ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Combining Intrinsic Motivation and Student Autonomy for Sustained Success

Post written by Matthew J. Weyers

Two years ago, prompted by a blog post that asked, "How many student assignments end up in the recycling bin within minutes of students seeing the grade?," I began thinking about the role of rewards and social interaction in education. The post's question hit close to home, and made me reflect deeply on my current practice. I decided to evaluate my 6th grade language arts and science courses through the lens of two questions: Beyond a letter grade, what motivation do my students have to do well? and, If the primary motivation is extrinsic, how can I make the project more intrinsically motivating? By the end of the school year, I had a three-pronged answer. I had to

  • Relinquish a certain level of control and place added responsibility on students.
  • Allow students to produce work for an authentic audience (meaning not just for me).
  • Give students autonomous opportunities to collaborate on their work.

Here are some of the practices I'm using to hit these three targets.

Relinquishing Control

I know students need content knowledge to be successful in school; however, that doesn't mean the line between students and content needs to be direct. I have mostly moved away from questions that have only one specific answer and am using more meaty, rubric-based, and open-ended questions to assess whether students have acquired and can apply content knowledge. Instead of forcing students to try to fit my singular definition of an acceptable response, relinquishing control has clarified my thinking and teaching around the qualities of an acceptable answer.

Working for an Authentic Audience

I quickly found that when students knew their work was going to be shared with an audience larger than me, the quality of their work skyrocketed. Students became motivated by a combination of an extrinsically linked letter grade and an intrinsic desire to put their best selves forward to a wider audience. My favorite methods to accomplish this have been

  • Publishing student books to Amazon using Lulu.
  • Uploading podcasts to iTunes via Audioboo.
  • Live streaming student presentations to the Internet with Ustream.

Student Autonomy and Collaboration

As a summative assessment, I began giving students the opportunity to respond to open-ended prompts in any manner they saw fit, as long as the response was accompanied by a formal piece of writing. I posited that if students could choose their delivery method, they would find the work more engaging and, therefore, more interesting. Under this new formula for assignments, students have exceeded my wildest expectations. In the past year, I have seen different groups of students create and present projects with very little guidance, including

  • Writing, developing, and filming a multiepisode TV series to show their knowledge of genre, audience, and plot.
  • Recording a stop-motion video that demonstrates the potential dangers of global warming.
  • Creating a music video using rewritten lyrics from pop culture songs to convey the properties of magnetism.

These methods continue to show me that student motivation grows when increased student responsibility, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation are combined. These conditions allow students to rise to my expectations in their own unique ways and experience sustained success in the classroom.

Matthew J. Weyers is a 6th grade teacher at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minn. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.


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