Autonomy Banner


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

Autonomy Overview


Autonomy is reflected in a student’s answer to the motivational question Do I feel in charge of my thoughts and actions?

It includes students having meaningful choices and feeling a sense of agency in the form and direction of their learning. It is especially important for students to experience cognitive autonomy (i.e., feelings of agency and ownership over their thinking).
It is not synonymous with total free rein or independence:
  • Autonomy can still exist in highly structured learning environments
It is also not synonymous with working alone:
  • Autonomy can take place in small groups or among all students in a class. What is key is that students have some choice or direction over what they do

How to support autonomy: Principles

Allow students to make choices that are meaningful to them and consequential for their science learning
  • Provide authentic choices for assignments/activities/assessments and in how students complete those tasks
  • Consider whether the choices students are permitted are relevant to advancing their learning or whether they are largely teacher concessions/placations for classroom management purposes
Principles: Allow students to make choices that are meaningful to them and consequential for their science learning
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The teacher dictates classroom rules and collaborative structures. The teacher is the authority who monitors and controls student behavior. The teacher allows students to take more ownership of classroom rules and routines as a way of upholding classroom culture through student agency and citizenship.
The teacher uses a predetermined sequence of activities or a one-size-fits-all assessment that constrains students’ demonstration of their understanding to a single permissible pathway. The teacher allows students to choose how to demonstrate their understanding (e.g., selecting from a variety of possible products).
  • Support students’ cognitive autonomy by allowing ample time for student decision making and problem solving and by encouraging students to discuss and justify multiple approaches, strategies, and solutions; ask questions arising from their own ideas; make decisions about revising work or what is learned next; and formulate personal learning goals
  • Be receptive to students’ spontaneous questions and ideas that demonstrate independent thinking and ownership of the topic
  • Use student questions and ideas to influence subsequent learning activities
Principles: Provide opportunities for students to direct their own learning
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The teacher primarily controls classroom discourse through an initiation-response-evaluation structure or adheres rigidly to the lesson plan activities and pacing without input from students. The lesson may be overly prescriptive about how students’ thinking “should” progress, or allow only superficial opportunities for students’ making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems. //The teacher solicits student questions in a superficial way, without sufficient time to address them, or as an “extra” activity that does not help students connect those questions to the targeted material. The teacher supports cognitive autonomy by allowing students’ sense-making or problem-solving to drive the learning and providing scaffolds as necessary to advance the goal of student-driven learning (e.g., providing students with sentence and question stems so that they can articulate their own ideas and respond directly to others without the teacher’s facilitation). The teacher allows sufficient time for students to be engaged deeply in prolonged periods of making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems.
The teacher dismisses student questions or ideas that do not seem immediately relevant to the lesson, or answers them quickly/superficially as the authority or for the sake of “moving on.” The teacher encourages and recognizes student questions or ideas even if they seem tangential, or provides a mechanism to record student questions or ideas for later consideration if there is insufficient time to address them in the moment.

The teacher uses deliberate questioning strategies to help students think through their own questions.
  • In both classroom management and learning tasks, provide rationales or refer to reasons why students might choose to do something, rather than ordering them to comply or coercing them through rewards or threat of punishment
  • Rather than telling students that they should or must do something (or do something in a certain way), ask students for their reasoning and coach them to generate possible solutions. Allow students to make mistakes, try alternative solutions, and/or generate their own solutions
Principles: Provide rationales and support instead of using controlling language/actions
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The teacher enforces compliance with classroom rules and/or learning tasks by telling students what to do, rewarding students who comply, and/or punishing those who are out of compliance. The teacher provides rationales to students in regards to abiding by classroom rules and routines and/or engaging in learning tasks.
The teacher positions her/himself as the authority and expert who is responsible for imparting the correct way to engage in a learning activity or demonstrating correct procedures in order to minimize student mistakes. The teacher supports choice and cognitive autonomy by encouraging students to explore, take risks (e.g., approaching a task differently than the teacher had intended) , and problem-solve when engaging in making sense of phenomena and developing design solutions.
  • Make space for students to express their views and opinions; be open to the possibility that these may differ from your own or may deviate from the planned responses you expected to hear
  • Acknowledge and respond to negative students’ negative emotions and feelings: accept them as constructive information that can be used to transform an activity from something not worth doing, to something worth doing
  • Provide rationales, particularly for unappealing choices
Principles: Provide rationales and support instead of using controlling language/actions
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The teacher dismisses or punishes students’ negative emotions or developmentally appropriate reactions (e.g., middle schoolers laughing at an outdated video or doodling on group chart paper). The teacher anticipates student emotions and responses to learning activities and incorporates opportunities during the lesson to pre-emptively address possible reactions (e.g., framing a disturbing video before playing it), solicit or receive student perspectives, identify coping strategies as appropriate, and/or involve the students in regulating and redirecting their feelings more productively (e.g., having optional alternative seating arrangements that students can opt in to when necessary).