Instruction, 22(6), 431-439.

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