Transformative Learning

Autonomy, Structure, and Support

Icon squareby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Self-determination theory (or SDT) is a theory of motivation that articulates the inherent (or intrinsic) factors needed in order for person to exhibit self-motivating and self-determined behaviors.  SDT founders, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan propose there are three intrinsic “nutriments” or behaviors that are not only important for learning, but are essential to psychological health and well-being.  They are the need for autonomy, competence, and psychological relatedness.  Their research has influenced a large body of work on motivation and determination ranging from tips on effective parenting, job satisfaction, and health. (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 76)

While all three nutriments are important considerations in education, developing structures to support autonomous motivation can have a transformative impact on students. Autonomous motivation can be defined as an orientation where ones’ interest and self-endorsed values serve as an “index” to assist with self-learning and engagement. (Reeve, Deci, Ryan, 2004, p. 21)  Unlike controlled motivation which creates tension and disengagement, autonomous motivation creates opportunities for learning behaviors that support creativity, develop problem solving skills and foster positive emotions about learning.  As a result, autonomous learning is often associated with better physical and psychological health. (Deci & Ryan, 2008)

However, developing mechanisms to support autonomous motivations for learning can be a challenge for most college instructors.  Research suggests that creating an educational environment that includes both support and structure is one of the surest ways to encourage autonomous motivation and also improve student engagement towards learning. (Jan, Reeve, & Deci, 2010)

Consider the kind of structure and support you are currently offering in your teaching.  Do you offer too much structure and not enough space for reflection and autonomy?  Or, do you offer too little structure and invite ambiguity and chaos into your classroom?

One way to reflect on your role as an instructor is to consider how you are representing the course through your teaching style?  What roles am I playing during central elements of the course – facilitator, instructor, lecturer?  Also, consider how you are providing effective communications, goal setting and feedback for your students.

Finally, consider what teaching opportunities can you can create that offer students a place to make meaning out of the course?   Jang, Reeve and Deci (2010) offer a few great suggestions:

“We suggest that teachers might want to initiate learning activities by involving students’ inner motivational resources, communicating in noncontrolling and informational ways and acknowledging students’ perspectives and negative feelings when motivational and behavioral problems arise…. Teachers might want to initiate learning activities by offering clear and detail expectations and instructions, offering helpful guidance and scaffolding as students try to profit from the lesson, and providing feedback to enhance perceptions of competence and perceived personal control during a reflective post performance period.”

If you would like to investigate how to best incorporate structure and support to encourage student autonomy, schedule a teaching consultation with someone at the Reinert Center.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne49(1), 14.

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy
support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588-600.

Reeve, J., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Self-determination theory: A dialectical framework for
understanding socio-cultural influences on student motivation. Big theories revisited4, 31-60.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Kaplan, H. (2007). Autonomous motivation for teaching: How
self-determined teaching may lead to self-determined learning. Journal of Educational Psychology99(4), 761.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation,
social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.