Barbara McCombs, PhD, University of Denver

Most teachers are frustrated by their unmotivated students. What they may not know is how important the connection is between student motivation and self-determination. Research has shown that motivation is related to whether or not students have opportunities to be autonomous and to make important academic choices. Having choices allows children to feel that they have control or ownership over their own learning. This, in turn, helps them develop a sense of responsibility and self-motivation. When students feel a sense of ownership, they want to engage in academic tasks and persist in learning. An example from first-hand experience of the author is contained in Link 1a.

Teachers have observed that after second or third grade, many students begin to show signs of losing their motivation to learn. What happened to that natural eagerness to go to school and the curiosity to learn that is so apparent in preschool, first, and second grade students? Why do students progressively seem to take less responsibility for their own learning? This challenge only grows as students move from upper elementary to secondary school levels. The research summary found in Link 1b and on other linked pages addresses how teachers can help students to be responsible and autonomous learners by giving them appropriate choices.

Many teachers fear that giving students more choice will lead to their losing control over classroom management. Research tells us that in fact the opposite happens. When students understand their role as agent (the one in charge) over their feeling, thinking, and learning behaviors, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning. To be autonomous learners, however, students need to have some choice and control. And teachers need to learn how to help students develop the ability to make appropriate choices and take control over their own learning.


Link 1a

This story began in a Colorado middle school in the United States that was working with Dr. McCombs on a project entitled “Neighbors Making a Difference.” This project was aimed at fostering positive relationships between teachers and their students (as well as between students and other meaningful adults in their immediate community). The goal of the project was to prevent student gang involvement and drug use.

Many of the teachers at this middle school were afraid of their “tough” students and had concluded that there was little they could do to reach them. Dr. McCombs decided to spend a day at the school and see for herself what was happening. She wanted to get a closer look at the dynamics between these ill-reputed students and their struggling and fearful teachers, so she followed a group of students throughout their day, sitting unobtrusively in the backs of their classrooms.

Dr. McCombs learned a lot that day. Afterwards, she somewhat wryly remarked that she was “amazed they [the students] weren’t schizophrenic.” What she saw in the different classes was like an “up and down roller coaster.” She saw students behaving themselves and cooperating in some classes and not in others. Dr. McCombs was also an eyewitness to a student fight in the hallways right before their last-period math class. She could not help but wonder to what length such students would go to disrupt the traditionally unpopular subject of math, especially at the end of a long school day.

To Dr. McCombs’ surprise, what she saw was a surreal, yet inspiring scene. Without even the visible presence of a teacher or other authority figure, the students filed into the mathematics class and immediately became quiet and self-disciplined. They picked out the appropriate materials from folders along the side of the classroom, sat down at their desks, paired up in pre-set groups and began working on their current computer projects. And all of this happened without the slightest command or provocation from a teacher.

Dr. McCombs finally saw the teacher kneeling in the back of the room looking for some reference materials. A student walked back to ask him a question and that was when it became obvious that the teacher had been there all along. As the students worked, the teacher walked around and checked their progress. Dr. McCombs realized that there was much to be learned from this teacher and his seemingly effortless style in facilitating a self-directed learning process for his students. After spending the day witnessing some of the other teachers desperately trying to control their students in rowdy and unruly classroom settings, in this class Dr. McCombs saw a teacher who trusted his students to be self-regulated and self-motivated. And that’s what was happening. Not only was the teacher freed from keeping his students in control, he also was able to support and engage students in meaningful assignments. The result was positive motivation without any student disturbances or complaints.

After the class was over, Dr. McCombs could not wait to ask the teacher how he achieved such an impressive feat — particularly in light of her previous experiences at the school. The teacher explained his philosophy about the natural desire to learn present in all students and the events that led him to his successful classroom environment. At the beginning of the year, the teacher simply and directly told the students that (paraphrasing): “This is your class ... we can do it any way you want as long you learn the math.” In other words, while the teacher did lay out some “non-negotiables” — the essential elements necessary to cover content standards and to ensure that the work got done — he largely left the overall options and details up to his students. Apparently, by leaving many of the choices and the rules for how the class should be managed up to his students, the teacher gained their respect and concentration. Most importantly, he met his students’ needs to have some choice and control — he instilled in them the ownership that allowed them to take responsibility for their own learning. He relayed that not only were students harder on themselves in setting up classroom rules than he would have been, but because they felt ownership, it was their class and they enforced the rules. His job was easier and he helped instill in his students a sense of responsibility and motivation that transcended everything except their desire to learn. This experience culminated in the inspiration for a book, published by the American Psychological Association, that Dr. McCombs wrote with this wise teacher, titled “otivating Hard-to-Reach Students.

