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

Autonomy NGSS Connections

NGSS Connections

In this section, we first explain the synergy between this MDP and the eight science and engineering practices, then provide examples, options, and variations of activities and instructional strategies that are aligned with this MDP for each science and engineering practice. However, this does not mean that teachers must use all of these strategies to enact this MDP when promoting the science and engineering practice, 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.
Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Asking questions and defining problems drives science and engineering. Scientific questions arise from the curiosity of a researcher, predictions of a model, or findings from previous investigations. Engineering design problems arise from an unmet need or desire. Ultimately, however, the decision of which question to answer or problem to solve arises from the scientist or engineer. For students to engage in authentic scientific inquiry and engineering design, they must experience a sense of autonomy over the questions and problems they attempt to answer and solve. The constraints that a typical science teacher must navigate do not always allow teachers to provide complete autonomy over the science questions and engineering problems that students work on. However, by supporting student autonomy in asking questions, teachers can give students opportunities to exercise agency in their scientific inquiry and engineering designs that reflect authentic practice.


Leave time at the end of class for students to reflect upon their learning (over the course of the unit or lesson) and write questions that they have, what they would like to learn next, and what they would like to know by the end of the unit.
Use a Driving Question Board: In addition to generating scientific questions of interest about a phenomenon or defining design problems at the beginning of a unit, also provide time/opportunity for students to add sub-questions as the unit progresses. Encourage students to research questions that interest them that the class might not get to answer during the unit.
Affirm scientific questions or wonderings that students pose spontaneously in class, even if there is insufficient time to engage with them in the moment. Use structures like the Driving Question Board or a parking lot to store the questions and model the value of considering many questions.
Use talk moves, as in Accountable Talk, the “Supporting Discussions” chapter of the Open SciEd Teacher Handbook, Talk Science Primer, and Discourse Primer for Science Teachers, to promote students’ confidence in directing conversation, asking scientific questions of each other, actively listening, and building off of one another’s ideas.

Developing models involves reflection and opportunities for evaluation and iteration, which requires students to make decisions and direct the modeling process in order to understand a phenomenon or solve a design problem. It is important that students have the autonomy to make choices about their models that are consequential to their science learning and to the representation of scientific phenomena (e.g., inclusion of mechanisms, components of a system, representations of components, or relationships that can be used to explain or predict phenomena), rather than merely making choices about surface features of the model (color, size, materials, etc.). Additionally, multiple representations of the same phenomenon or design problem can be valid, so promoting students’ autonomous model development is critical to authentic scientific and engineering practice.


Have students brainstorm possible models, representations, and relationships to produce as many ideas as possible. Keep copies of earlier models so that students have a visual record of different options and changes in thinking over time as they figured out a phenomenon or solved a problem.
Encourage students to be creative in developing a model that explains a phenomenon or illustrates solutions to a problem. Prepare and use probing and clarifying questions to ask students while they are developing their models that will push students to further explore and develop unique representational forms of the ideas in their model.
When models are revised, provide time in class or a writing prompt for students to explain the changes they made to their original models and the rationale for those decisions.
When models are revised, provide time in class or a writing prompt for students to explain the changes they made to their original models and the rationale for those decisions.
Rather than tell students that a particular model will provide evidence to answer a scientific question, ask students to think about what models might help answer a scientific question and the evidence generated by those models that would help answer the question.
Use models as the basis for determining the next learning activity. After producing models, students can be prompted to generate new scientific questions, make predictions, communicate ideas, test possible solutions, etc. In other words, the development and use of models should be a generative activity that informs subsequent learning to understand a phenomenon or design solutions to problems, not just a summative assessment or an assignment for points.

The goal of an investigation is to “figure something out.” Authentic investigative experiences require sufficient student agency to make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems, ask new questions, and explore ideas of interest; and provide sufficient opportunities for cognitive autonomy so that students are engaged in the “figuring out.” Creating these conditions could take the form of supporting student ownership of the investigation’s purpose and next steps by encouraging students to generate ideas or questions about a phenomenon or design problem to drive the investigation. Developing the skills to plan investigations requires student autonomy to design procedures to accomplish a certain objective. Even when the investigation is a little more pre-determined because of students’ age, skill level, or safety concerns, autonomy can be supported by prompting students to think through the rationale for the investigation procedures. The safety risks of some investigations may mean that teachers must dictate specific constraints on what is possible in the lab, limiting full student control over how to conduct an investigation, but it is important to find opportunities to support other types of student autonomy in these situations.


