Autonomy is the experience of being the author and origin of one's behavior—the subjective sense that one's moment-to-moment activity authentically expresses the self and its inner motivation. Behavior is autonomous when students freely endorse what they are doing in the classroom, and this inner endorsement of one's actions is most likely to happen when students' inner motivational resources (e.g., needs, interests, preferences) guide their on-going classroom engagement. Given this understanding of the nature of student autonomy, a definition of teacher-provided autonomy support can be offered. Autonomy support is the interpersonal behavior teachers provide during instruction to identify, nurture, and build students' inner motivational resources (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Reeve, Deci, & Ryan, 2004).
The opposite of autonomy support is controlling-ness. Controllingness is the interpersonal behavior teachers enact during instruction to gain students' compliance with a teacher-prescribed way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. As opposites, autonomy support and controllingness represent a single bipolar continuum of a teacher's motivating style toward students (Deci, Schwartz, Sheinman, & Ryan, 1981). When controlling, teachers have students put aside their inner motivational resources and instead adhere to the teacher's prescribed way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Controlling teachers motivate students by using extrinsic incentives and pressuring language to the point that students' classroom participation is regulated by external contingencies and pressuring language, not by their inner motivational resources.
Compared to students in classrooms managed by controlling teachers, students with autonomy-supportive teachers experience a wide range of educationally and developmentally important benefits. These benefits include not only greater perceived autonomy and greater psychological need satisfaction during learning activities but also greater classroom engagement, more positive emotionality, higher mastery motivation, greater intrinsic motivation, a preference for optimal challenge over easy success, higher creativity, enhanced psychological well-being, active and deeper information processing, greater conceptual understanding, higher academic achievement, and greater persistence in school versus dropping out (Black & Deci, 2000; Koestner, Ryan, Bernieri, & Holt, 1984; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Barch, & Jeon, 2004; Valler-and, Fortier, & Guay, 1997).
Because autonomy support promotes students' positive functioning in so many ways, researchers have worked to identify what specific instructional behaviors teachers with an autonomy-supportive style enact that differentiates their style from teachers with a relatively controlling style (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Assor, Kaplan, Kanat-Maymon, & Roth, 2005; Deci, Spiegel, Ryan, Koestner, & Kauffman, 1982; Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999; Reeve & Jang, 2006). Table 1 defines the central feature of both an autonomy-supportive and a controlling motivating style, and it lists the four essential features associated with both styles.
The essential core of an autonomy-supportive motivating style is the teacher's willingness to take the student's perspective during instruction and to deeply value, understand, and appreciate that perspective. When doing so, teachers work hard to identify, nurture, and build students' inner motivational resources. More concretely, the moment-to-moment expression of an autonomy-supportive
style can be seen in the instructional behaviors of nurturing students' inner motivational resources, relying on noncontrolling and informational language, promoting valuing, and acknowledging and accepting students' expressions of negative affect. Nurturing inner motivational resources means identifying and supporting students' needs, interests, and preferences during instruction. Relying on noncontrolling and informational language means uttering information-rich, competence-affirming messages that diagnose and explain why students are doing well and making progress. Promoting value means providing rationales to explain the underlying importance or usefulness of a requested activity, behavior, or procedure. Acknowledging and accepting students' expressions of negative affect means treating students' complaints and points of resistance as a valid reaction to imposed classroom structures and demands. These behaviors are all positively intercorrelated and, collectively, they set the stage for students to experience personal autonomy, psychological need satisfaction, and positive functioning in general (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The essential core of a controlling motivating style is the teacher's insistence on a prescribed right or best way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. That insistence is routinely paired with the use of pressuring language and extrinsic incentives to gain students' compliance with that prescription. In practice, the moment-to-moment expression of a controlling style during instruction can be seen in teachers' reliance on extrinsic sources of motivation (incentives, consequences, directives, compliance requests), relying on controlling and pressuring language (uttering a steady stream of “shoulds,” “have to's,” “got to's,” and “musts”), neglecting valuing (making little or no effort to explain why they are asking students to do unappealing or uninteresting activities), and power assertion (countering students' negative affect with authoritarian power assertions such as “Shape up” and “Just get the work done and quit your complaining”).