Link 1b

Interestingly, this phenomenon of taking less and less responsibility for their own learning is related to the fact that in many school systems, students have progressively fewer opportunities to make choices as they proceed from elementary through secondary school (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Otis, Grouzet, & Pelletier, 2005). For example, in kindergarten and early elementary years, students are often given choices and encouraged to pursue topics of interest to them. As schooling progresses, however, learning typically becomes more prescribed and fewer choices are provided to students.

Dos and don’ts
General recommendations to teachers

A key to motivating students is helping them see that they can take responsibility for their own learning. The Math Story (Link 1a) shows that tying learning to students’ personal interests, letting students work together with other students to meet learning goals, and giving students a voice in their own learning is beneficial in motivating students.

Teaching that fosters motivation to learn is a thoughtful process of aligning student choices so that students see the value of these choices as tools for meeting their learning needs and goals.  At the same time, teachers must set clear learning goals and help students understand that the choices they are allowed to make are within the context of the learning goals set by the teacher. Some general principles revealed by research include:

  • Teachers should set clear performance standards at the beginning of a course or class. Students need to know exactly what is expected of them, how they will be graded, and what supports will be available to them if they need help learning the information or skills.

Students learn that they can be successful if they meet clear performance requirements (Ames, 1992; Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Seidel, Perencevich, & Kett, 2005). When students see that they can be successful, teachers have an opportunity to talk with them about how the standards and expectations are related to their own personal interests or to the skills they will need to succeed in life.

  • Teachers should provide meaningful choices to students so that students will develop a sense of ownership over the learning process. As part of the process of offering these choices, teachers must be clear about how the choices relate to the learning objectives.

For example, teachers can provide students with choices about how they may demonstrate mastery of a concept, approach particular assignments, work independently or with peers, and achieve at their levels of competency. When students have the opportunity to be involved in making these choices, they will take increased responsibility for their own learning (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; d”Ailly, 2004; Deci & Ryan, 2002; McCombs & Pope, 1994; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). 

For example, begin new learning tasks with opportunities for students to ask questions and seek help from their teacher or peers if they are having difficulty understanding concepts or performances required of them (King, Staffieri, & Adelgais, 1998; Narciss, 2004; Seidel, Perencevich, & Kett, 2005). Students learn to use feedback from their teacher and peers to change their conception of how competent they are in different subjects or learning activities. Feedback also helps students make better learning choices.

  • Teachers should encourage students to assess their own learning progress by using charts or journals, so they can evaluate the progress they are making as they acquire relevant knowledge and skills.

As students learn to monitor their progress, they become more motivated by their successes and begin to acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility for the role they play in these successes. (Bandura, 1997; Borkowshi, Carr, Rellinger, & Pressley, 1990; Kanfer & McCombs, 2000 Paris & Winograd, 1990; Schunk, 1994). To further optimize the benefits of these general practice guidelines, teachers should keep in mind the following “Do’s and “Don’t’s:”


Begin new learning tasks with opportunities for students to ask questions and get help from their teacher or peers if they are having difficulty understanding the concepts or performances required of them (King, Staffieri, & Adelgais, 1998; Narciss, 2004; Seidel, Perencevich, & Kett, 2005).

Provide students with meaningful choices consistent with learning objectives (e.g., what work they want to do, what relevant topics they want to study) and exercises that encourage self-monitoring of their comprehension (e.g., becoming aware of their understanding of the materials by a variety of strategies such as those in Link 1c and tracking their learning progress (e.g., keeping track of their learning progress in a journal) (Bandura, 1997; Reeve, Nix, & Hamm, 2003; Schunk, 1994; Zimmerman, 1994: Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001).

