Motivation and Personal Autonomy

Summarized from Deci, E. L. (1995). Why we do what we do: The dynamics of personal autonomy. New York: Putnam & Sons.

Everyone has experienced it: You can bring a horse to water…..The million dollar question always comes back to… how to make the horse drink!!

It can sometimes be a similar situation in your classes. You’ve prepared your syllabus and what you think are interesting activities, but students sometimes just don’t seem to be interested or involved in the learning. What can be done to help motivate students? Or better yet, how can we design our courses to encourage students to find that all important internal motivation that really supports long-lasting behavior?

Edward L. Deci (University of Rochester) in his text, Why We Do What We Do: The Dynamics of Personal Autonomy (1995) explores the heart of this important issue. Take a moment to consider the conditions that go into your own motivation. When are you motivated to do something and why? Now consider the effects on your own motivation when you are asked to do something by someone in authority. What qualities need to be present to illicit a motivated and/or interested response from you? How is this situation similar to what students face in their classes?

Deci writes that allowing for personal autonomy can play a key role in developing internal motivation. Having a sense of personal autonomy, or self-determination, means that a person feels that their behavior is self-chosen and not imposed by an external power. Research has shown that people have an internal need (much like the needs of the body) for this sense of personal autonomy. Recall the working conditions that led to the violent acts by workers in US Post Offices in the mid 80s as an extreme example of what can happen when people do not have control over their personal autonomy.

Now take the idea of personal autonomy and apply it to what occurs in your classroom. To what extent do students have choice or determination over how they learn the material in your classes or how they complete assignments? Deci points out the fine balance that must exist between setting goals and limits within the classroom, while allowing for a sense of autonomy by participants and the link this has to student motivation. Here are some of his recommendations that can help your students to become more intrinsically motivated:

  • Understand your students. Put yourself in their shoes as you design and develop activities and assignments.
  • Employ autonomy support rather than power and control by actively encouraging student self-initiation, experimentation, exploration, and responsibility
  • Set limits as needed, but use encouragement to motivate students to obtain goals rather than using pressure, threats, rewards, or punishment.
  • Avoid controlling language and allow for choices as much as possible within your course framework
  • Design your classes so that students can see a relationship between their behaviors and their desired outcomes. If no amount of hard work is going to get them the grade they want, then what’s the point. Conversely, if little effort is needed to get the grade, then why bother to explore more deeply either.
  • Feeling competent helps students be more intrinsically motivated. To be competent, they need both the strategies and the capabilities for reaching desired outcomes.
  • < Provide novel experiences related to course objectives

Deci reports that when giving seminars, he often hears instructors say, “But our students prefer to be told what to do. They don’t like having the freedom to choose. They just want to be told what they need to do to get the “A” “. He writes that this may be the result of too many years of being controlled in learning environments and that it might take time to help students to rediscover the joys of having their own choice in things.

How much choice, then, is adequate? Because clearly, not all students are ready for all levels of decision-making. How can instructors set limits and at the same time support and promote the autonomy development of students?

  • When possible, let individuals be involved in the limit-setting process. The group can decide together on class rules, assignment due dates, and preferences.
  • < When you must set the limits, avoid the use of controlling language and acknowledge the resistance that people may feel. Show that you understand their perspective.
  • Give the reasons for the limits you have set. Help them to understand it in the context of the greater good
  • Make the limit as wide as possible and allow for choice within it.
  • Consequences for stepping outside the limits should be fair, well thought out, and clearly articulated. Stick to it and be consistent. Consequences should not be punishments, but natural occurrences that encourage responsibility and good decision-making.

Try incorporating some of these strategies into your fall courses and see if they make a difference in your and your students’ motivation levels!!

Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom

Summarized from Svinicki, M. D. (2004) Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Svinicki is the Director of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Texas at Austin. In her book, she incorporates the latest research on teaching and learning into a practical list of principles (to improve learning and motivation) to apply to teaching practice. The principles from the text are summarized here:

  1. Emphasize a few key ideas – highlight and emphasize these throughout the lesson and course
  2. Be aware of prior knowledge – learners connect the new to the known
  3. Tap into motivational sources – personal autonomy issues, relevance, shared decision-making, clear. logical, and fair consequences for actions
  4. Build structural knowledge to achieve understanding – build the foundational knowledge and organizational structures so students can build on their learning
  5. Structure learning to support encoding of the content – moving learning into long-term memory so it can be retrieved and built upon.
  6. Use modeling to teach skills
  7. Give lots of active, coached practice – goal is immediate recall and effortless use so mental energies are not used for this, but can be used for high-order thinking skills – application, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation.
  8. Teach in ways that promote transfer – teach the skill immediately before practice
  9. Help students become aware of their own learning strategies
  10. Respect individual differences in learning – respect is not just tolerance, but building flexibility into the course that takes into account different approaches to learning.

Capturing and Directing the Motivation to Learn

Excerpted from the online newsletter Speaking of teaching: Stanford university newsletter on teaching Fall 1998 Vol. 10, No. 1.

The author of the article discusses the rhythm that occurs in the classrooms, oscillating between the joy of starting something new and the challenge of hard work required to learn it. Exploration, creativity, and novelty help to fuel motivation, while the discipline required to learn and master fundamental skills can often dampen it.

What helps to encourage student motivation? Students should:

  1. See their educational experience as personally relevant
  2. Believe that they have the skills and competencies to successfully accomplish their learning goals
  3. See themselves as responsible agents in the definition and accomplishment of personal goals
  4. Understand the higher-level thinking and self-regulation skills that lead to goal attainment
  5. Call into play processes for effectively and efficiently encoding, processing, and recalling information
  6. Control moods and emotions that can facilitate or interfere with learning and motivation
  7. Produce the performance outcomes that signal successful goal attainment.

How can these attributes be fostered through teaching and course design?

  1. Don’t assume that the course goals, learning outcomes, rationales, relevance, and structures for knowledge building are transparent to students.
  2. Make use of students’ interests and background knowledge to help them connect new information to what they know already.
  3. Explain the relevance of the material
  4. Teach students the skills they need to be independent learners.
  5. Give helpful and frequent feedback.

150 Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Summarized from Raffini, J. P. (1996) 150 ways to increase intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Raffini provides an overview of five different needs that go into building intrinsic motivation (choosing to do an activity for no compelling reason, beyond the satisfaction derived from the activity itself). They are the need for autonomy, competence, belonging and relatedness, self-esteem, and involvement and enjoyment. For each of the needs, he provides a lengthy list of activities and recommendations for the classroom. Each activity listed has an age/grade range for the appropriate audience. He includes activities for K-12 as well as those appropriate for students of all ages.

In the text, Raffini states that many psychologists believe that humans naturally seek out and master new challenges. This aspect of human nature is central to understanding how to build intrinsic motivation in students. If one considers the previously stated needs in terms of classroom activities, an important scenario develops:

  • Provide students with an opportunity to control their own decisions (autonomy)
  • Build in strategies to help students be and feel successful (competence)
  • Help students to feel connected and part of something larger than themselves (belonging and relatedness)
  • Support student self-esteem
  • Help students to find pleasure n what they do (involvement and stimulation)
  • Offer challenges that are just above students’ ability level. Not too far above to cause frustration. Organize challenges and provide support to build confidence while improving skills

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