This module takes into consideration the holistic nature of individual student learning and the most effective practices for helping them develop into autonomous and responsible learners. Addressing the whole learner in developmentally appropriate ways includes establishing positive student relationships and listening to each learner’s voice in creating productive learning climates. With this whole learner perspective, teachers are able to help learners become responsible for their own learning in school and in life. By addressing student learning needs and negative behaviors from a place of trust and positive relationships, students are better able to make good choices during learning as well as outside the classroom. These learner-centered practices help students and their teachers to better cope with negative peer pressure and bullying throughout any learner’s journey through the learning system.

The module touches on each of these topics and provides evidence-based instructional practices along with suggested ways to draw from the other modules in this series. It offers related insights from:

  • Cognitive neuroscience, including recent brain study findings.
  • Inquiry-based learning approaches.
  • Blended learning with instructional technology, gaming and digital learning research.

This set of resources provides tools for what teachers of all age groups can do to inspire natural curiosity, creativity and autonomous lifelong learning. 


Frustrations among teachers dealing with unmotivated students have been on the rise in recent years, particularly with accountability pressures for helping all students reach learning standards in both high and low performing schools. What teachers may not know is how important the connection is between student motivation and self-determination. Research has shown that motivation is related to whether or not students have opportunities to be autonomous and to make important academic choices. Having choices allows children through young adults feel empowered that they have control or ownership over their own learning. This, in turn, helps them develop a sense of responsibility and self-motivation. The good news is that curriculum resources and assessment tools for reaching these students in personalized ways are emerging with the advent of increased uses of technology in schools.

Teachers can focus on creating responsible and autonomous learners through the use of appropriate student choices. Providing opportunities to choose topics of interest stimulates students’ natural curiosity and eagerness to learn. However, providing choices is most effective in contexts where students are individually supported by others in caring and challenging learning communities. In these cultures and climates for learning, students are more likely to develop diverse competencies needed to be successful lifelong learners. Stimulating curiosity is fostered when students are encouraged to work collaboratively with their teachers and peers in finding answers to their questions in inquiry-based learning environments.

Having choices allows even young children to learn ways to take control or ownership over their own learning. This, in turn, helps students develop a sense of responsibility and self-motivation.

Provide developmentally appropriate choices

An increasing number of teachers have observed that after second or third grade, many students begin to show signs of decreased motivation to learn. What happened to that natural eagerness to go to school or the curiosity to learn that is so apparent in preschool, first and second grade students? Many teachers fear that presenting more choices to students will lead to losing control over the classroom. However, research shows that in fact the opposite happens. When students understand their role as agent (the one in charge) over their own feeling, thinking and learning behaviors, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning. To be autonomous learners, however, students need to have some actual choice and control.

That is why teachers need to learn how to help students develop the ability to make appropriate choices and take responsible control over their own learning. Although teaching and reaching students of different ages, backgrounds, interests and experiences may seem overwhelming, the resources in this module can assist teachers in effectively guiding student choices. 

As students mature and progress from elementary to middle and high school, research demonstrates an even more critical need for skills of directing and managing one’s own learning choices and progress. When students feel a sense of ownership, they want to engage in academic tasks and persist in learning. To help students develop the capacity to make choices for themselves, teachers need to help students understand their learning interests, dispositions to be active and autonomous learners and capacities or strengths in various content or skill areas.

These learner-centered practices include teachers showing students how to make learning choices and monitor the positive and negative consequences of their choices. This is a trial-and-error process that requires teacher support, modeling and encouragement. For example, if a student expresses interest in reading a particular novel as an English assignment, but then finds that he or she is having trouble understanding it because of unfamiliar words, the teacher can recommend a similar novel that has lower level vocabulary. The teacher can also have the student make a list of the unfamiliar words and look up their meanings.

An inspirational story: Motivate students with ownership

This story began in a Colorado middle school in the United States that was working with McCombs on a project entitled “Neighbors Making a Difference.” The project was aimed at fostering positive relationships between teachers and their students (as well as between students and other meaningful adults in their immediate community). The goal was to prevent student gang involvement and drug use.

Many of the teachers at this middle school were afraid of their “tough” students and had concluded that there was little they could do to reach them. McCombs decided to spend a day at the school and get a closer look at the dynamics between these ill-reputed students and their struggling and fearful teachers, and followed a group of students throughout their day, sitting unobtrusively in the backs of their classrooms.

McCombs learned a lot that day. Afterwards, she remarked somewhat wryly that she was “amazed [the students] weren’t schizophrenic.” She saw students behaving themselves and cooperating in some classes and not in others. McCombs was also an eyewitness to a student fight in the hallways right before their last-period math class. She could not help but assume that students would go to such lengths to avoid participation in an unpopular math class, especially at the end of a long school day.

To McCombs’ surprise, what she saw was a surreal, yet inspiring scene. Without even the visible presence of a teacher or other authority figure, the students filed into the mathematics class and immediately became quiet and self-disciplined. They picked out the appropriate materials from folders along the side of the classroom, sat down at their desks, paired up in preset groups and began working on their current computer projects. And all of this happened without the slightest command or provocation from a teacher.

McCombs finally saw the teacher kneeling in the back of the room looking for some reference materials. A student walked back to ask him a question and that was when it became obvious that the teacher had been there all along. As the students worked, the teacher walked around and checked their progress. McCombs realized that there was much to be learned from this teacher and his seemingly effortless style in facilitating a self-directed learning process for his students. After spending the day witnessing some of the other teachers desperately trying to control their students in rowdy and unruly classroom settings, in this class McCombs saw a teacher who trusted his students to be self-regulated and self-motivated. And that’s what was happening. Not only was the teacher freed from keeping his students in control, he also was able to support and engage students in meaningful assignments. The result was positive motivation without any student disturbances or complaints.

