Motivating students

iStock_000016837201_ExtraSmallIncreasingly, educational programs designed to improve student performance are taking into account motivational as well as cognitive variables. Motivation is a complex issue involving such factors as students’ interest, goals, values and self-image, as well as their feelings about the learning environment. Researchers have been examining how these factors combine to influence learning in the everyday context of the classroom.

Richard M. Ryan and Cynthia L. Powelson, University of Rochester, believe that students are most likely to be interested and engaged in learning in classes that support their autonomy and, at the same time, foster a sense of “relatedness” with the teacher. Ryan and Powelson state that these supportive, interpersonal relationships are often missing in our schools.

The importance of autonomy

These researchers define autonomy as self-rule or the freedom to regulate one’s own actions. Relatedness refers to the emotional and personal bonds between individuals. Ryan and Powelson believe that these two needs are central to motivation and that increased learning will result if educational settings are conducive to developing feelings of relatedness and autonomy. Such educational environments, they write, nurture and facilitate rather than direct and control.

Research demonstrates, Ryan and Powelson report, that the amount of parental support for a child’s autonomy has a direct bearing on the child’s self-regulation and competence in school. However, even with parental support, a child’s performance is strongly influenced by his or her teachers’ attitudes toward autonomy and control. While surveys show that teachers recognize the importance of interpersonal relationships and students’ need for autonomy, many teachers state that the pressure to ensure student achievement, coupled with the number and heterogeneity of the students in their classes, limits their ability to encourage autonomy and requires them to be more controlling.

Environments that support autonomy

In the studies cited by Ryan and Powelson, researchers examined the impact of autonomy-supportive versus controlling environments. In these studies, there were no significant variations in curriculum, content or cognitive techniques. These studies attempted to measure only variations in the interpersonal context in which these factors function.

In one study, fourth-grade teachers were introduced to a new curriculum package. Half were specifically asked to “ensure that children performed well”, while the other half were told to “facilitate children’s learning.” Results of this study indicated that performance-oriented teachers used controlling strategies, and that their students did not perform as well as those taught by learning-oriented teachers.

Another study attempted to show that autonomous or self-regulated learning has a qualitative advantage over externally controlled learning. In this study, reading comprehension and memory of standard fifth-grade textbook material was compared under three conditions: (1) nondirected, “spontaneous” learning during which children were encouraged to read the text with no expectation that learning would be assessed; (2) autonomy-supportive, directed learning in which children read a text and were told that experimenters would assess what they learned without attaching any grades to their performance; and (3) controlled, directed learning in which children were told they would be tested and graded on their reading. (This last controlled-learning situation is considered by these researchers to be the most common form of motivating students in schools.) After reading the text, all children were tested for rote recall of the text and for conceptual learning. Without warning, the children were also assessed one week later to evaluate their longer-term retention.

Greater deterioration from rote learning

Results indicated that the two directed-learning conditions produced superior rote learning in comparison to the nondirected learning condition. However, the children who were directed to learn under the more controlling condition (with grades) demonstrated greater deterioration of rote recall after only one week, suggesting that pressured learning is less likely to be retained. In addition, children who learned under pressure were least likely to comprehend clearly the main conceptual points of the text they read. The researchers hypothesized that there was less assimilation and integration of what was read among pressured students.

A further study provides more evidence in support of the relationship between autonomous motivation and the quality of learning: children in nonpressured conditions consistently showed superior long-term retention.

Relatedness to teachers and parents

Studies that have measured students’ feeling of relatedness to parents and teachers suggest that students are more highly motivated and hold more positive attitudes about school in environments where feelings of attachment to adults are encouraged. One study found that students’ feelings of relatedness increased when adults were perceived as being involved with students and supportive of their autonomy. Conversely, students were less secure in their relationships with adults who were perceived as controlling or uninvolved.

Ryan and Powelson believe that children benefit from close personal relationships with the adults who teach them and that schools often discourage the development of such personal relationships. These researchers are convinced that their review of recent studies on motivation provides evidence that autonomy and relatedness facilitate learning and, therefore, have a significant impact on cognitive outcomes. They recommend that these interpersonal factors ought to be studied and applied within classrooms and supported by administrative decisions. They believe that affective and cognitive goals are interdependent and they urge educators to focus less exclusively on cognitive standards and more on enhancing the students’ interest in and control of their own learning.


“Autonomy and Relatedness as Fundamental to Motivation and Education” Journal of Experimental Education Volume 60, Number 1, pp. 49-66.

Published in ERN March/April 1992 Volume 5 Number 2

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