As is the case with autonomy-supportive teaching, autonomy-supportive parenting revolves around involving and nurturing (rather than neglecting and frustrating) students' psychological needs, personal interests, and integrated values (i.e., their inner motivational resources; Grolnick, 2003). An additional aspect of an autonomy-supportive style that is especially important during parenting is sensitivity to children's and adolescents' temperament-related dispositions (e.g., shyness, sociability). Sensitivity to students' temperament is autonomy-supportive because it allows students to act in ways that fit their internal dispositions, including their preferred activities, preferred pace of instruction, and preferred way of doing things.
Researchers assess motivating style with both self-report questionnaire measures and observational ratings from trained raters. Self-report measures include both teacher (and parent) reports of their own style as well as students' reports of the teacher's (and parent's) style. For the former, teachers rate their style using the Problems in Schools questionnaire. For the later, students rate their teachers' style using questionnaires such as the Learning Climate questionnaire (Williams & Deci, 1996) and the Perceptions of Parents Scale (Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1991). Most self-report measures of motivating style are available on-line. In addition, several studies rely on trained raters to objectively score teachers' motivating style during instruction. Raters score aspects of teachers' motivating style using the four bipolar scales summarized in Table 1.
During class, students can be curious, proactive, and highly engaged, or they can be alienated, reactive, and passive. Just how engaged students are during instruction and how much they develop themselves as autonomous learners depends, in part, on the autonomy supportive quality of the teacher's motivating style. From this point of view, students' motivation, engagement, and positive functioning during instruction are an interpersonally coordinated process between teacher and students. When teacher-student interactions go well—that is, when teachers support students' autonomy rather than control their behavior—teachers function both as a guide to structure students' learning opportunities and as a support system to nurture their existing inner resources and to help them develop new and constructive sources of autonomous motivation, such as internalized values.
The implication for teachers (and parents) is that supporting students' autonomy, rather than neglecting or even interfering with their autonomy, creates the conditions during learning activities in which students can experience an engagement-fostering congruence between what they want to do (their inner guides) and what they actually do during class. The positive implications of autonomy support, and the negative implications of teacher control, are many and wide-reaching. This is an exciting conclusion because classroom-based intervention research shows that teachers can learn how to be more autonomy supportive during instruction and also that the more teachers learn how to expand their style to incorporate a greater use of autonomy-supportive acts of instruction, the more their students benefit in terms of classroom engagement and academic achievement (deCharms, 1976).
Even when they acknowledge the strong relationship between supporting students' autonomy and students' positive classroom functioning, teachers often express two concerns over the practice of autonomy support. The first is the fear that if teachers' support students' autonomy, then student engagement would be uneven, off-task, or even irresponsible. But supporting autonomy does not mean removing structure. Instead, providing structure is a crucial aspect of effective instruction, so the crucial issue is not whether teachers provide structure but, rather, whether they provide that structure in an autonomy-supportive or in a controlling way (Reeve, 2006). The second concern is that autonomy-supportive instruction may not apply to all students in all educational contexts. This concern has been allayed by researchers showing the benefits of autonomy support for a diverse range of students, including students with special needs (Algozzine, Browder, Karovnen, Test, & Wood, 2001), international students in collectivistic cultures (Chirkov & Ryan, 2001), religiously motivated home school students (Cai, Reeve, & Robinson, 2002), and at-risk high school students in alternative school settings (Forstadt, 2006). The conclusion is that all students want and need autonomy and autonomy support and also that they benefit when teachers support their autonomy rather than control their behavior.
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Cai, Y., Reeve, J., & Robinson, D. T. (2002). Home schooling and teaching style: Comparing the motivating styles of home school and public school teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 372–380.
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