After the class was over, McCombs could not wait to ask the teacher how he achieved such an impressive feat — particularly in light of her previous experiences at the school. The teacher explained his philosophy about the natural desire to learn present in all students and the events that led him to his successful classroom environment. At the beginning of the year, the teacher simply and directly told the students (paraphrasing): “This is your class... we can do it any way you want as long as you learn the math.” In other words, while the teacher did lay out some “non-negotiables” — the essential elements necessary to cover content standards and to ensure that the work got done — he largely left the overall options and details up to his students.

By leaving many of the choices and the rules for how the class should be managed up to his students, the teacher gained their respect and concentration. Most importantly, he met his students’ needs to have some choice and control; he instilled in them the ownership that allowed them to take responsibility for their own learning. He relayed that not only were students harder on themselves in setting up classroom rules than he would have been, but because they felt ownership, it was their class and they enforced the rules. His job was easier and he helped instill in his students a sense of responsibility and motivation that transcended everything except their desire to learn. This experience culminated in the inspiration for a book, published by APA, that McCombs wrote with this wise teacher, titled “Motivating Hard-to-Reach Students.”

Reaching students through increased choices in regular and online learning classrooms

Interestingly, the phenomenon of students taking less and less responsibility for their own learning is related to the fact that in many school systems, students have progressively fewer opportunities to make choices as they proceed from elementary through secondary school.

With increasing technology use in pre-K through high school classrooms and schools, the importance of student control in these blended learning environments (PDF, 3.62MB) becomes even more important. That is, combining more individualized and technology-supported options can provide a way to engage students beyond what is possible in traditional classrooms.

When new technologies and programs for creating blended classrooms are added, teachers can feel overwhelmed unless they have sufficient knowledge and training to understand which programs are best and which actually distract students and interfere with their learning.

General recommendations to teachers

A key to motivating students (PDF, 55KB) is helping them recognize and understand that they can take responsibility for their own learning.

  • Tie learning to students’ personal interests.
  • Let students work together to meet learning goals.
  • Give students a voice in their own learning.

Teaching that fosters motivation to learn is a thoughtful process of aligning student choices so that students see the value of these choices as tools for meeting their learning needs and goals. Modeling the skills involved in making well-informed and positive choices, teachers need to reflect in real-time. Concurrently, teachers must set clear learning goals and help students understand that the choices they can make are within the context of the learning goals set by the teacher. Students learn that they can be successful if they meet clear performance requirements. When students see first-hand that they can be successful, teachers have an opportunity to talk with them about how the standards and expectations are related to their own personal interests or to the skills they will need to succeed in life.

Set clear performance standards from the start. Students need to know exactly what is expected of them, how they will be graded, and what supports will be available to them if they need help learning the information or skills. When teachers communicate performance expectations, they must consider the diverse backgrounds and experiences of each student. Performance outcomes that focus on each student’s abilities and strengths lead to more positive student development and engaged learning, particularly if students are from poor communities or have limited support for learning outside of school.

Help students develop a sense of ownership over the learning process. As part of the process of offering students meaningful choices, teachers must be clear about how the choices relate to the learning objectives or standards.

For example, teachers can provide students with choices about how they may demonstrate mastery of a concept, approach particular assignments, work independently or with peers, and achieve at their competency levels. When students have the opportunity to be involved in making these choices, they take more responsibility for their own learning.

Provide feedback to students that give them precise information about the particular skills they have acquired and/or need to improve in order to be successful in their class.

For example, in pre-K through high school, teachers are increasingly being taught and shown how to begin new learning tasks with opportunities for students to ask questions and seek help from their teacher or peers if they are having difficulty understanding concepts or performances required of them. Students learn to use feedback from their teacher and peers to change their conception of how competent they are in different subjects or learning activities. Feedback also helps students make better learning choices.

Encourage students to assess their own learning progress by using charts or keeping journals, so they can evaluate the progress they are making as they acquire relevant knowledge and skills. As students learn to monitor their own progress, they become more motivated by their successes and begin to acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility for the role they play in these successes.

Do's and don'ts
  • Begin new learning tasks with opportunities for students to ask questions and get help from their teacher or peers if they are having difficulty understanding the concepts or performances required of them.
  • Provide students with meaningful choices consistent with learning objectives (e.g., what work they want to do, what relevant topics they want to study) and exercises that encourage self-monitoring of their comprehension (e.g., becoming aware of their understanding of the materials) and tracking their learning progress (e.g., keeping track of their learning progress in a journal).
  • Help students deal with inevitable disappointment that comes when they don’t perform as well as they hoped they would. For example, students can be taught strategies for using mistakes as learning opportunities and for controlling the negative emotions that can interfere with learning.
  • Praise students for doing well on their assignments and for putting in extra effort. Use specific praise that tells students what they did well and for which learning processes and skills they are being praised.
  • Involve students in setting objectives and participating in decisions about how to individualize objectives in line with curriculum standards, plus individual and collective student interests and choices. For example, students can become involved in setting their own learning goals through guided class discussions where teachers state the learning goals and possible variations in achieving those goals. In small group discussions, students can share their personal interests and then see how these fit with the teacher’s list. By helping students define their personal learning goals and objectives, teachers can guide students to see whether these are consistent not only with their own interests but also how they can be aligned with curriculum standards and expectations.
  • Appeal to student interest and curiosity by introducing the unfamiliar through the familiar. For example, teachers can use students’ current knowledge, interests and experiences with a familiar concept, such as trying to master a videogame, to describe the background mathematics and programming that allows the games to work. Students might then be given a choice about designing a particular game routine related to these concepts.
  • Reward success with praise and model how students can monitor their own progress and success with self-reward strategies. Examples of self-reward strategies include doing a favorite activity if they can accomplish their learning goals on time, including age-appropriate projects they complete alone or with selected members in their learning communities.
  • Link learning successes or failures to students’ lack of ability or intelligence. Students can’t change fixed abilities, but they can change learning habits and behaviors like effort and persistence.
  • Compare individual or groups of students with each other in terms of how quickly or well they learn new material. Learning is an individual process and students need to feel good about how they approach and engage in learning tasks, whether they are motivated to persevere in the face of difficulties, and how they handle disappointments and challenges.
  • Pair struggling students with students of higher ability or greater knowledge and skills, as this may result in students becoming dependent (rather than independent) learners. Unless higher ability students across the age-span are trained to work as positive tutors, motivation to learn can suffer for students at both ends of the ability or knowledge spectrums.
  • Engage in teaching strategies that allow students to be passive. Instead, engage their curiosity and promote active learning. Passive teaching strategies provide students with the answers and give them little voice or choice. True engagement means letting students pursue their own questions or solve their own problems with skillful feedback from teachers or other adults supporting their learning and skill development.
  • Ask students to copy your learning strategies. Instead, try to increase their awareness of themselves as self-regulated and strategic learners. Although modeling a learning strategy and asking students to emulate this strategy in their own work is helpful, this is not as effective as “talking aloud” about why a particular strategy is effective and how it works for you or for them.
  • Fragment information without showing students how the fragments connect to form the whole, or “big picture.” Presenting isolated facts without relating them back to the overall theme or concept being taught only causes students to lose interest. This is particularly true if they are not allowed to ask questions or contribute to solving problems associated with the activity. When new technologies are appropriately introduced into the teaching/learning cycle at all grade levels, research confirms that allowing students to pursue their own questions within well-structured learning goals allows students to self-regulate their learning time in more responsible ways, and fosters higher order metacognitive thinking skills.
  • Provide students with choices without also helping them become more aware of their own needs, interests, preferences, internalizations, values, goals and aspirations. Choice by itself is not effective unless students develop the “capacity to choose” what best meets their personal learning needs and goals.
Student-centered methods

