A closer look at self-determination theory revealed the importance of developing a sense of autonomy among learners and the contextual factors needed for this to occur. Autonomy is one of three psychological needs that Deci & Ryan write about extensively, and it has been empirically shown to improve motivation across cultural barriers and throughout various work contexts. They write that one must ensure two out of the three contextual factors supporting autonomous motivation and internalization are present: provide a meaningful rationale, acknowledge actor’s feelings, and convey a sense of choice. If two-thirds are missing, the instruction may actually decrease the motivation a learner experiences.
Providing a meaningful rationale is something that causes me to reminisce the old Animaniacs cartoon and the character Mindy. She was always seeking at answer to “Why”. Learners are too, especially adult learners who expect additional autonomy in the instruction. Designers to too be explicit with this rationale as too often it is only tacitly included.
Feelings are real, and it is sometimes difficult to appreciate another person’s feelings since we are possibly not experiencing the same emotion. Unfortunately, students may not feel like studying or practicing a certain skill. That’s okay, as it is a feeling that many have experienced at one time or another. Adult learners may not feel excited to participate in a mandatory workshop, but it would be diffusing for the designer of the training to be able to acknowledge this possible frustration. Feelings also do not need to be negative, and the positive feelings should also be acknowledged in a context seeking to promote autonomous learners.
Lastly, conveying a sense of choice reminds me of a cookie jar illustration shared with me during my first year teaching. Think of your learners as cookie jars. Every decision they get to make on their own whether it is the software they use, type of project to submit, readings to complete, etc…puts a cookie into the jar. Every decision the instructor makes for them or explicitly does not permit the learner to have a say in, takes a cookie out of the jar. Nobody, in any context, likes an empty cookie jar. If we are designing for motivation and autonomous learners, cookie jars should be filled, rationale explicitly provided, and feelings acknowledged.