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.


Coert Visser said…
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► This study by Patall et al. (2023) examines how teaching methods in classrooms (classroom structure) affect the engagement, performance, and self-efficacy of students from kindergarten to high school. It reviewed numerous studies to determine the effects of classroom structure. The researchers found that a good classroom structure is positively associated with better performance, increased engagement in lessons, and a stronger belief in students' own abilities. There was no clear link to reduced student engagement.

The research also indicated that it is especially important to engage students in a positive way and not to control them too much. This helps across all age groups. The researchers note that the country of origin and background of the students also matter. They advise teachers to carefully consider what works in their own classrooms and to pay attention to the personal experiences of both students and teachers. This research demonstrates that the way teachers teach can indeed make a significant difference in how students feel and perform in school.