Autonomy Lays the Foundation for Motivation

High ability does not guarantee high achievement. Our students need motivation if they are expected to perform at their greatest levels and to perform well over an extended period of time. For many students, motivation comes in the form of reward systems, grades, evaluations, and yes, even candy. These external factors are short lived. What students need are intrinsic motivators.

In order for teachers to shift students’ motivation from one that is extrinsically driven to one that is internal, teachers must change the way they approach instruction. Independent thinking, creative problem-solving, and the concept of discovery learning give students a greater sense of autonomy. Inside the school library, I instill autonomy in my students by giving them freedom to choose the books they read and the information they research. Students should have opportunities to utilize advanced technologies during instruction. Printed out worksheets are a thing of the past when we are surrounded by invaluable multimedia sources (i.e., e-books, videos, virtual reality technology, and online databases). The teacher or school librarian does not have to be an expert on every piece of technology available. The educator just has to be willing to answer opportunity’s knock by putting educational technology into the hands of students. Student engagement and empowerment will increase when students learn by doing.

One reason why students might exhibit self-defeating behaviors like apathy, low effort, lack of joy, and challenge avoidance is because students are not given the freedom to direct their learning (McNabb 1997). Students need opportunities to self-govern their education by using technology to personalize learning, conducting their own research, and taking time to learn independently. The benefits of an autonomy-supportive learning environment are substantial.

The school library is a place for students to explore virtually any topic imaginable and examine multiple points of view. My school district was recently granted access to Opposing Viewpoints in Context, a rich resource for debaters and includes pro/con viewpoints, reference articles, interactive maps, and infographics. This online resource covers today’s hottest social issues ranging from water pollution to digital currency. Students relish the opportunity to draw their own conclusions from informed, differing views.

Another way school librarians can instill a sense of autonomy in students is through project-based learning (PBL). PBL is a type of instruction that initiates by posing questions, problems, or scenarios, rather than simply presenting facts or prescribing a specific path to knowledge. During PBL, students have the opportunity to apply multiple disciplines to one central goal, showing them how content areas connect. PBL fosters task persistence, creativity, and motivation. School libraries can help teachers develop project-based learning activities and curate resources that guide students’ investigation of topics they personally care about. When, school administrators, parents, and other teachers see the impact that PBL has on students who once appeared apathetic, they too will begin to advocate for this type of inquiry-based instruction that addresses students’ passions and gives them a sense of purpose.

Independent learning is yet another way to encourage autonomy and help students acquire flexible and useful “intelligent” knowledge. According to Heller (1999), the following conditions are important when guaranteeing a learning environment that meets individual student’s needs: self-selected learning, continuous formative assessment of progress, securing a variety of learning sources, and basing a subject’s activities on student interests. A plethora of tools and strategies come to mind for how we can support such an environment for learners. For instance, Google Classroom is a great platform for differentiating instruction. With this learning management system, teachers can easily share assignments and resources that pertain to students’ abilities and interests. Because of individualized instruction, students will develop a sense of ownership in their learning. Students who believe that their schoolwork can be improved through their own effort are likely to maintain high expectations for success and to try harder next time (McNabb 1997).

All in all, more control needs to be handed over to students. Let’s give our students the autonomy they deserve by designing authentic learning experiences that nurture independent learning, address students’ interests, and challenge our brightest students to take risks and discover new possibilities.

Works Cited:

Heller, Kurt A. 1999. “Individual (Learning and Motivational) Needs versus Instructional Conditions of Gifted Education.” High Ability Studies 10 (1): 9-21.

McNabb, Terry. 1997. “From Potential to Performance: Motivational Issues for Gifted Students.” Handbook of Gifted Education 2: 408-415.


Author: Sam Northern, Ed.D.

Sam Northern is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. He currently serves as President of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. In 2014, Sam was selected for the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminars Abroad Program where he spent four weeks in China. Since then, Sam has voyaged to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and worked aboard a research vessel on the Atlantic Ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. From January to April 2018, Sam traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program to research best practices for project-based learning. Connect with him on Twitter @Sam_Northern and Facebook @themisterlibrarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.