To teach literacy, we must teach the whole child/learner, know the learner, embed literacy into every lesson and subject, build confidence with sound relationships and pedagogy, and teach the critical thinking and metacognitive or social emotional skills that can help students become independent learners for life. 

Expert learner-centered teachers will know the learner and help that learner take control of literacy activities and goals. Such teachers will model their own love of learning and passion for certain subjects or types of stories by: 

  • Telling their own personal story or story of:
    • Others who struggle with learning to read.
    • Those who love to read so much they do nothing else (with humor).
    • How reading unlocked their interests and career choices.
  • Assessing student interests and providing developmentally appropriate choices about:
    • Topics to read in challenging areas of interest.
    • Difficulty levels that allow students to build increased fluency and confidence (easy) and expose students to new vocabulary, text structures and concept (too hard).
    • Quality decoding and fluency needed to build comprehension skills for sustained reading of long passages or texts (reading stamina).
    • Participation in meaningful dialogue about literacy topics as a major part of classroom discussions.
  • Building student confidence in their ability to learn as the central role of literacy instruction for struggling and proficient readers:
    • Assume competence and target individual areas of strength.
    • Build on student strengths to achieve highest gains in reading and writing.
    • Provide sufficient time for struggling readers to read appropriate level texts.
    • Avoid labeling and tracking struggling readers and writers.
  • Showing by the use of relevant examples how to:
    • Predict story meaning by picture books as needed.
    • Identify words that are familiar and not unfamiliar.
    • Look for clues in the context of the story.
    • Identify sentences or phrases that are not clear.
    • Think about what they already know.
    • Generalize what they know as a strategy to extend their thinking to new words and connected concepts.
    • Restate difficult passages in their own words.
  • Pointing out examples from a relevant genre the student enjoys and wants to write about, such as:
    • Poems or music lyrics that stir emotions and interest.
    • Writing assignments that provide choice of genres or authors or topics.
    • Science or math projects that require research into areas of personal interest.
  • Helping each student (as needed) find a mentor or buddy who they trust in school and/or home by:
    • Brainstorming lists of those student knows and how to find the best choice who will stay the course.
    • Thinking critically about personal goals and challenges in selection of mentor.
    • Participating in classroom dialogue that expands understanding and engagement in literacy activities.
  • Explicitly teaching students lifelong learning and reading dispositions such as:
    • Skimming content to see if it is personally engaging.
    • Watching movies about the topic or book to inspire interest and familiarity with meaning.
    • Finding others who are familiar with authors you like or topics of high interest.
    • Letting natural curiosity guide choices of material to read and write about or act out.
Focus on social-emotional development

Those studying social and emotional learning have found effective strategies that may help students control the negative emotions that can interfere with learning (Dwyer, 2014; Jones, Bailey, & Jacob, 2014; Lee & Shute, 2010; McCombs, 2007c, 2011a; Meece, Herman, & McCombs, 2003; Vanchu-Orosco & McCombs, 2007; Vanchu-Orosco, McCombs, & Culpepper, 2010; Zins et al., 2004;). Although these social and emotional issues were in the past considered outside the realm of student learning and achievement goals, researchers and practitioners are now recognizing their importance to learning success. There is growing recognition that many of the issues students face in today’s classrooms (e.g., bullying, isolation, ridicule, or alienation due to learning difficulties or differences) must be recognized for students to assume their role as engaged and self-directed learners (Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007; Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Maurer, & Brackett, 2004; McCombs, 2009; O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009; Raver, Garner, & Smith-Donald, 2007; Raver, Jones, et al., 2008; Roeser, Skinner, Beers, & Jennings, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2013; Weissberg, Goren, Domitovich, & Dusenbury, 2012).

Effective strategies include: 
  • Helping students identify and label their feelings.
  • Teaching students to conduct an “inner dialogue” where they use self talk to turn around negative thinking.
  • Learning to see the current situation as part of a bigger process in which it is normal to have some setbacks.
  • Helping students see that with additional effort they can overcome learning difficulties.
  • Encouraging students to find learning partners who can work with them on areas where they are having difficulty.

