What do we know about autonomy & learning?

In an effort to understand what has been written on autonomy in education and why it’s important, Tarah Kerr and I scoured the web for articles on the subject. Although this is not an all-encompassing meta-analysis or literature review, we started to notice some themes and gleaned some valuable information on autonomy.

An autonomous learner by definition is “one who solves problems or develops new ideas through a combination of divergent and convergent thinking and functions with minimal external guidance in selected areas of endeavour” (Betts & Knapp, 1981, p. 27). The idea of autonomy has been highly studied within the context of foreign language learning and learner motivation. Much of the research on autonomy unrelated to language learning is conducted within the self-determination theory framework, a theory which focuses on human motivation, emotion, and development and the factors that affect these processes in people (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). A review of literature found that across multiple studies, autonomy-supportive settings increased performance, satisfaction, and engagement (Burton, Lydon, D’Alessandro, & Koestner, 2006; Miserandino, 1996; Pink, 2009). Students who acted in accordance with autonomous motivators experienced positive psychological and behavioral outcomes, such as improved psychological well-being, goal progress, and school performance (Burton et al., 2006). These studies also found that a lack of autonomy can cause a learner to feel angry, anxious, and bored (Miserandino, 1996).  Autonomous learning draws upon intrinsic motivation from the learners and focuses on autonomous types of extrinsic motivation which are conducive to student engagement and learning (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). Although autonomy can greatly influence a learner, research has shown that autonomy in isolation is not enough to promote improvement in learners’ psychological and behavioral outcomes. Competence, purpose, and autonomy must all be perceived as being fulfilled for learners to experience positive effects (Miserandino, 1996; Pink, 2009). Autonomous learning does not seek to disrupt the traditional classroom model or the dependence relationship between the student and teacher, but rather seeks to provide instructor support of student interest pursuit and identity construction (Kant, 1996).

Betts, G.T., & Kercher, J.K. (1999). Autonomous Learner Model: Optimizing Ability. Greeley, CO: ALPS.

Burton, K. D., Lydon, J. E., D’Alessandro, D. U., & Koestner, R. (2006). The differential effects of intrinsic and identified motivation on well-being and performance: Prospective, experimental, and implicit approaches to self-determination theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 750-762.

Kant, I. (1996). About Pedagogy. Fontanella, Fransisco C. (Trans.) Piracicaba/ SP-: Unimep.

Medonça, S. & Lima, H. (2011). Autonomy in Kant and Jacques Rancière under Gert Biesta’s view. Philosophy in Education, 2, 90-99.

Miserandino, M. (1996). Children who do well in school: Individual differences in perceived competence and autonomy in above-average children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(2), 203-214.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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