Help students deal with inevitable disappointment that comes when they don’t perform as well as they hoped they would. For example, students can be taught strategies for using mistakes as learning opportunities and for controlling the negative emotions that can interfere with learning. Some of these strategies are shown in Link 1d (Elias, Bruene-Butler, Blum, & Schuyler, 1997; Zins, Elias, Greenberg, & Weissberg, 2000; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).

Praise students for doing well on their assignments and for putting in extra effort. Use specific praise that tells students what they did well and for which learning processes and skills they are being praised (e.g., Bandura, 1977, 1993, 1997; McCombs, 1986, 2001, 2002, 2006; Pajares, 1997; Schunk, 1989, 1994). For more information, please refer to the module on Using Praise to Enhance Student Resilience and Learning Outcomes.

Involve students in setting objectives, then individualize objectives in line with curriculum standards, student interests and choices (Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; McCombs & Miller, 2006; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004). For example, students can become involved in setting their own learning goals through guided class discussions where teachers state the learning goals and possible variations in achieving those goals. In small group discussions, students can share their personal interests and then see how these fit with the teacher’s list. By helping students define their personal learning goals and objectives, teachers can guide students to see whether these are consistent not only with their own interests but also how they can be aligned with curriculum standards and expectations.

Appeal to student interest and curiosity by introducing the unfamiliar through the familiar. For example, teachers can use students’ current knowledge, interests and experiences with a familiar concept, such as trying to master a videogame, to describe the background mathematics and programming that allows the games to work. Students might then be given a choice about designing a particular game routine related to these concepts.

Reward success with praise and model how students can monitor their own progress and success with self-reward strategies (Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). These self-reward strategies include doing a favorite activity if they can accomplish their learning goals on time.


Link learning successes or failures to students’ lack of ability or intelligence. Students can’t change fixed abilities, but they can change learning habits and behaviors like effort and persistence. (For more information, please see the module on Using praise to enhance student resilience and learning outcomes.) (e.g., Ames, 1992; Dweck, 2002; Eccles & Wigfield, 1992; Graham, Taylor, & Hudley, 1998; Weiner, 2000).

Compare individual or groups of students with each other in terms of how quickly or well they learn new material. Learning is an individual process and students need to feel good about how they approach learning tasks, engage in learning the tasks, whether or not they persevere in the face of difficulties and how they handle disappointments and challenges (e.g., Klem & Connell, 2006; Sternberg, 2006). 

Pair struggling students with students of higher ability or greater knowledge and skills, as this may result in students becoming dependent (rather than independent) learners. Unless higher ability students are trained to work as positive tutors, motivation to learn can suffer (e.g., Harter, 2006; King, Staffieri, & Adelgais, 1998; O’Donnell, 1999).

Engage in teaching strategies that allow students to be passive. Instead, engage their curiosity and promote active learning (Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005; Pietsch, Walker, & Chapman, 2003). Passive teaching strategies provide students with the answers and give them little voice or choice. True engagement means letting students pursue their own questions or solve their own problems.

Ask students to copy your learning strategies. Instead try to increase their awareness of themselves as self-regulated and strategic learners (d’Ailly, 2003, 2004; Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; Reeve, Nix, & Hamm, 2003). Although modeling a learning strategy and asking students to emulate this strategy in their own work is helpful, this is not as effective as “talking aloud” about why a particular strategy is effective and how it works for them. Students should also be encouraged to evaluate how a strategy is working for them in improving their learning or comprehension. See Link 1e for an example.

Fragment information without showing students how the fragments connect to form the whole, or “big picture” (APA, 1997; Jensen, 1998; McCombs, 2004; Tobias, 1990). Presenting isolated facts without relating them back to the overall theme or concept being taught only causes students to lose interest. This is particularly true if they are not allowed to ask questions or contribute to solving problems associated with the activity.

Provide students with choices without also helping them become more aware of their own needs, interests, preferences, internalizations, values, goals and aspirations. Choice by itself is not effective unless students develop the “capacity to choose” what best meets their personal learning needs and goals (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; McCombs & Miller, 2006). See Link 1f for some examples.


