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

Organizing for Motivationally Supportive Classrooms

Effectively supporting student motivation throughout the year requires a strong foundation in positive classroom relationships and overall learning climate that cuts across disciplines and the five motivation design principles. Below are recommendations for how teachers might organize their classrooms at the beginning of the year to create this foundation for motivationally supportive instruction that can then be revisited and reinforced throughout the year. Recommendations are provided in two categories: the physical set-up of the classroom and “first-weeks” activities that are best introduced to students early in the academic year and then revisited periodically. Ideas are tagged with color-coded dots showing the alignment with MDPs.

Autonomy Classroom Organization

Physical Organization and Set-Up of the Classroom

Facilitating Student Work
Create flexible seating arrangements so that students can work together in different configurations, on differentiated tasks to ensure appropriate challenge, and to have sufficient space and access to materials for carrying out investigations.
  • Individual desks allow students to focus on individual tasks
  • Partnered desks allow students to work closely with a partner or to check in with a partner for assistance/feedback during individual work
  • Clustered desks or group tables support partner and group work
  • A circle or “U” of desks can support class discussions
Set up a resource table so that students can gather supplies as needed during a lesson.
Create classroom systems for students to submit and pick up work (including late work) on their own (e.g., using Google Classroom or bins at the entryway to the classroom).
Reserve space for a Driving Question Board[1a ,2a ] or a “suggestion box” of topics students are interested in learning about. Ideas for introducing a Driving Question Board are included under “Foundational Activities,” below.

Foundational Activities for Classroom Climate

Involve students in creating classroom norms and procedures, meaningful roles for effective cooperative learning in small groups, and ground rules for whole-class discussion and argumentation. Post these in the classroom and allow students to revisit and potentially revise these norms throughout the year.
  • Have students practice different small group roles in different configurations early in the year. Then, for subsequent group work, ask students to identify which roles are needed for the goal of the activity, and offer different combinations of structure and choice for students to select/assign roles (e.g., full choice, random draw, “you can pick your roles today, but think about a role you haven’t had much practice in”)
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-bias education) to help build a respectful, inclusive, and supportive classroom community that honors all student experiences, collectively agrees upon and upholds classroom norms, and establishes and promotes safety to share ideas and acknowledge personal values. For example, Learning for Justice offers a free, self-paced professional development module on using principles from culturally responsive pedagogy to develop classroom culture[3 ].
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity
Create a lab safety contract with students at the beginning of the year and have them sign it. Then remind students of that contract at the beginning of subsequent labs to encourage them to make good choices for the safety and productivity of the community.
Provide students an illustrated list of diverse professionals across science fields as an “explore as you wish” resource at the beginning of the year. Ask for 1 to 2 student volunteers each day to share out something they explored on their own.
Use a Driving Question Board (DQB)[1b ,2b ] where students are encouraged to generate their own questions. Writing down their own questions for the DQB helps students to direct their own learning and inquiry. The continued use of the DQB provides students with the ongoing opportunity to direct their own inquiry.
  • Tools like the Google Jamboard app,[4 ] which store questions to the cloud, can provide helpful resources for creating a DQB
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-bias education) to help invite all students into science, including those who may not have a well-developed science identity or who may feel alienated from science. For example, Dr. Kathy Chen from Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s STEM Education Center has compiled a list of anti-racism resources and articles for science educators[5 ]
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity