How teachers can better support student autonomy

November 14, 2019

USC Rossier researchers look at motivational resources

By Ross Brenneman


Students might want to learn for any number of reasons: the chance to explore personal interests; the opportunity to develop new or better competencies; connecting with peers.

A new review of existing research from scholars at the USC Rossier School of Education, published last month in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, looks at how educators develop these “motivational resources”—and why educators might not be developing them enough.

“Autonomy support can potentially contribute to addressing seemingly intractable education problems that have plagued American schools for decades,” write the authors, Associate Professor of Education and Psychology Erika Patall and PhD student Jeanette Zambrano.

At stake: Studies show that autonomy support is linked to greater classroom motivation, engagement, self-regulation for learning, academic achievement and general well being.

What autonomy is

Associate Professor of Education and Psychology Erika Patall

Associate Professor of Education and Psychology Erika Patall

Patall said that people can mean different things by the idea of autonomy, but described it as “that sense you have when doing certain things that you actually want to do it, not because you feel some kind of pressure to do it”—taking action based on sense of self, including likes and values.

“What teachers should be striving for is to interact with students in ways that allow students to feel this sense of endorsing their behavior and feeling like it’s consistent with who they are,” Patall said.

Autonomy is about more than students exercising choices, she noted. Autonomy can also involve teachers connecting with students to understand who they are, in order to adjust certain tasks to the people in the room. Or it can be about providing opportunities for students to think through how learning might be personally relevant. Or it can simply be about being flexible, open and responsive to students’ suggestions, opinions, and feelings while learning.

Patall added, however, that autonomy shouldn’t be considered synonymous with the idea that teachers have to teach a different way for each individual child, nor is it the idea that teachers must abandon structure.

“Autonomy support is not allowing every student to do whatever they want, whenever they want to,” she said.


The authors find several roadblocks to implementing autonomy-supportive classrooms.

Many teachers, for instance, may not be properly prepared in the kind of instruction that supports autonomy. Other teachers may also feel implementing autonomy support is in conflict with pressures exerted on them from administrators looking for accountability. Still other teachers may prefer to exert a greater level of control over their classrooms—either for personal pedagogical reasons or in response to disengaged students.

And: While many schools and districts have implemented interventions to better support teachers, much of the intervention literature focuses on physical education and health classes, rather than core subject-area classes. Patall said there could be various reasons for such a finding, including that academic subject area teachers “are often tasked with a long list of requirements” that may lead them to feel there is little room to support autonomy.

The authors also noted racial and class components to the issue. Research shows that low-income students and students of color are less likely to experience these kinds of positive motivational school environments than are higher-income and White peers, especially entering adolescence. And a lack of autonomy support can undermine programs targeted at vulnerable populations, like various initiatives aimed at improving female representation in STEM classes.

“The goal now is to encourage educators and policymakers to endorse an autonomy-supportive approach to education,” Patall said in an interview, “integrating what we know about autonomy support into current practice and creating policies that will encourage that implementation.”

Patall mentioned that researchers also had a part to play, by collaborating with educators to develop tools that can facilitate how teachers support student autonomy and deepen the understanding of what teacher support for autonomy can or should look like.

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