March 24, 2017

How teachers can combine autonomy-support with structure

Autonomy support is effective in parenting, in teaching, and in leadership at work. Some incorrectly think that a remark like this should be read as a plea for 'anything goes'. Autonomy support does not mean that no structure is offered. Autonomy support and structure go hand in hand. Offering structure strengthens the perception of autonomy and is even often a prerequisite for it. I elaborate this thought using the context of education as an example.

Autonomy support

To explain what is meant by autonomy support and structure I rely on an operationalization of those concepts in a paper by Jang, Reeve, & Deci (2010). The table below shows the differences between an autonomy supportive and a controlling teacher approach.


Structure may be offered in different parts of teaching, like the way in which the lesson is introduced, the way it is structured and executed, and the way in which feedback is offered. The table below shows the differences between low and high structure teaching approaches.

Autonomy support and structure go together well

While people sometimes assume that autonomy support and structure are antithetical to each other, research shows they are not. Jang et al. (2010) showed that autonomy support and structure are positively associated with each other and that both are positively associated with (behavioral) engagement of students in class. Similar findings were reported by Vansteenkiste et al. (2012). A study by Hospel & Galand (2015) showed that autonomy support specifically contributes to emotional engagement of students in class.

An advise to teachers is to try to combine autonomy support and structure in their approach to teaching. Briefly this means offering clear goals for the lesson, use and communicate a clear frame for the lesson, make expectations of students clear and explain why they are important, offer opportunity for initiative and choice, offer clear guidance and help, give relevant and constructive feedback, accept negative feelings and complaints, and avoid force, punishment, and controlling language.

This way of thinking is not only useful in the educational context but also in parenting and work. In those contexts, too, the combination of autonomy support and structure is powerful.

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