Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A Key to Motivating Students
Teacher’s Modules


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.

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