Link 1c

Some approaches found to be helpful in monitoring comprehension when students are reading a text is for teachers to model the following strategies (Baumann, Seifert-Kessell, & Jones, 1992; Payne & Manning, 1992): 

  • Identify words that are unfamiliar 

  • Identify sentences or phrases that are not clear 

  • Look for clues 

  • Think about what they already know 

  • Restate difficult passages in their own words

Link 1d

Those studying social and emotional learning have found effective strategies that may help students control the negative emotions that can interfere with learning (Sins et al., 200; Zins et al., 2004). Some of these strategies include: 

  • Helping students identify and label their feelings 

  • Teaching students to conduct an “inner dialogue” where they use self talk to turn around negative thinking 

  • Learning to see the current situation as part of a bigger process in which it is normal to have some setbacks 

  • Helping students see that with additional effort they can overcome learning difficulties 

  • Encouraging students to find learning partners who can work with them on areas where they are having difficulty

Link 1e

In talking about what teachers can do to teach dispositions such as self-regulated learning, Tishman, Jay, and Perkins (1992) say that teachers should model metacognition. Examples include talking aloud about their thinking while solving a math problem or revealing their mental machinations while making a careful decision. Teachers may also want to use visual exemplars that hang on the classroom walls. For example, posters can be put up to illustrate metacognition, such as a picture of a girl with a thought-bubble above her head showing her reminding herself to stand back and take stock of her thinking, or expressing a catchy slogan that reminds students to think about their thinking as they work.

Link 1f

To help students develop the capacity to make choices for themselves, teachers need to help students understand their learning interests and capacities. Teachers can show students how to make learning choices and monitor the positive and negative consequences of their choices. This is a trial-and-error process that requires teacher support, modeling and encouragement. For example, if a student expresses interest in reading a particular novel as an English assignment, but then finds that s/he is having trouble understanding it because of unfamiliar words, the teacher can recommend a similar novel that has lower level vocabulary. The teacher can also have the student make a list of the unfamiliar words and look up their meanings.

Why do these recommendations work?

Researchers studying student engagement, motivation and self-regulated learning generally agree that these connected concepts are important for learning and achieving success in school. From a theoretical perspective, this is supported by the self-determination theory of motivation advanced by Deci and Ryan (1985, 2002). This theory states that if students can be supported in meeting their basic needs for competency, autonomy and relatedness in learning situations, they are more likely to develop into independent, self-directed and lifelong learners. Furthermore, extensive research on Deci and Ryan’s theory has shown that under specific conditions, autonomy-supportive settings in the classroom have positive effects on self-regulated learning and motivation. Autonomy supportive classrooms are those in which students see their perspectives valued, have opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings, and are encouraged to make choices and exercise self-initiative in learning activities. Further research support can be found in Link 2.

Autonomous learner

From those studying metacognition (Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; McCombs, 1986, 1988; McCombs & Marzano, 1990), it has been found that students can learn to step outside their beliefs about themselves and their abilities and understand that they are the master or agent in reframing these beliefs. Students can be helped to see how their beliefs are able to influence their expectations, feelings, motivation and behavior. Once students understand their own role in creating and constructing their thoughts and beliefs, they can take increased responsibility in regulating their thinking, feelings and behavior. This will often lead to higher levels of motivation, learning and achievement. Metacognition has generally been defined as one's capacity to "think about thinking" or to "be aware of and in control of one's thinking processes." Metacognition is thus a key area of research because it shows that if students learn how to control their thinking they become more autonomous and self-regulated learners. See Link 3 for further research support in this area.

Related to the concept of metacognition, there is also research on the variety of strategies available for helping students learn how to express their emotions in positive ways. In addition, this research offers techniques for students to monitor how their emotions and motivation influence their learning. One of the strongest sources of evidence for how students can learn about the role of affect (the scientific term used to describe a person's externally displayed mood) in their own thinking and learning processes comes from work on emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning (see for example McCombs, 2004; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). The most effective strategies involve enhancing students’ abilities to recognize and manage their emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish pro-social goals, solve problems and use a variety of interpersonal skills to handle developmentally relevant tasks. Training programs in social and emotional skills can be effectively integrated into the academic program so that students learn to work collaboratively with others and manage negative emotions and stresses.

