Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Self-Detemination Theory and what it means for the classroom

From the beginning of this weblog, I've been inspired by the transparency and grassroots movements that have taken place in journalism and other disciplines. I thought by applying this to education, students would have more of voice in their learning and feel more engaged in it. In reflecting on my intial efforts to apply this, I've stumbled on to a whole body of psychological research about something called Self-Determination Theory. Basically this theory says that if people feel competent, autonomous, and relatedness then intrinsic motivation will increase and so will feelings of well being. Makes sense to me. A couple of articles apply this directly to education.

The first study conducted by Black and Deci looks at the autonomy of students and teacher support of student autonomy as a predictor of success in a college organic chemisty course. Autonomy in this study is defined as instrinsic motivation. They determined motivation for students to do work for a course through a questionaire. "Individuals’ ratings of the degree to which each reason is relevant for them can be combined to yield a summary score called the Relative Autonomy Index (RAI)." They found that students who chose the course because of intrinsic interest were less likely to drop the course and make adjustments to the requirements. They also found that students' whose RAI grew during the course performed better and that if they perceived that their instructor supported student autonomy they performed much better. They concluded: "It appears that shifts in teaching approaches toward providing more support for students’ autonomy and active learning may hold promise for enhancing students’ achievement and psychological development. To some extent this can be accomplished by having professors become more student-oriented, more accessible to students, and responsive to their needs and concerns.

The second artcle summarized the finding of many studies and looks at ways in which educators can put these theories to use, for it claims that "self-determination theory has identified ways to better motivate students to learn at all educational levels, including those with disabilities."

It draws the following conclusions:
"Students experience competence when challenged and given prompt feedback. Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems. Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met, students are more intrinsically motivated and actively engaged in their learning.
Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning."

Unfortunately, as I've discussed before, most of my students perform only for a grade and it seems a difficult culture to break. It comes back to an ideal that many teachers aim for: creating lifelong learners. It doesn't seem to me that we are doing a very good job of this.

1 comment:

Mrs.S said...

I don't think this research is anything new. For years Alphie Kohn, thought of as a quack in some circles, has been warning our culture about the dangers of extrinsic rewards. In a recent article he stated the perils of grade inflation and the idea that our students work solely for grades instead of knowledge is a dangerous problem.
Still, some children do think of as a goal rather than grades. I think we could replicate this result more easily by reserving grades until the end of the semester and having the students continually work on revising their work. The problem, administrators and parents probably won't go for it. Still, it is worth a try!