Contextual Factors of Autonomy

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.

Family Circus comic with small boy standing on counter pulling cookie from jar.
Family Circus Comic

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.


One thought on “Contextual Factors of Autonomy

  1. Heya Jake,
    >>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.<<

    Yesterday I went to breakfast with a friend and we were talking about this. The friend is on a search committee where she works and one question they asked candidates was one on 'what do you do if you have to implement a policy or training that is unpopular." They had one person who said, essentially, "put on a happy face… be excited about it! That will excite people." My friend commented "come on… people see through that and then they just won't trust you… I said to the rest of the committee, you need to just be upfront about it and point out that it is still mandatory… being honest will more likely get people to pay attention and participate." She said the next candidate in (who my friend decided was her #1 choice) responded to the question saying almost exactly what she did.

    That said, designing for a room of people who come in with very different perspectives is *so* difficult. (Having no experience teaching K-12 I have no idea if it is easier to get kids motivated for not.) So now I am going to start thinking of each learner as a cookie jar… How many cookies can I make available to learners?

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