Other relevant research connects the role of affect in thinking and learning with the social nature of learning and the importance of positive teacher-student relationships. These relationships help establish a positive context and climate for learning. In a positive environment, students feel caring from peers, free to make mistakes, capable of expressing their voice and able to make appropriate learning choices. See Link 4 for further sources related to the role of emotion in self-regulation.

In addition to enhancing student motivation to learn, research shows a number of other benefits that come from providing more learner choice and control. These include greater displays of active planning and self-monitoring of learning, higher levels of student awareness of their own progress and achievement, more resourcefulness and efficiency in using learning resources, and higher levels of sensitivity to the social learning context (Zimmerman, 1994). Benefits can also include broader educational outcomes such as staying in school, higher academic performance, self-regulation of learning such as doing schoolwork, feelings of competence and self-esteem, enjoyment of academic work, and satisfaction with school (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Further studies showing the benefits of learner choice can be found in Link 5.


Link 2

Reeve, Nix and Hamm (2003) have conducted extensive classroom studies that show when teachers offer students choices, the choices are more likely to increase self-determination and intrinsic motivation when they are presented along with other facilitating conditions: acknowledging negative feelings, providing rationale for unappealing choices, and asking students questions about what they do and do not want to do.

It is also worth noting that when McCombs and her colleagues integrated large bodies of research on the psychological processes and structures underlying self-regulated and autonomous learning (McCombs, 1988; McCombs & Marzano, 1990; McCombs & Whisler, 1989), they confirmed that learners are capable of engaging in a number of higher-order processes for controlling lower-order cognitive, affective, and motivational processes. These higher order or metacognitive processes primarily consist of self-appraisal and self-management of thoughts and feelings; they fundamentally involve realizing the role of the self as agent in the learning process (McCombs & Marzano, 1990; McCombs, 1991). School-age students learn the role that thinking plays in their feelings and behaviors. Teachers can model this by showing that it isn’t necessary to be a victim of negative thinking and feelings.

Link 3

Metacognitive knowledge and skills provide the basic structure for the development of positive self-control and self-regulation of one's thinking and feelings (Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; McCombs, 1986, 1988; McCombs & Marzano, 1990). For optimum development of metacognitive capacities, however, developmental psychologists emphasizie that individuals need to have a relatively well-defined and stable self-identity that can give rise to self-awareness (see Harter, 2006). It is this self-awareness that is the basis for self-regulation (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). This was borne out in research by Cervone et al. (2006) demonstrating that self-regulation provides a link to various forms of self-control in human perceptual, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive systems. For students to become more proficient at self-regulation, they need to be given opportunities to follow their own learning plans and goals and rewarded when these goals are accomplished.

Enhancing students' higher-level metacognitive processes, in general, and reflective self-awareness, in particular, has been shown to have beneficial motivational and performance effects (e.g., Perry, 2003; Ridley, 1991). When students become more aware that they are the ones constructing particular thoughts, and they are the ones directing or controlling these thoughts and thinking processes, their motivation is increased to acquire and/or use metacognitive strategies that can sharpen these skills and make learning more fun. Such strategies include executive control, conscious planning, goal-setting and self-regulation of their own learning and learning processes. In addition, evidence suggests that the process is reciprocal. As students are provided master strategies for monitoring, regulating, and managing their thinking and learning, a sense of personal agency is developed (e.g., Borkowski, Carr, Rellinger, & Pressley, 1990; Paris & Winograd, 1990; Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Results include not only higher levels of motivation, but also higher levels of achievement on a variety of learning measures.

To help students understand the relationships between a sense of agency and their own motivation, psychologists and educational researchers have for decades studied the influence of individual learner perceptions and thinking on their emotions (affect), motivation, learning, achievement and other behaviors in a variety of learning settings (e.g., Cervone, Shadel, Smith, & Fiori, 2006; Combs, 1962; Do & Schallert, 2004; Marshall & Weinstein, 1986; McCombs, 1999; Rogers, 1961). As reviewed by Seidel, Perencevich, and Kett (2005) affect and motivation in learning can be viewed from two perspectives: (1) learning to express emotions, and (2) how affect and motivation influence learning. Both of these perspectives have considerable research support.