Have students identify the meaningful roles for a particular group investigation and self-select their roles as they engage in activities to figure out a phenomenon or solve a design problem. For example:
  • Big ideas (BI) person. This person pulls the group (occasionally) back to the scientific purpose of the activity. (Often a group will get too wrapped up in the rote execution of the directions)
  • Clarifier. This is a role of monitoring everyone’s comprehension about one or two key science terms related to the investigation
  • Questioner. This person asks probing questions during the activity, listens for questions posed by other group members, and then revoices the questions to make sure that the whole group takes a moment to hear and entertain questions from everyone
  • Skeptic. This person tries to strengthen the group’s work by probing for weaknesses in the developing investigation
  • Progress monitor. This person asks others to periodically take the measure of the group’s progress
Involve students in creating a lab safety contract at the beginning of the year that outlines guidelines that students pledge to follow when carrying out investigations in the classroom. Review and update the safety contract as necessary throughout the year. This helps to communicate important safety considerations for investigations but involves the students as autonomous individuals signing on to participate in that process, rather than feeling controlled by the teacher.
When students are unfamiliar with how to conduct investigations or when an investigation is too dangerous for students to conduct on their own, continue to support their autonomy in “smaller” ways, such as by asking them to provide a rationale for certain procedures, or to verify the correct preparation or measurement of materials.
Think carefully about how to scaffold students’ autonomy in investigations over time. It may be appropriate to provide smaller-scale opportunities for autonomy early in the school year, but later investigations might allow greater autonomy (and should be redesigned as necessary to allow for sufficient autonomy).
Use a Driving Question Board as a source for students’ autonomously generated questions that could be answered through investigation.
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 investigation objectives/content/procedures. For example, if students are investigating how simple machines can help move a large crate of supplies, allow a choice of which simple machine to investigate. If investigations call for repeated trials with varying amounts, consider dividing up the trials among the class and letting student groups choose which ones they will perform.

Cognitive autonomy is especially important to encourage students to make their own decisions about how to analyze or make sense of the data, as well as to generate alternative interpretations and explanations. Working with data might make teachers prone to undermine student autonomy if they suggest that there is a clear “right” answer, such as a predetermined set of similarities and differences between two data tables that the teacher is leading students to identify. There might also tend to be an overemphasis on smaller autonomy allowances (e.g., letting students choose the colors for a graph) without accompanying demands on students’ cognitive autonomy in making sense of phenomena or problem solving. It is important to provide sufficient time and scaffolding for students to engage in rigorous, autonomous sense-making through the analysis and interpretation of data.


A way of scaffolding data analysis and interpretation early in the year would be to present students with several ways to summarize data and several types of graphs and have students choose which type they think will best summarize and present the data they have collected. Prompt students to make observations about the different affordances and limitations of each option and explain why they made their choice (e.g., ask students to justify their selection of tools and procedures through questions like, Why are you using a line graph for this data? What will using a map of the data tell you that a table might not? Why did you choose that kind of graph? Why did you average? Why did you select the way you did?).
Once students have developed more advanced data analysis/interpretation skills and are familiar with different ways of presenting data, allow students greater choice in selecting how to present their data (e.g., tables, graphs, flowcharts, illustrations) and prompt them to justify their choices.
Before holding a whole-class discussion about data, divide students into groups with open-ended prompts to help them make sense of the data and identify initial patterns and relationships within the data (e.g., similarities and differences, temporal and spatial, linear and nonlinear). These patterns and relationships can help students to figure out a phenomenon or identify the best characteristics among several design solutions that can inform a new, optimal solution. One way that students can engage in these sense-making activities is through graphing. The small group structure places responsibility on students to engage in the work, and positions the teacher as a facilitator, circulating among groups rather than directing a whole-class conversation on data interpretation.

Problems requiring the application of mathematics and computational thinking often have multiple possible solutions or multiple possible algorithms to reach the optimal solution. When feasible, students should be given the autonomy to choose how they will approach a problem and how they will calculate a solution. Autonomy can be undermined if students feel there is only one correct answer or that they are being asked to follow a predetermined set of steps.


When possible, have students work in pairs or groups to solve mathematics or computational problems before sharing out or going over algorithms and/or answers as a class so that more students are actively engaged in mathematical or computational thinking and have autonomy to direct their own problem-solving process before receiving feedback.
Recognize and acknowledge even small variations in students’ computations or algorithms, such as some students merging two steps, or summing multiple numbers in a different order. This helps to communicate a consistent message of support for students’ autonomous choices.

