December 31, 2007

The autonomy-supportive teaching style

In Improving Academic Achievement, chapter four is written by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They criticize well intended but ineffective measures to improve academic achievement like 1) implementing stringent new testing programs, 2) giving large amounts of homework, 3) putting much emphasis on rewards, punishments and controls (like deadlines), and 4) using controlling and pressuring language. The authors show that these kinds of measures will lead to substantial motivational and emotional costs and high-quality achievement (like conceptual learning, creativity and flexible problem solving) will suffer too for the majority of the students.

The authors show favorable effects of stimulating intrinsic motivation of students. People are intrinsically motivated when they do activities that interest them, that provide them spontaneous pleasure or enjoyment and do not require external rewards. When intrinsically motivated, people are engrossed in the activity, and they are not easily distracted. The initiative is theirs and they persist for long periods. Furthermore, when students are intrinsically motivated they learn better at the conceptual level.

How can intrinsic motivation be stimulated? A critical factor to experiencing intrinsic motivation is perceived autonomy. When people feel autonomous they experience the initiation of their behavior to be within themselves and they become more intrinsically motivated. Any factor that conduces toward a so-called external perceived locus of causality (E-PLOC) will diminish intrinsic motivation. Punishments, rewards and controls are examples of this. They interfere with students' perceived autonomy or put differently, with their self-regulation. Any factor that fosters an internal locus of causality (I-PLOC) will enhance intrinsic motivation. Encouraging self-initiative, providing choice and stimulating experimentation are examples of this.

Intrinsic motivation is not the whole story of course. Deadlines, rewards and punishments will to some extent be a given in any educational system. Extrinsic motivation (doing something not because it interests you but because it leads to a desirable outcome) certainly plays an important role too.

Teachers and parents can provide a learning environment that supports satisfaction of the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness which will lead to students not only be more intrinsically motivated but also be more effective in internalizing and integrating extrinsic motivation so as to be more cooperative and volitional overall.

Teachers and parents can provide this by using an autonomy-supportive style which is characterized by: 1) providing choice, 2) encouraging students' experimentation and self-initiation, 3) foster students' willingness to take on challenges, explore new ideas and persist at difficult activities, 4) offering optimal challenges (neither too easy, nor too difficult), 5) providing feedback that is not evaluative of the person, 6) giving a meaningful rationale for requested behavior, 7) acknowledging feelings, 8) setting up cooperative learning opportunities. (also view this video)


  1. I loved this article! Absolutely insightful and applicable to a variety of different fields. Many can benefit from such knowledge. I appreciate your insight.


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