These strategies are also necessary in new e-learning or blended learning environments becoming prevalent in many schools and classrooms.

Model a learning strategy for students to emulate

In talking about what teachers can do to teach dispositions such as self-regulated learning, early research by Tishman, Jay, and Perkins (1992) suggested that teachers should model metacognition. Examples include talking aloud about their thinking while solving a math problem or revealing their mental machinations while making a careful decision. Teachers may also want to use visual exemplars that hang on the classroom walls. For example, posters can be put up to illustrate metacognition, such as a picture of a girl with a thought-bubble above her head and reminding herself to stand back and take stock of her thinking, or expressing a catchy slogan that reminds students to think about their thinking as they work.

More recently, teachers using laptops, mobile devices, and other emerging technologies appropriate to students across the age span are finding creative ways to stimulate learner-centered dialogue aimed at creating true leaders and collaborators (Wiggins, 2014). Students are learning to take the lead in team inquiry and benefit from practicing group inquiry into topics in science, math, social studies, and language arts that represent real world problems. Students take turns being managers of these conversations, thereby learning to be good coaches, empowering others, not micromanaging, expressing personal interest in tem members; well-being and successes, being productive and results-oriented, being a good communicator and listener, identifying potential career interests, having a clear vision and strategy for the team, and having key technical skills needed to advise the team (Bryant, 2011). 

As students progress from elementary grades through middle and high school, their abilities to be good collaborators and to lead effective inquiry teams becomes more important and is a big focus of 21st century upper level schooling (Goodwin, 2014; Hoerr, 2014; Kelly & Turner, 2009; Larson & Lovelace, 2013; Sinek, 2009; Walsch & Sattes, 2005). When technology is used effectively by parents and teachers with even the youngest of school-age children, they begin to understand that technology is a tool for learning and not just an entertainment media (Dede, 2009; Duffy, 2011; Duffy & Kirkley, 2004; Hannum & McCombs, 2008; Johnson, 2014; Jukes, McCain, & Crockett, 2011; Rebora, 2014; Stommel, 2013; Tolley, 2014; Weir, 2014.

Help students make their own choices

To help students develop the capacity to make choices for themselves, teachers need to help students understand their learning interests, dispositions to be active and autonomous learners, and capacities or strengths in various content or skill areas (Deakin-Crick, McCombs et al., 2007; Deakin-Crick, Stringher, & Ren, 2014; McCombs, 2011; MCombs, 2014a, 2014b). These learner-centered practices include teachers showing students how to make learning choices and monitor the positive and negative consequences of their choices. This is a trial-and-error process that requires teacher support, modeling, and encouragement.

For example, if a student expresses interest in reading a particular novel as an English assignment, but then finds that he or she is having trouble understanding it because of unfamiliar words, the teacher can recommend a similar novel that has lower level vocabulary. The teacher can also have the student make a list of the unfamiliar words and look up their meanings.

Why do these recommendations work?

Researchers studying student engagement, motivation and self-regulated learning generally agree that these connected concepts are important for learning and achieving success in school. From a theoretical perspective, this is supported by the self-determination theory of motivation advanced by Deci and Ryan (1985, 2001, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2009, 2013). This theory states that if students can be supported in meeting their basic needs for competency, autonomy and relatedness in learning situations, they are more likely to develop into independent, self-directed and lifelong learners. Furthermore, extensive research on Deci and Ryan’s theory has shown that under specific conditions, autonomy-supportive settings in the classroom have positive effects on self-regulated learning and motivation. Autonomy supportive classrooms are those in which students see their perspectives valued, have opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings, and are encouraged to make choices and exercise self-initiative in learning activities.

Metacognition has generally been defined as one's capacity to "think about thinking" or to "be aware of and in control of one's thinking processes." From those studying metacognition (Carlock, 2011; Chang, 2009; Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; McCombs, 2001, 2006, 2014a, 2014b; McCombs & Marzano, 1990; McCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008; McDaniel, 2012; Ponce, & Mayer, 2014; Vassallo, 2013; Wagner & Heatherton, 2013; Walls & Little, 2005), research shows that students can learn to step outside their beliefs about themselves and their abilities and understand that they are the master or agent in reframing such beliefs. Students can be helped to see how their beliefs are able to influence their expectations, feelings, motivation and behavior. Once students understand their own role in creating and constructing their thoughts and beliefs, they can take increased responsibility in regulating their thinking, feelings and behavior. This will often lead to higher levels of motivation, learning and achievement. Metacognition is thus a key area of research because it shows that if students learn how to control their thinking they become more autonomous and self-regulated learners.

Related to the concept of metacognition, there is also research on the variety of strategies available for helping students learn how to express their emotions in positive ways. In addition, this research offers techniques for students to monitor how their emotions and motivation influence their learning. One of the strongest sources of evidence for how students can learn about the role of affect (the scientific term used to describe a person's externally displayed mood) in their own thinking and learning processes comes from work on emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning (see for example McCombs, 2007b, 2007c; Weissberg, et al., 2012; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). The most effective strategies involve enhancing students’ abilities to recognize and manage their emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish pro-social goals, solve problems and use a variety of interpersonal skills to handle developmentally relevant tasks. Training programs in social and emotional skills can be effectively integrated into the academic program so that students learn to work collaboratively with others and manage negative emotions and stresses.

Other relevant research connects the role of affect in thinking and learning with the social nature of learning and the importance of positive teacher-student relationships. These relationships help establish a positive context and climate for learning. In a positive environment, students feel caring from peers, free to make mistakes, capable of expressing their voice and able to make appropriate learning choices.

In addition to enhancing student motivation to learn, research shows a number of other benefits that come from providing more learner choice and control, including:

  • Greater displays of active planning and self-monitoring of learning.
  • Higher levels of student awareness of their own progress and achievement
  • More resourcefulness and efficiency in using learning resources.
  • Higher levels of sensitivity to the social learning context.

(Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Jones, Bailey, & Jacob, 2014; Webster-Stratton, Reid, & Stoolmiller, 2008; Weisberg et al., 2012; Zimmerman, 1994.)

Benefits can also include broader educational outcomes such as:

  • Staying in school.
  • Higher academic performance.
  • Self-regulation of learning such as doing schoolwork.
  • Feelings of competence and self-esteem.
  • Enjoyment of academic work.
  • Satisfaction with school.

(Deci & Ryan, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2009.)

Fostering autonomy in the classroom

Reeve, Nix and Hamm (2003) have conducted extensive classroom studies that show when teachers offer students choices, the choices are more likely to increase self-determination and intrinsic motivation when they are presented along with other facilitating conditions:

  • Acknowledging negative feelings.
  • Providing rationale for unappealing choices.
  • Asking students questions about what they do and do not want to do.

Autonomous learner

It is also worth noting that when McCombs and her colleagues integrated large bodies of research on the psychological processes and structures underlying self-regulated and autonomous learning (Billings & Roberts, 2014; Carlock, 2011; Dichter, 2014b; Duckworth, Gendler, & Gross, 2014; Gross, 2013; McCombs, 1988, 2004, 2014a, 2014b; McCombs & Marzano, 1990; McCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008; McCombs & Whisler, 1989), they confirmed that learners are capable of engaging in a number of higher-order processes for controlling lower-order cognitive, affective and motivational processes. These higher order or metacognitive processes primarily consist of self-appraisal and self-management of thoughts and feelings; they fundamentally involve realizing the role of the self as agent in the learning process (McCombs, 2001, 2009, 2011; McCombs & Marzano, 1990; McCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008; Vanchu-Orosco, McCombs, & Culpepper, 2010). School-age students learn the role that thinking plays in their feelings and behaviors. Teachers can model this by showing that it isn’t necessary to be a victim of negative thinking and feelings.

Encouraging comprehensive thinking

Metacognitive knowledge and skills provide the basic structure for the development of positive self-control and self-regulation of one's thinking and feelings (Billings & Roberts, 2014; Carlock, 2011; Dichter, 2014b; Duckworth, Gendler, & Gross, 2014; Gross, 2013; Kanfer & McCombs, 2000; McCombs, 2001, 2006; McCombs & Marzano, 1990; Vanchu-Orosco & McCombs, 2007; Vansteenkiste, Lens, Elliott, Soenens, & Mouratidis, 2014). For optimum development of metacognitive capacities, however, developmental psychologists emphasize that individuals need to have a relatively well-defined and stable self-identity that can give rise to self-awareness (see Harter, 2006, 2012). It is this self-awareness that is the basis for self-regulation (Deci & Ryan, 2002, 2013; McCombs, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2014a, 2014b). This was borne out in research by Cervone et al. (2006) demonstrating that self-regulation provides a link to various forms of self-control in human perceptual, behavioral, emotional and cognitive systems. For students to become more proficient at self-regulation, they need to be given opportunities to follow their own learning plans and goals and rewarded when these goals are accomplished.

Enhancing students' higher-level metacognitive processes, in general, and reflective self-awareness, in particular, has been shown to have beneficial motivational and performance effects (e.g., Daniels & Clarkson, 2010; Meece, Herman, & McCombs, 2003; McCombs, 2007a, 2007b, 2007b; Perry, 2003; Ridley, 1991; Ryan & Deci, 2013). When students become more aware that they are the ones constructing particular thoughts, and they are the ones directing or controlling these thoughts and thinking processes, their motivation is increased to acquire and/or use metacognitive strategies that can sharpen these skills and make learning more fun. Such strategies include executive control, conscious planning, goal-setting and self-regulation of their own learning and learning processes. In addition, evidence suggests that the process is reciprocal (Ryan & Deci, 2013). As students are provided master strategies for monitoring, regulating, and managing their thinking and learning, a sense of personal agency is developed (e.g., Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Results include not only higher levels of motivation, but also higher levels of achievement on a variety of learning measures (cf. McCombs, 2014 a, 2014b; MCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008).

To help students understand the relationships between a sense of agency and their own motivation, psychologists and educational researchers have for decades studied the influence of individual learner perceptions and thinking on their emotions (affect), motivation, learning, achievement and other behaviors in a variety of learning settings (e.g., Cervone, Shadel, Smith, & Fiori, 2006; Do & Schallert, 2004; McCombs, 2007c, 2014a, 2014b). As reviewed by Seidel, Perencevich, and Kett (2005) affect and motivation in learning can be viewed from two perspectives:

  1. Learning to express emotions.
  2. How affect and motivation influence learning. 
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Today’s research on learning has an integrated focus based on various perspectives (e.g., neurological brain research, psychological research) that meaningful, sustained learning is a whole person phenomenon (Caine & Caine, 2011; Deakin-Crick, Stringher, & Ren, 2014; King, & McInerney, 2014; McCombs, 2001, 2014a, 2014b; Vassallo, 2013; Wagner & Heatherton, 2013; Weinstein, 2014). In the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 2011, the Senate passed legislation acknowledging the important role of social and emotional learning for all school age students into the college years.

Brain research has continued to show that affect and cognition work together so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, with emotion driving attention, learning, memory and other mental activities (e.g., Caine & Caine, 2011; Jensen, 1998; Meeri, 2014; Weir, 2014). Research also confirms earlier findings (e.g., Elias, Zins et al., 1997; Lazarus, 2000) that when it comes to learning, intellect and emotion are inseparable and interconnected (e.g., Fiorella, & Mayer, 2015; Heatherton & Wagner, 2011). Likewise, emotional intelligence is important to all aspects of positive human functioning and health (e.g., Duckworth, Gendler, & Gross, 2014; Goleman, 1995; Gross, 2013; Roeser, Skinner, Beers, & Jennings, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2009,2013; Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Zins, Elias, Greenberg, & Weissberg, 2000).

