Why Giving Students Autonomy Makes Them More Engaged

I’ve written before on here about how giving students more autonomy is one of the biggest favors teachers can do both for their students and themselves. When teachers structure their classes in a way that supports students’ autonomy, students end up with a more fulfilling experience and teachers report higher job satisfaction.

Recently, a group of psychology and education researchers in China decided to look more in-depth about why this is the case. In particular, they wanted to see if they could sort out some of the reasons supporting students’ autonomy makes students more engaged.

In their study, they tracked 637 Chinese middle-school math students. They considered whether the students’ teachers tended to support student autonomy in the classroom and how engaged the students were. They also considered three other key variables:

  • Boredom: How bored students were with their classes
  • Self-efficacy: Whether students felt confident in their ability to efficiently meet their goals in their schoolwork
  • Intrinsic value: The extent to which students saw the material they were studying as having value in and of itself

It turned out that these three variables explained a lot of the benefits of being supportive of students’ autonomy. When teachers encouraged autonomy, their students tended to be less bored, to have higher feelings of self-efficacy, and to see their schoolwork as having intrinsic value. These changes in turn were linked to more student engagement.

The researchers also broke down the results in terms of three different kinds of student engagement: how engaged students were in terms of their emotions, their behaviors and their thoughts respectively.

Boredom, self-efficacy and intrinsic value had a significant influence on all three kinds of engagement, but the results were especially striking for emotional engagement. In fact, these three variables appeared to entirely explain the link between autonomy support and emotional engagement.

The findings add weight to the idea that encouraging student autonomy has important benefits in the classroom, and they give us an idea of why this might be the case too. It appears that students who are given more autonomy become less bored and more confident, and value their school work more, which may help set in motion all the other positive effects that come from promoting student’ independence.

Image: Flickr/US Department of Education