Link 4

The past century has been a journey through research on a variety of learning theories. Those theories alternately focused on behavioral, emotional, and/or cognitive aspects of learning. But today research on learning has an integrated focus based on the growing recognition from various perspectives (e.g., neurological brain research, psychological research) that meaningful, sustained learning is a whole person phenomenon.

Brain research shows that affect and cognition work together so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, with emotion driving attention, learning, memory and other mental activities (e.g., Jensen, 1998). Research even shows that when it comes to learning, intellect and emotion are inseparable (e.g., Elias, Zins et al., 1997; Lazarus, 2000). Likewise, emotional intelligence is important to all aspects of positive human functioning and health (e.g., Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Zins, Elias, Greenberg, & Weissberg, 2000).

Elias, Bruene-Bulter et al. (1997) discuss a number of research studies, including those in neuropsychology, demonstrating that many elements of learning are based on relationships. Social and emotional skills are essential for the successful development of cognitive thinking and learning skills. Whisler (1991) presented research evidence demonstrating the powerful influence of positive teacher-student relationships on motivation and learning. More recently, Pianta (1999) and Wentzel (2002) confirmed the positive relationships between caring teachers and students’ positive emotional adjustment and learning. Murdock, Miller, and Kohlhardt (2004) report that high school students are more likely to cheat when they perceive their teachers as less caring. This is an indirect way in which affect influences learning.

A considerable amount of research has shown that emotions and self-views have specific effects on academic outcomes. For example, studies by O’Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus (2006) show that interventions (e.g., explicit metacognitive training, praise, feedback) aimed at changing students’ views of themselves as successful learners in different subjects can be effective in changing adolescents’ self-evaluations. In turn, researchers have shown that increases in students’ self-evaluations positively impact their motivation, learning, and achievement (e.g., McCombs & Miller, 2006; Narciss, 2004; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Further, Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci (2004) report that students’ depth of processing, test performance and persistence in learning all increased when they were in autonomy-supporting classrooms where teachers allowed students a degree of choice and control over learning options.

Link 5

Research from the psychological sciences confirms that providing students with choice, or other conditions that stimulate natural curiosity and motivation to learn, causes the negative impact of low motivation to all but disappear (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2001; Lambert and McCombs, 1998; McCombs & Whisler, 2997; McCombs & Miller, 2006; Pintrich, 2003). The research also points to very specific student, teacher and instructional characteristics that teachers can focus on to turn around negative motivational patterns and enhance students’ natural motivation to learn. One very important student characteristic that teachers can influence is students’ sense of self-efficacy or sense of confidence in their ability to be successful learners in different classrooms and different subjects (e.g., Bandura, 1977, 1993, 1997; McCombs, 1986, 2001, 2002, 2006; Pajares, 1997; Schunk, 1989, 1994).

Does providing strategies to increase choice and control of one’s learning hurt some students’ (unintended consequences)?

In general, providing autonomous yet supportive contexts, as well as giving students appropriate choice and control, are positive boosts to motivation and achievement (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004). As indicated in the “Do’s and Don’t’s” section of this module, choices should be accompanied by instruction in self-regulation and self-awareness strategies that increase students’ sense of confidence in themselves as efficacious learners. Some studies have indicated that if students overestimate their confidence, it can have future detrimental effects on motivation and achievement outcomes. They may overestimate their ability and become discouraged when they fail. With proper exercise of the strategies recommended here, this potential unintended consequence should be minimal or absent.

Does providing students with more choice and control work for learning in all academic subjects?

The strategies for enhancing students’ sense of agency (the understanding that one is responsible for taking charge of and regulating one’s own learning) described in this module generally work for learning in all academic subject areas. Some research (Narciss, 2004; Pietsch, Walker, & Chapman, 2003) has shown that there are advantages to tailoring strategies to the specific content areas, such as in reading and mathematics. Examples were presented earlier in the “Do’s and “Don’t’s” section.