Early research studies discussed by Elias, Bruene-Bulter et al. (1997), including those in neuropsychology, demonstrated that many elements of learning are based on relationships. More recently, research has demonstrated that relationships are central to the development of self-control strategies for regulation emotions and social interactions (Belfield, Nores, Barnett, & Schweinhart, 2006; Boyle & Hassett-Walker, 2008; Jones, Brown, & Aber, 2011; Jones, Brown, Hoglund, & Aber, 2010; O’Neill, Clark, & Jones, 2011 Weissberg, 2007). Researchers and practitioners are concluding that social and emotional skills are essential for the successful development of cognitive thinking and learning skills (e.g., Albright, & Weissberg, 2009; O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009; Pink, 2009; Raver, Garner, & Smith-Donald, 2007; Robinson, 2011; Wagner & Heatherton, 2013; Walls & Little, 2005). Early research by Whisler (1991) presented evidence demonstrating the powerful influence of positive teacher-student relationships on motivation and learning. More recently, Slavin (2014) has posited that without love and emotional support from teachers — whether in face-to-face or online learning environments — reform efforts will not be sustained and students will not engage and succeed. 

Earlier research by Pianta (1999) and Wentzel & Wigfield (2009) confirmed the positive relationships between caring teachers and students’ positive emotional adjustment and learning. Murdock, Miller, and Kohlhardt (2004) report that high school students are more likely to cheat when they perceive their teachers as less caring. In addition, recent studies link student bullying to lack of positive social skills development and suggest that students at all grade levels can help teachers prevent bullying when they take leadership roles and are not merely by-standers (e.g., Blad, 2014; Lee & Shute, 2010; McCombs, 2012, 2014a; McDonald, & Hudder, 2014; Mergler, Vargas, & Caldwell, 2014; Novotney, 2014).

A considerable amount of research has shown that emotions and self-views have specific effects on academic outcomes. For example, studies by O’Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus (2006) show that interventions (e.g., explicit metacognitive training, praise, feedback) aimed at changing students’ views of themselves as successful learners in different subjects can be effective in changing adolescents’ self-evaluations. In turn, researchers have shown that increases in students’ self-evaluations positively impact their motivation, learning, and achievement (e.g., Baer, 2014; Dichter, 2014b; Duckworth, Gendler, & Gross, (2014; Goldstein, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2005; Harmon, 2006; Jones, Bailey, & Jacob, 2014; Law, 2005; McCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008; Narciss, 2004; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Further, Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci (2004) report that students’ depth of processing, test performance, and persistence in learning all increased when they were in autonomy-supporting classrooms where teachers allowed students a degree of choice and control over learning options. Finally, recent research by Anderman, Gimbert, O’Connell, & Riegel (2014) demonstrates that it is possible to assess students’ academic growth with a whole learner approach that acknowledges the role of emotional, social, family or other support and cultural factors in students’ development.

Benefits of learner choice

Research from the psychological sciences continues to confirm that providing students with choice stimulates natural curiosity and motivation to learn (Cornelius-White, 2007; Harter, 2012; Lambert and McCombs, 1998; McCombs, 2012; McCombs & Miller, 2007, 2008; McCombs & Whisler, 1997; Robinson, 2011, 2013). The research also points to very specific student, teacher, and instructional characteristics that teachers can focus on to turn around negative motivational patterns and enhance students’ natural motivation to learn. One very important student characteristic that teachers can influence is students’ sense of self-efficacy or sense of confidence in their ability to be successful learners in different classrooms and different subjects (e.g., Bandura, 1977, 1993, 1997; McCombs, 1986, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2014a; Harter, 2012; January, Casey, & Paulson, 2011; National Research Council, 2012; Pajares, 1997; Rimm-Kaufman, Wanless, Patton, & Deutsch, 2011; Schunk, 1994; Schaps, Battistich, & Solomon, 2004).

Does providing strategies to increase choice and control of one’s learning hurt some students’ (unintended consequences)?

In general, providing autonomous yet supportive contexts along with appropriate choice and control are positive boosts to motivation and achievement (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Denham, Brown, & Domitrovich, 2010; Payton, Weissberg, Durlak, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2009, 2013; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004; Weare, & Nind, 2011). As indicated in the “Do’s and Don’ts” section of this module, choices should be accompanied by instructions in self-regulation and self-awareness in order to increase students’ confidence. Some studies have indicated that if students overestimate their confidence, it can have future detrimental effects on motivation and achievement outcomes. They may overestimate their ability and become discouraged when they fail. With proper exercise of the strategies recommended here, this potential unintended consequence should be minimal or absent. 

Does providing students with more choice and control work for learning in all academic subjects? 

The strategies for enhancing students’ sense of agency (the understanding that one is responsible for taking charge of and regulating one’s own learning) described in this module generally work for learning in all academic subject areas. Some research (Eilam, 2012; Hunter, 2014; McCaslin, 2009; Narciss, 2004; Pekrun, Goetz, Daniels, Stupinsky, & Perry, 2010; Pietsch, Walker, & Chapman, 2003; Reinsvold & Cochran, 2011; Wallace, & Chhuon, 2014) has shown that there are advantages to tailoring strategies to the specific content areas, such as in reading and mathematics. Examples were presented earlier in the “Do’s and “Don’ts” section.

A good resource for teachers of young children to promote inquiry-based learning can be found in Samarapungavan, Patrick and Mantzicopoulos (2011).

How does a teacher evaluate the effectiveness of a particular intervention?

Teachers can construct their own evaluation tools, such as a short pre/post student survey, to evaluate whether the use of the intervention is making a difference for student motivation and learning. Good indicators of student motivation include the effort students put into assignments, whether or not they persist in the face of failure, whether or not they engage in learning activities on their own time, and whether or not they choose to pursue opportunities for more in-depth learning of a topic (Patrick & Mantzicopoulos, 2014). 

