Autonomy Banner


Support students’ autonomy through opportunities for student decision making and direction

Autonomy Activities


In the following section, we provide multiple examples, options, and variations of activities and instructional strategies that are aligned with the Autonomy MDP in order to be as comprehensive and specific as possible. However, this does not mean that teachers must use all of these strategies to enact the Autonomy MDP, nor that these strategies are the only way to do so. We encourage teachers to use their professional discretion to select what will work best for them and their classrooms, and to modify and innovate on these strategies.

Because the five MDPs are synergistic, some activities found in this MDP overlap or align strongly with activities found in other MDP sections. This alignment is conveyed through color-coded dots in the activity-specific page (“Learn More”).

Provide opportunities for students to share their working and evaluation preferences

Conduct class votes on seating arrangement, options for collaborative and solo work, etc. to accommodate student preferences while still serving the learning objective

Invite students to contribute ideas for the rubric or evaluation criteria of a project

Convene periodic class meetings to amend norms/rules and solicit student input on how the class is operating

Hold periodic individual conferences to check in with students and offer them an opportunity to ask questions about the class, their learning goals, etc.

Have a resource table where supports relevant for a particular lesson (e.g., post-its, highlighters, chrome books, readings) are available to students and give students the choice to use them if needed or not. Provide students with ownership over their personal area of supplies (i.e., on top of or inside of their desks) where they keep various items including glue sticks, pencils, and a cell phone charger

Invite students to figure out how to explore a phenomenon or solve a design problem by soliciting ideas from students about what procedures and/or materials will accomplish the objective. Then allow the class to choose from these ideas when executing the lab

Provide an “Option A” and “Option B” (or additional options) for certain lab objectives/content/procedures. For example, if students are investigating simple machines, allow a choice of which simple machine to investigate. If labs call for repeated trials with varying amounts, consider dividing up the trials among the class and letting lab groups choose which ones they will perform

For group work, have students decide on group roles that will help them complete the task and let them choose their roles

Consider having students perform investigations themselves to explore phenomena or build prototypes to engage in problem solving (as opposed to the teacher carrying out the investigations or watching a video)

Plan for and set aside time for students to help set up lab materials

If a teacher is leading a demonstration for safety reasons, consider how to make small parts of it more interactive, such as inviting students to verify that the teacher has adequately completed certain procedural steps

Give groups white boards or poster paper when they are solving problems or visually representing their thinking, and/or explicitly state that multiple approaches/solutions, or different ways of communicating information are expected. Take time to ensure that students get to see/hear the different approaches (e.g., with a gallery walk or a discussion) and ask how students’ thinking has changed
  • Where possible/relevant, provide students with more modalities in how they can choose to demonstrate their thinking, e.g. graphs, diagrams, models, other visuals, orally, in writing

Develop procedures for whole-class discussion that support student autonomy in communication preferences. For example, allow students to decide who will share out from their groups rather than calling on students. When students need more time to respond, be supportive (e.g., come back to the student later or ask him/her to choose another group member for help)

During activities like share-outs or discussions, pay close attention to student behaviors that may reflect cultural differences or individual preferences, and be prepared to modify communication structures accordingly to allow for alternative modes of participation

Encourage students to take ownership of their own learning rather than always relying on the teacher by providing help-seeking routines/structures like “Ask 3 Then Me,” resource files posted around the room, hint cards for labs/assignments, or red-yellow-green status tags during independent/group work

When possible, use student-driven, project-based learning

Allow students’ questions/puzzles to drive the direction of learning by using organizers like KWLs, protocols or thinking routines like Project Zero’s Think/Puzzle/Explore, or simply giving students time to process and answer a warm-up question

Four Corners and other continuum activities allow students to “vote with their feet” by taking different stances (e.g., strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) and justifying their opinions to try to persuade others

A Driving Question Board provides time/opportunity for students to generate questions about a phenomenon or design problem at the beginning of a unit and to add questions as the unit progresses. Encourage students to research questions that arise that the class might not get to answer during the unit

Support students’ ability to generate and pursue their own questions through research or discussion by using a Question Matrix, teaching levels of questioning, and/or using question/sentence stems

Encourage students to use existing video resources like Khan Academy or YouTube as tools to seek out knowledge on their own

Structure in reflection time after tasks or at the end of class to give students an opportunity to think about their learning and decide on next steps, rather than merely following the teacher/curriculum

Turn and talk/think-pair-share activities allow all students to discuss their own ideas first with a partner, even if they don’t get voiced in the whole class

A “Chalk Talk,” or silent discussion on paper, allows all students to share and connect their ideas

Jigsaw protocols, which charge students with becoming “experts” on a component of a larger task or knowledge base, give students ownership and responsibility for learning and teaching new content

Frayer models provide a structure for students to demonstrate their understanding of vocabulary/new concepts by defining the concept in their own words and generating their own examples/connections/illustrations of the concept

If students are multilingual and choose to speak or write in non-English home languages for some tasks, encourage them to do so to explore their understanding and ask them to consider how they can share their thinking with the class as a next step

Identify specific discourse moves from the Talk Moves listed here, the Accountable Talk Sourcebook, the “Supporting Discussions” chapter of the Open SciEd Teacher Handbook, Talk Science Primer, and Discourse Primer for Science Teachers to practice using in classes to ensure that students receive follow-up questions to their comments and/or invitations to answer each others’ questions, rather than the teacher immediately evaluating the response

Use attention-getting strategies like countdowns, “if you can hear my voice, clap once,” or raised hands to get students’ attention instead of controlling language

Teach and use help-seeking norms such as “Ask 3 Then Me” that encourage students to ask each other for help before the teacher

When students are having difficulty engaging productively, have some ideas available (e.g., moving to a different seat, going for a short walk in the hallway, squeezing a stress ball) but prompt the students themselves to identify the best way to refocus themselves in the moment

Provide students with advance warning for content that could be upsetting to them

Provide students with an exit ticket where they can indicate their feelings about and/or thoughts on aspects of the lesson, especially a lesson that might provoke strong emotions

If students are upset or uncomfortable about performing certain tasks, provide alternatives as appropriate, such as:

  • Drawing a model of a frog’s body instead of participating in a dissection
  • Writing out the pros and cons of a controversial issue instead of participating in a live debate