How does a teacher evaluate the effectiveness of a particular intervention?

Teachers can construct their own evaluation tools, such as a short pre/post student survey, to evaluate whether the use of the intervention is making a difference for student motivation and learning. Good indicators of student motivation include the effort students put into assignments, whether or not they persist in the face of failure, whether or not they engage in learning activities on their own time, and whether or not they choose to pursue opportunities for more in-depth learning of a topic. Teachers can also have periodic class discussions and ask students how a particular intervention is helping them make better learning choices and improve self-regulation. They can also be asked about what improvements or changes they would suggest.

How long should this intervention last?

As with most interventions that involve teaching students new habits of mind and behaviors, consistency and repeated use of the strategies are recommended. Involving students in choices and having them take increased responsibility for their learning work best when they become a habit. To sustain students’ sense of efficacy and confidence as they make choices throughout the school years (and beyond), the best strategy is for all PreK-12 teachers to be educated in using this intervention. To further sustain the length of this intervention, teachers should try to understand how their own beliefs and beliefs of their students differ depending on cultural and ethnic differences.

Why does increasing student choice and control work?

When students first enter school, they generally feel confident in their ability to learn and to direct their own learning. Repeated failures, criticisms from teachers or peers, negative family influences or attitudes and a variety of other factors can undermine students’ natural autonomy, curiosity and motivation to learn. Students need help with getting back in touch with their natural motivation and curiosity, as well as helping them master strategies for self-regulation. Confident learners are a reflection of the connection between positive self-beliefs, motivation and learning outcomes (Harter, 2006; McCombs & Whisler, 1989; Sternberg, 2006).

Where can I get more information?

The following books, designed for teachers, describe strategies for helping students become more autonomous and motivated learners:

Elias, M. J., Bruene-Butler, L., Blum, L., & Schuyler, T. (1997). How to launch a social and emotional learning program. Educational Leadership, 54(8), 15-19.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

McCombs, B. L. (2007). Strategies for generating positive affect in high school students. In R. J. Seidel & A. L. Kett (Eds.), Workbook companion for: Principles of learning to strategies for instruction, a needs-based focus on high school adolescents. Norwell, MA: Springer.

McCombs, B. L. & Pope, J. E. (1994). Motivating hard to reach students. In B. L. McCombs, & S. McNeely (Eds.), Psychology in the classroom: A mini-series on applied educational psychology. Washington, DC: APA Books.

McCombs, B. L., & Miller, L. (2007). Learner-centered classroom practices and assessments: Maximizing student motivation, learning, and achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Paris, S. G., & Winograd, P. (1990). How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction. In B. F. Jones & L. Idol (Eds.), Dimensions of thinking: A framework for curriculum and instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Zins, J. E., Elias, M. J., Greenberg, M. T., & Weissberg, R. P. (2000). Promoting social and emotional competence in children. In K. M. Minke & G. G. Bear (Eds.), Preventing school problems – promoting school success: Strategies and programs that work (pp. 71-99). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

The references at the end of the module also provide many sources of information on this topic.

For whom does the strategy work?

The successful Perry Preschool Program used the HighScope curriculum as part of Head Start since the early to mid 1960s, demonstrating that young children can be supported in their natural abilities to be self-regulated and autonomous learners (Barnett, 1996; Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993; Schweinhart et al., 2005). Longitudinal studies spanning over 40 years have shown that supporting students in their planning skills as well as encouraging them to review their academic work has demonstrated lasting effects. When students master metacognitive skills, they gain the confidence to be successful learners and take charge of their own learning. As children get older, they learn more sophisticated metacognitive strategies that support their developmental need to feel competent and self-determined.

What developmental differences in children would modify the way you implement the strategy?

Autonomous learnerEven young children develop perceptions of their competence, self-determination or autonomy in learning situations. Students’ understandings and beliefs about motivation become more differentiated and complex over time as they increase their understandings of what it means to be intelligent and capable as a learner.
During middle childhood (grades 3 to 6), a sense of relatedness (to teachers in particular) becomes increasingly important. That is why positive teacher-student relationships provide an essential foundation for helping students become more autonomous and responsible for their own learning and motivation. The role of appropriate choice and control during these middle years is vital to students’ ongoing engagement and academic motivation.