Teachers can also have periodic class discussions and ask students how a particular intervention is helping them make better learning choices and improve self-regulation. They can also be asked about what improvements or changes they would suggest.

Resources available include the author’s recent national and international work in applying the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles (APA, 1997). 

How long should this intervention last?

As with most interventions, consistency and repeated use of strategies are recommended. Involving students in choices and having them take increased responsibility in their learning work best. To sustain the sense of efficacy and confidence as students make choices throughout the school years (and beyond), the best strategy is for all pre-K to 12 teachers to be educated in using this intervention (cf., Davis & Elliott, 2014; Duffy, 2011; McCombs, 2014a, 2014b). To further sustain the length of this intervention, teachers should try to understand how their own beliefs and beliefs of their students differ depending on cultural and ethnic differences (Anderman et al., 2014; Cornelius-White, 2007; McCombs, 2014a, 2014b).

Why does increasing student choice and control work?

When students first enter school, they generally feel confident in their ability to learn and to direct their own learning. Repeated failures, criticisms from teachers or peers, negative family influences or attitudes, and a variety of other factors can undermine students’ natural autonomy, curiosity and motivation to learn. Students need help with getting back in touch with their natural motivation and curiosity, as well as mastering strategies for self-regulation. Confident learners are a reflection of the connection between positive self-beliefs, motivation and learning outcomes.

Perceptions of competence

Developmental psychologist Susan Harter has studied how perceptions of self and competence in various life and learning areas occur (see for example Harter, 2006, 2012). Her robust research confirms that perceptions of competence and autonomy emerge in pre-K through primary grades and become more fixed in the periods of preadolescence through adolescence (Upper Elementary, Middle, and High School grades). Developmental psychologists working in the area of achievement motivation also contend that important changes in the concept of the self occur between early, middle, and late childhood (see for example, Dweck, 2002, 2007: Wigfield & Eccles, 2002). During the middle childhood developmental period, Furrer and Skinner (2003) have shown that girls report higher relatedness toward teachers when compared to boys, but relatedness to teachers was a strongpredictor of engagement for boys. Feelings of relatedness to teachers dropped from 5th to 6th grade, but findings show that relatedness to teachers is even more important for engagement and academic achievement for 6th graders. Similar findings of girls tending to benefit more from close teacher relationships are reported by Belfield, Nores, Barnett, & Schweinhart (2006) in their age 40 follow-up analysis of benefits associated with the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.

Research looking at the decline in intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility for learning as students progress from upper elementary through high school (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Otis, Grouzet, & Pelletier, 2005; Goldstein, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2005; Cornelius-White, 2007; Harter, 2012) have found that motivation specifically declines across major school transitions, indicating there is a mismatch between the child’s developmental level and the demands of middle and high schools. Research also indicates that school adjustment in early adolescence (7th and 8th grades) is significantly related to students’ intrinsic motivation and the belief that they are responsible for taking charge of and regulating their own learning (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2009, 2013; Walls & Little, 2005).

Moderating variables

Research documents differences in how students from different cultural and ethnic groups view themselves as learners (cf. Crotty, 2013; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Graham, 1994; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Holloway, 1988; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Lodewyk, & Winne, 2005; Peng, Nisbett, & Wong, 1997; Richmond, 2014). For example, d’Ailly (2004) in comparing 5th and 6th graders from Canada and Taiwan, found somewhat different effects of providing choice for Canadian versus Chinese children and between boys versus girls. Recent research continues to verify that gender, culture, and other ethnic and racial variables relate to how willing students are to be autonomous learners in school settings (e.g., Crotty, 2013; McCombs, 2007a; Patall, Cooper, & Wynn, 2010; Richmond, 2014) and what strategies tend to work best for various students and age groups when applying choice strategies (e.g., Finn, & Schrodt, 2012; Van den Bergh, Ros, & Beijaard, 2014; Vansteenkiste, et al., 2014).

Studies reveal that there are important instructional, learning environment, and teacher differences that contribute to the development of autonomous and responsible learners (Czekalinski, 2013; Lodewyk & Winne, 2005; McCombs, 2004; McCombs & Miller, 2006; McCombs & Pope, 1994; Pintrich, 2003; Urdan, 2004). Furthermore, Australian researchers have found that in addition to instructional context variables, it is important for teachers to broaden their own socio-cultural perspectives so that they can understand how individual students are influenced by social and cultural factors in the classroom that arise from the teacher’s or other classmates’ behaviors (Alliance for Education Excellence, 2013; Deakin-Crick, 2014; Walker, Pressick-Kilborn, Arnold, & Sainsbury, 2004). 

Where can I get more information?

The following books, designed for teachers, describe strategies for helping students become more autonomous and motivated learners:

