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Student Autonomy, Compliance, and Intrinsic Motivation

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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A closeup of a side profile of a young female student looking out a window. Her left cheek is resting against her left hand, and there's a hair tie around her wrist.

Many empirical studies have shown that excessive control from strict, negative rules and punishments and extrinsic rewards for doing the "right thing" can achieve short-term compliance.

But there are costs: It undermines intrinsic motivation, it decreases the overall quality of performance, and it connects continued performance to the availability and delivery of rewards.

This is the conundrum when education takes place in a pressured environment in which the teachers' own sense of autonomy has been eroded. Fast compliance is needed so external controls are used, which seem to "work." This success can become addictive, especially since it takes a bit of time to wean students off of extrinsic rewards. It becomes seemingly easier to continue to use external controls for short-term compliance.

Seeking Ideas From Colleagues

The solution for this is a shared philosophy and commitment to developing student autonomy in a developmental sensitive and ongoing way -- from the moment a student enters a school to the moment they depart. Everyone can't simply do their own thing; when people run into disciplinary and organizational trouble, the answer is not to revert to excessive controls. One answer is to reach out to colleagues and get ideas about how to have order and continuity while still supporting student autonomy.

The Balance of Freedom and Order

This balance of freedom and order has been under increasing discussion of late as representing the essence of democracy and a definition of moral responsibility.

In his book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward Deci wrote, "People find freedom in part by accepting their real constraints, but that alone does not ensure that they will function effectively within society. In addition, they may need to accept some of the arbitrary conventions created by the social organization."

Many societies around the world, both secular and religious, vary along which pole they place greater emphasis. Individuals also have to find the right balance for themselves and their life situations in developmentally appropriate ways.

And this is the challenge for educators: How much freedom? How much order? The pressures of education today seem to be tilting the balance toward order and compliance, and this can have harmful long-term consequences for both children and society.

It would be foolish to advocate for autonomy at all times. Getting things done and living in social relationships with others requires some structure. We have to get schools started within a time frame, move students and educators periodically, make time for nutrition and physical activity, foster creativity, and end the day in some predictable and organized ways.

The unanswered questions are: How much autonomy is enough, how much do different individuals need, and how do the answers change over time?

Why SEL Matters

There are direct implications of this for how we present social-emotional and character development (SECD) programs, as well as programs to prevent problem behaviors. The reasons for learning SEL and having positive character are not for a grade or for rewards. SEL skills and character allow you to accomplish great things in the world.

They allow you to be helpful to others, to learn effectively, to contribute to your family, friends, school, and community, and to make your life better. These conversations must be a part of every SECD lesson.

Addressing Risk Behaviors

Similarly, prevention of drugs, alcohol, smoking, and other tobacco and drug use, as well as violence and premature sexual behavior, needs to connect to biology, health, and relationships with others. "This is what happens to you -- realistically, not in the extreme --when you engage in these actions. Here are your risks." It's essential to realize that when students feel a sense of failure, hopelessness, and lack of accomplishment, their sense of risk is different than what their teachers might think.

There is not much risk when one does not have much to lose. But when competence matters and feels attainable, behaviors that compromise that competence are easier to call into question, even in the face of peer pressure.

In Support of Classroom Autonomy

We can give Edward Deci the last word:

Intrinsic motivation represents an orientation to make choices, along with the moral compass to make responsible choices. These are attributes that only accrue positively with practice, and trust, and adults' being willing to challenge their own comfort zones toward the greater good that may result for more children when they are less controlled and more autonomous around learning.

How do you encourage and support intrinsic motivation in your classroom and with your students? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Michael Paul's picture

Thank you Maurice for the concise and thoughtful article. I am a Rutgers GSE alum so it was nice to see the RU connection.

I am currently using a blended learning unit for my middle school social studies class. The students are working more autonomously. One thing that I have liked so far was a digital goal sheet where the students rate and track their learning. I have access to the doc (I am using Google Drive to help facilitate) so I have been checking in with students but they are more self -directed. I am also experimenting a little with flexible deadlines for the work they have to complete. I am accepting early work, which I will then give feedback and the students can then make changes and resubmit. I have also encouraged students to come to me with any problems then might have meeting the deadlines I have set. I have told them that if they approach me in a responsible way and have legitimate reasons then we can work together to establish a deadline that works for both of us. It seems to be going well so far!

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Juliet18's picture
Juliet18
Middle grades LA, SS from Southeast USA

