Teacher actions can influence how independent or dependent students feel as learners. Most of us would like our students to feel and act more independently. One of the main purposes of education is to prepare students for a life of learning, most of which will occur without the presence and guidance of a teacher. Students need to be able to make decisions about learning on their own. Are there instructional behaviors teachers can use that move students in that direction? There are, and the research highlighted here offers one very practical set of teacher behaviors that increase student autonomy.
It is important to note that teachers cannot give students an experience of autonomy in the sense of making it happen for them. “Instead, teachers can only encourage and support this experience by identifying student's inner motivational resources and by creating classroom opportunities for students to align their inner resources with their classroom activity.” (p. 210) Autonomy as it is used in this line of research “represents an inner endorsement of one's actions—the sense that one's actions emanate from oneself and are one's own.” (p. 209) The word “empower” is often used to describe how teacher encouragement and support affects students' efforts to learn.
In this study researchers looked at behaviors they hypothesized would encourage autonomy and controlling behaviors they hypothesized would have the opposite effect. The methodology involved is explained in detail in the article. They found that the following eight behaviors supported student autonomy.
- Listening—as measured by the number of seconds the teacher attended to what the student was saying. The teacher used verbal and nonverbal signals to indicate this careful listening behavior.
- Allowing the student to work (in this case on a puzzle) in his or her own way—as measured by the amount of time the teacher was silent, not making suggestions, not proposing the right way to do it, not doing it for the student.
- Allowing the student to talk—as measured by the amount of time the student talked.
- Offering praise—as measured by the frequency of teacher statements that offered feedback when the student showed improvement or mastered part of the puzzle.
- Offering encouragement—as measured by the frequency of teacher statements that boosted or sustained the student's engagement with the task. “Almost.” “You can do it.”
- Offering hints—as measured by the frequency of suggestions offered when the student appeared to be stuck. “It might be easier now to work on the base.”
- Responding to student questions—as measured by the frequency of teacher replies to student comments and questions. “Yes, that's a good point.” “Right, you did that side first.”
- Communicating perspective-taking—as measured by the frequency of empathetic teacher statements that acknowledged the student's perspective or experience. “Yes, this part is difficult.”
This study is part of a well-established line of research on student autonomy and its strong relationship to learning. The researchers offer a compelling set of reasons to consider teaching behaviors that support student autonomy. “Empirical research has shown that students with autonomy-supportive teachers, compared with students with controlling teachers, experience not only greater perceived autonomy but also more positive functioning in terms of their classroom engagement, emotionality, creativity, intrinsic motivation, psychological well-being, conceptual understanding, academic achievement and performance.” (p. 210) They follow that claim with a long list of study citations.
This list of behaviors offers a concrete place to start, and the behaviors are not all that difficult to implement in our interactions with individual students and with the class as a whole.
Reeve, J., and Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students' autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98