Freeware for educators that includes student experts:
  • Autodesk Education Community
    The challenges of today will be solved by the designers of tomorrow. That’s why Autodesk gives students, educators and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps and real-world projects. Autodesk Education helps inspire and prepare the next generation to imagine, design and create a better world.
  • The Teacher Toolkit
    Resources can be accessed by browsing categories or performing a search.
  • Literacy Learning
    Despite a pile of education books reaching in-excess of 20-high, the only book I’ve managed to read from cover to cover this summer is David Didau’s, The Secret of Literacy. This blog is a review.
  • Thinking and Reading in Learner-Centered Ways
    Reading, in terms of scale and diversity, is different than it used to be. Thinking, in terms of context and application, is also different. It makes since that learning is also changing — becoming more entrepreneurial than directly didactic. That is, more learner-centered than teacher-controlled. 
  • Social Learning Needs in eLearning
    When it comes to successful eLearning design, everybody should agree that there’s no such thing as too much information about how the human brain operates. It’s wired for social learning. Our respective environments actually shape our brains and the rest of our bodies.
  • Time for Teachers and Time for Teachers: Leveraging Time to Strengthen Instruction and Empower Teachers
    Examines 17 high-performing and fast-improving schools around the country that have taken advantage of expanded school schedules to provide students with more time for engaging academic and enrichment classes and teachers with more time to collaborate with colleagues, analyze students data, create new lesson plans and develop new skills.
Theoretical framework:
  • Self Determination Theory
    This website presents a brief overview of SDT and provides resources that address important issues such as human needs, values, intrinsic motivation, development, motivation across cultures, individual differences and psychological well-being. Also addressed are the applications of Self-Determination Theory to: education, health care, relationships, psychotherapy, psychopathology, organizations, sports and exercise, goals, health and well-being, environment.
    Global Guru’s names Ed Deci and Rich Ryan as two of the “Worlds Top 30 Education Professionals for 2014.”
  • International Perspectives on Theoretical and Empirical Approaches to Developing Student Talent and Creativity
    This journal provides researchers and educators at all school levels with how others have successfully described the theory and practices that work in diverse settings and with culturally diverse students. The International Journal for Talent Development and Creativity (IJTDC) is a refereed journal published twice a year by both the International Centre for Innovation in Education (ICIE) & Lost Prizes International (LPI).
When does this strategy work?

Fostering autonomous learning and the learner qualities needed for effective self-directed learning skills requires the types of curiosity stimulating, inquiry-based and collaborative practices described in this module. A blend of effective strategies that are developmentally appropriate for pre-K to 12 students are available at all school levels.

For example, the successful Perry Preschool Program used the HighScope curriculum as part of Head Start since the early to mid-1960s, demonstrate that young children can be supported in their natural abilities to be self-regulated and become autonomous learners (Barnett, 1996; Cohen, 2006; Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993; Schweinhart et al., 2005). Longitudinal studies spanning more than 40 years have shown that supporting students in their planning skills as well as encouraging them to review their academic work has demonstrated lasting effects (Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett, 2010; CASEL, 2003, 2013). Once metacognitive skills are mastered, students gain the confidence to be successful learners and take charge of their own learning. As children get older, they learn more sophisticated metacognitive strategies that support their developmental need to feel competent and self-determined (Dweck, 2007).

Do developmental differences lead to modifying the way you implement these strategies?

Individual differences encompass a range of internal learner characteristics as well as outside factors discussed throughout this module. Regardless of these differences and what impact they might have on students’ abilities to become autonomous learners, the recommended solution is to deal directly with individual student’s feelings of alienation and disconnection by using practices that:

  • Connect rather than isolate individuals.
  • Give voice to concerns of all learners in the system.
  • Promote positive growth, development of personal and social responsibility, and lifelong learning for all students.

Listening to students at all ages helps teachers understand them and their learning needs. It is the first step in understanding how best to help students develop self-directed learning skills that help them take control of their emotions, thinking and behavior.

Students’ understandings and beliefs about motivation become more differentiated and complex over time as they increase their understandings of what it means to be intelligent and capable as a learner (cf. Allen, Pianta, Gregory, Mikami, & Lun, 2011; Hood, 2014). Young children in early grades also develop perceptions of their competence, self-determination or autonomy in learning situations. Examples of how students in early elementary school can be guided into personalized activities that allow choice and control include:

During middle childhood (grades 3 to 6), a sense of relatedness (to teachers in particular) becomes increasingly important. For that reason, positive teacher-student relationships are essential for helping students become more autonomous and responsible for their own learning and motivation. The role of appropriate choice and control during these middle years is vital to students’ ongoing engagement and academic motivation. Resources for teachers include:

For students at the high school level, peer relationships grow in importance along with needs to be more independent and in control of their activities and futures. At this period, interests in learning new skills such as artistic endeavors, musical creations and writing scripts for their own TV or radio shows become highly engaging. Examples of how youth can be creative and learn to produce their own musical productions or TV shows for their peers include:

  • Jump TV: an innovative project in Switzerland that is expanding to include students from the U.S. and around the world with their Facebook presence.
  • Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don’t Think They’re Smart: an interview with motivation expert Carol Dweck, PhD, who helps teachers understand strategies that engage students in STEM topics they avoid — and why students avoid these science, technology, engineering or mathematics topics as they get older.
What do we know about moderating variables?

Over the past several decades, research has shown that interventions directed at helping students increase their sense of agency or efficacy can be successful across grade levels, content disciplines and a variety of individual differences (gender, ethnic group, socioeconomic group, abilities and disabilities). For example, several researchers have found that students from different cultural and ethnic groups have different beliefs about efficacy, competence, control and self-worth. On the other hand, research in China has shown that the construct of autonomy that is part of the Deci and Ryan (2002) intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory has similar meanings for Chinese children in grades 4-6 as American age peers (d’Ailly, 2003). More recent research by Anderman, Gimbert, O’Connell, & Riegel (2014) and Harter (2012) identifies variables related to student growth in essential skills for being self-directed and autonomous learners.

With increased technology options for teachers at all grade levels, learn more about research-based resources that have proven effectiveness in promoting self-directed and autonomous learning from:

Research has also shown that the effects of instruction, learning environments and teacher differences are important to enhancing student self-efficacy, motivation to learn, as well as learning achievement outcomes (cf. Caldwell & Spinks, 2013; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012; Fullan, & Langworthy, 2014). The teacher’s own level of self-efficacy or confidence in his/her ability to teach and reach a variety of students has been shown to be important. Other important variables include: classroom goal structures, individual student achievement goals and cultural differences.

All of these variables impact motivation and achievement in the classroom. What this means for teachers is that they need to be aware of their own levels of confidence when working with students. Teachers also need to be sensitive towards diverse social cues and behaviors among students from various cultural backgrounds in terms how they get connect and get relate to each other.


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