How do I promote intrinsic motivation in my classroom?
One way is that I allow students to use their products on a test. How do I do this? - My students build a portfolio to demonstrate their comprehension of a unit's concepts. Some inserts are mandatory (higher level constructive response questions I provide at the start of the unit, a chart or graph of the unit, etc..) and some are personal choice the student wants to create - anything from pictures (of lab experiments we did in class) with captions, vocabulary prompts, notes from class, or whatever the student creates (no photocopying or simple downloading and printing). Other than some of my requirements, students may choose as much self-produced creations in their portfolios as they want. At the end of a test, students have 5 minutes to use their self made portfolios to "re-check" their tests. At the start of the year, students depended heavily on that 5 minute recheck, but as the year progresses, the students need it less and less because what they are finally realizing us that what they are creating IS "studying" thus they are well prepared for the test. The result is that I can give more rigorous tests because the students have a comprehensive understanding of the content and had a self-appointed / self-paced method of learning the content for the summative test AND a secure feeling taking the test knowing that if they need a 5 minute peek, they will get it (decreases test anxiety).. Even though students may work in groups as much as they want, students are allowed to use only the portfolio they produced individually, thus a lot of students duplicate group work to include in their portfolios. (I had to draw the line somewhere so "lazy" students still did not reap the benefits of harder working students in a group.) To me, my method of teaching along with student work mirrors real society much more than the traditional teach-teach-teach then take a stressful all-or-none test routine. NEVER in real life are we asked to complete a complex task without the aid of expert advice or the instructional manual, so why on Earth are we asking students to do the same on a test? I certainly do not complete my taxes without referring numerous times to the tax code, or bake a cake without referring to the recipe, or wash an expensive outfit without reading the washing instructions, or teach a lesson without reading over my lesson plans or refreshing my understanding of a concept. I have NEVER in my life understood why we want students to complete higher order, more rigorous, lengthy, exhausting tests without the aid of something they created to support their knowledge of the test. For those of you thinking that I am weakening students for future AP course tests or SAT, ACT , and so forth, I keep track of my students after they leave me and I have a higher percentage of students who enter AP programs and successfully complete them compared to teachers who give the traditional you-are-on-your-own-test. Give it a try. :)

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Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Howard Adelman, and his collaborator Linda Taylor, have done us a great favor by taking the time to share their outstanding work. Their last two links particularly highlight the work of Deci and Ryan, for those who wish to learn more but are not sure where to go. And the rest of their contributions are ways to apply the principles and practices of intrinsic motivation to a wide range of educational concerns, including teaching and mental health. Thank you for taking the time to share with us all!

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Imagine a school in which Juliet18's ideas are followed up with students over multiple years! Imagine the kind of learning-- and products-- these students would achieve! There is clearly not one right way to carry out education, but rather a set of principles whose guidance we can and should creatively follow, with appropriate evaluation. However, to optimize the impact, having shared understanding and coordinated methodologies from grade level to grade level is likely necessary.

Juliet18's picture
Juliet18
Middle grades LA, SS from Southeast USA

I agree that my method of teaching and assessing is unique, and that is one reason I track my students upon entering high school because I want to see if the benefits of my methodology is short term or long term. (I certainly don't want to weaken a student's study skills or content knowledge.) Admittedly, I designed this method of teaching with intrinsic motivation purely in mind for my own sanity, which is why I found this article so intriguing. Our school has a disproportionate number of extremely apathetic students (for various reasons beyond simply the home-life factor or economic disparity), and I needed a way to motivate them to do the "menial tasks" of learning (i.e., participating in class appropriately, bringing materials to class, attempting to learn the content at any level, etc.) My strategy is not 100% effective, but of all the strategies I've tried, it is the most broad based and long term I've ever implemented. I am always open for suggestions for teaching students intrinsic motivation, as education seems to be deeply woven with extrinsic motivation, which we all know is a very poor motivational tactic long term. I hope others will post their strategies promoting intrinsic motivation. I am a dry sponge ready to absorb! ;)

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

Very useful piece and I agree with pretty much everything here, but I do think it cam be productive to push back on the 'freedom v. order' dynamic. I think a lot of the time people say 'freedom' and what they really mean is 'anarchy.' True and appropriate freedom in a classroom actually has a great deal of order. This reminds me of two other pieces. The first focusing on the difference between responsibility and compliance1. And the second one on how students are more emotional beings than rational ones. 1) http://www.lettersfromelsewhere.com/responsibility-is-more-than-compliance/ 2) http://www.lettersfromelsewhere.com/1292-2/

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

I completely agree with your setup but I also think we can be more deliberate in helping students develop the skills they will need to tap into when they're given more freedom. Teaching the Design Thinking process, for instance, is something I've seen work. Teaching collaboration strategies can also help students work productively. I wish people just figured out how to do this with more practice but most adults who work in teams will know that this isn't the case.

abigail_pollak's picture
abigail_pollak
Marketing Assistant

Assessments are all about guiding where the instruction goes next. What this means is that teachers should ask the right questions in order to get valuable feedback which leads to a better understanding of the whole student.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Abigail, I think you have expressed such a deep and basic point with succinctness. My addendum is that we have to trust our teachers to ask these right questions, and ensure that their preparation addresses the needs of the whole student.

Christian's picture

I simply can't discuss autonomy and intrinsic motivation as it works with adolescents, as it works with each differently. I've loved cultivating autonomous activities, and timelines, and enrichment opportunities, etc. Some kids are simply hard-wired to take advantage. Some simply take advantage of the situation. Occasions of autonomy over, if I may paraphrase Dan Pink: 'time, team, task, and technique', must be considered carefully, and offered on a per kid basis. Classes fall apart if offered to all, but some individuals reach levels of understanding never achievable by the traditional pedagogical methods.

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