A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

When students have greater choice, control and autonomy over their learning they tend to be better motivated than when their learning is overly controlled. Strategies that rely on external rewards to motivate students can be perceived as exerting control over students’ behavior. For example, in a study to explore how autonomy and control influence motivation, two groups of college students spent 3 hours learning complex material on neurophysiology. Half the students were told they would be tested and graded, and the other half told they would have an opportunity to put the material to use by teaching it to others. The study found that students who thought they would be tested were less intrinsically motivated—they cared less about learning the material and focused more on the grade. Moreover, at the end of the study students who learned in order to put the material to use actually achieved better conceptual understanding than those who learned in order to be tested (Benware & Ceci, 1984). The researchers interpreted the findings in terms of differences in students’ sense of control or autonomy in the situation. Being tested and graded induced a sense of being controlled; students simply did the task in order to get the grade or avoid the consequences of getting a bad grade. In contrast, the teach-the-material situation offered students an opportunity to decide how to use the material, they had choices and some degree of control over their learning. Students who had more choice and control were more intrinsically motivated and learned more.  


General strategies to promote autonomy include:

  1. Offer choices to students. Allow students to make choices with respect to course content, types of assignments, and topics for papers, projects, and discussion. Keep in mind that meaningful choices (e.g., allowing students to choose project topics or to decide how they will demonstrate their competence) are more beneficial than superficial choices (e.g., allowing students to decide what type of font to use, or which worksheet to begin with).

  2. Share some degree of control and responsibility with students. Involve students in establishing class ground rules. For example, ask students to help create ground rules for class discussions or class projects. They will come up with many of the same rules you would have imposed.

  3. Use non-controlling, informational language that allows students to diagnose problems and make decisions regarding their behaviors (e.g., "I noticed your exam scores have declined, do you know why this might be?")  As much as possible, avoid diagnosing, controlling, coercive, or guilt-inducing language (e.g., {"You must do this, or else") 
Another way to look at autonomy support involves dividing it into three categories (Stefanou, Perencevich, DiCintio, & Turner, 2004):

  1. Cognitive autonomy support, which is arguably the most important and meaningful, involves methods that enable students to think for themselves, explore ideas, and become self-sufficient learners, such as:
    • discussing multiple approaches, strategies, and solutions to addressing problems
    • debating ideas freely
    • allowing for questions
    • justifying solutions and providing rationales
    • correcting mistakes
  2. Organizational autonomy support encourages student ownership of the learning environment, such as:
    • choosing group members or seating arrangements
    • setting rules or evaluation procedures
  3. Procedural autonomy support encourages student ownership of form and presentation and may include strategies such as: 
    • choosing materials to use in class
    • choosing the way competence is demonstrated

Tips to Implement Autonomy Strategies Effectively

  • Supporting students' autonomy does not require that teachers give-up complete control of the classroom, nor does it imply a complete lack of structure. Structure is important and helpful when it offers clear goals, guidance, and responsive feedback that promote students' competence. Partially-bounded choices may also be more beneficial than unlimited choices in promoting students' competence and meeting course learning objectives (e.g., a teacher identifies a major theme of a lesson/project but students are allowed to choose which areas, figures, time period, etc. that they will research). 

  • Finding an ideal balance between structure and autonomy support in the classroom will, in part, depend on students' ability levels. In general, students who have more competence in a given area may respond better to having higher levels of choice/freedom compared to students of lower competence/ability levels, who may require more support and structure. 



  • Benware, C. & Ceci, E. (1984).  The quality of learning with an active versus passive motivational set. American Educational Research Journal, 21, 755-766.
  • Stefanou, C. R., Perencevich, K. C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision making and ownership. Educational Psychologist39(2), 97-110.

Cerbin, W. & Marshik, T. (2015). Autonomy. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from