Constructing an explanation relies heavily on student-centered learning (i.e., students thinking on their own and engaging in sense-making). Student choice and decision-making are implicated in the act of defining problems and proposing solutions. It is also important that student ideas and thinking drive the explanations and design solutions they are generating and developing over time, whether those explanations and design solutions are occurring during


Once scaffolds have been introduced for students’ early learning experiences with this practice (e.g., a graphic organizer for Claim-Evidence-Reasoning), offer students the choice of whether they will use the scaffolds for later tasks and which scaffolds they will use.
Explicitly state that it is possible that multiple approaches/solutions fit the evidence or solve the problem and give groups white boards or poster paper when they are solving problems or generating explanations so that their ideas are recorded and can be probed for different approaches even if students say they “did the same thing” as another group.
Recognize, acknowledge, and encourage multiple explanations and sources of evidence, as well as variations in students’ constructed explanations or proposed solutions. 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.
A jigsaw protocol can reinforce the idea that multiple explanations or design solutions, supported by evidence, are possible. The expert groups can work collaboratively to generate an explanation or design solution, and then students can share out these ideas in their jigsaw groups to see the different approaches other students took to figure out the same phenomenon or solve the same problem.
Have students self-assess their own work using rubrics for common strategies such as Claim-Evidence-Reasoning and set their own goals for their written and spoken work.

Autonomy is critical for students to be able to engage meaningfully in authentic scientific argumentation to make sense of phenomena or solve design problems. Students need adequate time and opportunity to generate and revise claims, gather evidence, justify their ideas, and evaluate their own arguments against other possibilities. Additionally, providing students with a rationale for why argumentation is a key practice in science and engineering is an important way to support their sense of autonomy in selecting evidence and constructing and evaluating arguments.


Consistently use talk moves that ask students to identify evidence or press for reasoning to ensure that they are cognitively engaged in justifying their claims while engaging in argumentation. Select talk moves that pose questions to students or are sufficiently open-ended such that students have the opportunity to respond in their own way about how they are making sense of phenomena or solving design problems. Try to avoid questions to students where they may feel guided or controlled by the teacher to deliver a predetermined answer. Encourage students to use similar strategies to press the teacher for reasoning. Such discourse also supports a learning orientation.
Explicitly teach students sentence and question stems so that they can use them in small group work with each other. This allows for more cognitively demanding argumentation work to be done in student-directed small groups rather than in a teacher-led whole-class format, which can constrain feelings of autonomy.
Try to design argumentation prompts such that they are not yes/no questions and multiple legitimate claims are possible. For instance, choose an issue with both pros and cons so that the team that presents their evidence and reasoning most convincingly will “win” (e.g., nuclear energy is a long-term option for society’s energy needs, which student design better meets the criteria for a design problem, etc.).
In tasks where one claim is clearly stronger than others (e.g., because of students’ current knowledge level or curricular scripts), be precise about where students will be exercising autonomy, to avoid presenting students with a false sense of choice. For example, instead of saying, “You can choose any claim you want,” prompt students with, “Choose the claim that you feel is best supported by the evidence.” It can also be useful to engage students knowingly in the process of defending an invalid claim (i.e., playing “devil’s advocate”) to reinforce the practice of argumentation and evaluation of evidence.
Structure in reflection time after engaging in argumentation to give students an opportunity to think about their explanations, models, investigation methods, and data analyses and decide on next steps that will help them further understand a phenomenon or solve a design problem, rather than relying on the teacher/curriculum to tell them what to do next.
Structure group activities with meaningful roles that students can choose from and that target different elements of effective argumentation. For example, during a debate, one student might be in charge of external research, another might identify existing evidence from class investigations, another might review the scientific principles that can be used as reasoning, while another might consider potential counterarguments and counterevidence.

Information can be obtained, evaluated, and communicated in multiple ways. It is important to support students’ autonomy throughout these processes to be sure that students feel a sense of agency and ownership over their science and engineering learning and the ways in which they obtain, evaluate, and communicate science and engineering information to others. Autonomy in this practice also entails asking students to rationalize their choices and think deeply about how their choices are related to deepening their understanding of phenomena or solving design problems. Autonomy is essential to the process of evaluating evidence and being able to present information as scientifically sound or as an “optimal” design in engineering.


Once students have learned a variety of strategies for reading comprehension, give them a choice in which ones they will use. If students are working in groups, prompt them to compare and contrast the information they each obtained from the text and share which strategies they used. This could help draw students’ attention to how their choice and application of different strategies influenced the information they pulled from the text and could inform future strategy selection.
Allow students to choose a modality for communicating information (e.g., through graphs, visuals, diagrams, models, in writing, orally through presentations, a “talk show” interview panel, etc.) and demonstrate to the whole class or encourage students to share their different approaches to communicate value for students’ self-direction in these tasks. Identify choices that students made in orally or visually communicating scientific information. Ask students to provide a rationale for why the modality they chose helps them communicate information.
Encourage students to gather and review additional evidence (e.g., conduct independent research) to better understand the central phenomenon or problem in a learning activity. This will help engage students as self-directed learners while also communicating that their active information-seeking supports science and engineering learning.
Provide students with examples of scientific information being miscommunicated, misinterpreted, or misused so that they understand the rationale behind learning to be careful and critical consumers and presenters of scientific information.