In the upper elementary and secondary school years, students’ intrinsic motivation to learn has been found to decrease gradually. This becomes more obvious from 8th to 10th grade and during other major times of school transition such as between elementary and middle school and middle school and high school. These declines have been associated with school practices that deprive students of opportunities for self versus external regulation and choice/autonomy.

Further information about what research says regarding developmental differences can be found in Link 6.

What do we know about moderating variables?

Research has shown over the past several decades that interventions directed at helping students increase their sense of agency or efficacy can be successful across grade levels, content disciplines, and a variety of individual differences (gender, ethnic group, socioeconomic group, abilities and disabilities). For example, several researchers have found that students from different cultural and ethnic groups have different beliefs about efficacy, competence, control and self-worth. On the other hand, recent research in China has shown that the construct of autonomy that is part of the Deci and Ryan (2002) intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory has similar meanings for Chinese children in grades 4-6 as American age peers (d’Ailly, 2003).

Kindergarten Elementary School Middle School High School

Research has also shown that the effects of instruction, learning environments and teacher differences are important to enhancing student self-efficacy, motivation to learn and learning achievement outcomes. The teacher’s own level of self-efficacy or confidence in his/her ability to teach and reach a variety of students has been shown to be important. Other important variables include: classroom goal structures, individual student achievement goals and cultural differences. All of these variables impact motivation and achievement in the classroom. What this means for teachers is that they need to be aware of their own levels of confidence when working with students. They also need to be sensitive to different influences and/or interpretations of social behaviors for students of different cultural backgrounds in terms of their own and other students’ ways of relating. See Link 7 for further research evidence on moderating variables.


Link 6

Developmental psychologist Susan Harter has studied how perceptions of self and of competence in various life and learning areas occurs (see for example Harter, 2006). Her research over more than 30 years confirms that perceptions of competence and autonomy emerge in pre-K through primary grades and become more fixed in the periods of preadolescence and adolescence (Upper Elementary, Middle, and High School grades). Developmental psychologists working in the area of achievement motivation also contend that important changes in the concept of the self occur between early, middle, and late childhood (see for example, Dweck, 2002: Wigfield & Eccles, 2002). During the middle childhood developmental period, Furrer and Skinner (2003) have shown that girls report higher relatedness to teachers than boys, but relatedness to teachers was a stronger predictor of engagement for boys. Feelings of relatedness to teachers dropped from 5th to 6th grade, but findings show that relatedness to teachers is even more important to engagement and academic achievement for 6th graders.

Research has documented the declines in intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility for learning as students progress from upper elementary through high school (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Otis, Grouzet, & Pelletier, 2005). In addition, Eccles and Roeser (1999) have found that motivation declines across major school transitions, indicating there is a mismatch between the child’s developmental level and the demands of middle and high schools. Research also indicates that school adjustment in early adolescence (7th and 8th grades) is significantly related to students’ intrinsic motivation and the belief that they are responsible for taking charge of and regulating their own learning (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Walls & Little, 2005).

Link 7

Research documents differences in how students from different cultural and ethnic groups view themselves as learners (cf. Deci & Ryan, 1985; Graham, 1994; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Holloway, 1988; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001; Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002; Peng, Nisbett, & Wong, 1997). For example, d’Ailly (2004) in comparing 5th and 6th graders from Canada and Taiwan, found somewhat different effects of providing choice for Canadian versus Chinese children and between boys versus girls.

Studies reveal that there are important instructional, learning environment, and teacher differences that contribute to the development of autonomous and responsible learners (Lodewyk & Winne, 2005; McCombs, 2004; McCombs & Miller, 2006; McCombs & Pope, 1994; Pintrich, 2003; Urdan, 2004). Furthermore, Australian researchers have found that in addition to instructional context variables, it is important for teachers to broaden their own socio-cultural perspectives so that they can understand how individual students are influenced by social and cultural factors in the classroom that arise from the teacher’s or other classmates’ behaviors (Walker, Pressick-Kilborn, Arnold, & Sainsbury, 2004).


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