skip to main content columnskip to left navigation

Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Student Autonomy

Student AutonomyWhy is Student Autonomy Important?

Imagine you came in to work and discovered that you no longer had control over your course in any way. You are instead told precisely WHAT to teach, and precisely HOW to teach it - you don't have any flexibility in judging what the most important information to teach is, nor the best instructional strategies that fit your personality and course content.

Feels restrictive, doesn't it?

This is often how we structure our classes for students, however: We tell them exactly what to learn and precisely how to demonstrate that knowledge, with very little flexibility.

If your course is like this, you are not to blame for this state of affairs; not only is it standard practice, but many students want the clear structure this type of set-up allows. They want it because they are focused on performance goals.

Allowing for student autonomy in your course may be the best way to light their fires and get better performance from them. Often, autonomy is achieved by allowing students a sense of choice.


What Can I Do to Structure a Class to Include More Student Autonomy?

1. Allow students to choose the weight of the assignments in your class toward the final grade.

  • This option is best exercised at the beginning of the semester. Have students either assign proportions to each assignment such that they equal 100%, or lay out some weighting options that you find acceptable.
  • For example: Offer 4 grading options such as below. Here, students choose whether or not to do additional work for the course, which reduces the weight of the exam grades. For each, exams are still the same length and originally scored out of 100%, then adjusted per grading option.
 
Option 1
Option 2
Option 3
Option 4

Exams (4)

400

300

300

200

Term Paper

100

100

100

100

Optional Assignments (4 @ 25 pts each)

x

100

x

100

Optional Discussions (10 @10 pts each)

x

x

100

100

Total Points for Course

500

500

500

500

 

2. Allow students some choice within an assignment as to the topic. Examples:

  • For a paper, can they select a topic from within either a set of possible topics that you provide, or from within the course content (pending your approval)?
  • For a project that involves problem-solving, can you vary the problem's context or setting without really affecting the underlying mechanisms or strategies needed for solution, and then allow students to choose their preference?
  • For discussions, can they select a topic they feel is most important from a section of reading, and pursue that angle by leading a discussion about it?

3. Allow students some choice about how they can demonstrate their learning. Examples:

  • For term papers, can you permit student selection from different formats? (E.g., professional letter style, magazine article style, brochure style, argument letter style)
  • For projects, can they select from among various methods for presenting what they have accumulated and learned? (E.g., poster presentation, website/blog creation, digital video creation, digital Powerpoint presentation)
icon for left menu icon for right menu