In 2009, Brett Jones, an educational psychologist at Virginia Tech, published a review paper looking at the area of motivational psychology, and specifically reviewing the evidence about academic motivation. In the review, he presents a model of academic motivation based on five, well established, principles of motivational psychology. He called his model the MUSIC model of academic engagement. MUSIC is an acronym standing for: eMpowerment, Usefulness, Success, Interest, and Caring. The most important part of his model is that we can change our teaching approaches to incorporate any or all of the principles. In this post, I’ll present the principle of empowerment.
The evidence for empowerment, and the principles underlying it, make it (for me, at least) one of the most powerful principles. “Empowerment refers to the amount of perceived control that students have over their learning.” (Jones, 2009, p. 274) Whether the students actually have control of not doesn’t matter, it is the perception that counts.
The underlying psychological principle is related to basic motivational drives. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, working out of the University Rochester, have published extensively in the area, and have established their self-determination theory on work stretching back over the past three decades (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1991; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The principle of self determination is that people enjoy participating in activities that they perceive to have some control over. The two extremes would be either the feeling of complete autonomy, or the feeling of being completely controlled.
Choosing to participate in a learning activity because that is what a person wants to learn will end up with much greater motivation than participation because, well – you just have to do it. Underlying this principle are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves wanting to engage in an activity because of an internal desire to engage. Doing something because you are intrinsically motivated results in real engagement in an activity because that is what a person wants to do. Extrinsic motivation, or doing something because there is an external reason for doing it (a reward – money or grades are examples – or a forced engagement) results in a lower level of engagement, and often, a superficial completion of a task, just to satisfy the external demands of the task. Another principle is that long-term extrinsic motivation for a task set will reduce whatever intrinsic motivation a person had for engaging in an activity (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).
Johnmarshall Reeve and Hyungshim Jang (2006) tell us that our teaching styles and classrooms range from supporting autonomous learning or being completely controlling of the entire learning process. We, as teachers, decide how much autonomy our students have on a module. Jones writes:
Students of autonomy-supportive teachers have been shown to receive many benefits, including enhanced conceptual learning, greater perceived academic and social competence, a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, greater creativity, a preference for challenging tasks, a more positive emotional tone, increased school attendance, and higher grades (Amabile, 1985; Boggiano, Main, & Katz, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi, 1985; deCharms, 1976; Deci, Schwartz, Sheinman, & Ryan, 1981; Filak & Sheldon, 2008; Flink, Boggiano, & Barrett, 1990; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Harter, 1982; Ryan & Connell, 1989; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986; Shapira, 1976; Vallerand & Bissonnette, 1992).
We can do this! we can give them autonomy! I have done it in my module, and the results are fantastic. I have had three colleagues who have recently turned their seminars over to their students to present what the students want around the subject, and these lecturers are ecstatic (I’m not exaggerating here) about the results. Trust your students – they came here for a reason. Give them an opportunity to shine, and they will shine.