As you read this unit’s article by Jang, Reeve, and Deci, (article attached), think about what you have learned about behavioral, cognitive, social learning, and constructivist theories, and what you have learned about how the theories can be applied in real life learning situations. As you read the descriptions of the methods the teachers use in the article, notice how the teachers are making use of principles and concepts from two or more of the four major theories.In your discussion post, complete the following:Describe how the theories are represented or at work in the teaching strategies in the article.Describe at least two examples of how the findings of the authors’ research support the theories you chose.For example, on page 589 of the article, the authors describe that autonomy-supportive behaviors fall within the three categories of nurturing inner motivation, using noncontrolling language, and acknowledging student feelings. Think about how these concepts represent the constructivist method.
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Journal of Educational Psychology
2010, Vol. 102, No. 3, 588 – 600
© 2010 American Psychological Association
0022-0663/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0019682
Engaging Students in Learning Activities: It Is Not Autonomy Support or
Structure but Autonomy Support and Structure
Hyungshim Jang
Johnmarshall Reeve
University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
Korea University
Edward L. Deci
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
University of Rochester
We investigated 2 engagement-fostering aspects of teachers’ instructional styles—autonomy support
and structure—and hypothesized that students’ engagement would be highest when teachers provided high levels of both. Trained observers rated teachers’ instructional styles and students’
behavioral engagement in 133 public high school classrooms in the Midwest, and 1,584 students in
Grades 9 –11 reported their subjective engagement. Correlational and hierarchical linear modeling
analyses showed 3 results: (a) Autonomy support and structure were positively correlated, (b)
autonomy support and structure both predicted students’ behavioral engagement, and (c) only
autonomy support was a unique predictor of students’ self-reported engagement. We discuss, first,
how these findings help illuminate the relations between autonomy support and structure as 2
complementary, rather than antagonistic or curvilinear, engagement-fostering aspects of teachers’
instructional styles and, second, the somewhat different results obtained for the behavioral versus
self-report measures of students’ classroom engagement.
Keywords: autonomy support, structure, engagement, self-determination theory, teacher behavior
vestigated supportive sociocontextual factors (Skinner et al.,
2008), such as teachers’ instructional style, which is generally conceptualized as a stable pattern in a teacher’s methods of instruction,
classroom management, and interpersonal style with students
(Schultz, 1982). In the present study, we examined two particular
engagement-promoting aspects of teachers’ instructional style: provision of autonomy support (vs. being controlling) and provision of
structure (vs. chaos). According to the existing literature, when teachers focus on supporting students’ autonomous motives (e.g., interests,
needs, preferences, personal goals) to guide their learning and activity,
these instructional acts support students’ engagement by presenting
interesting and relevant learning activities, providing optimal challenges, highlighting meaningful learning goals, and supporting students’ volitional endorsement of classroom behaviors (Assor, Kaplan,
& Roth, 2002; Reeve & Jang, 2006; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, &
Barch, 2004). Further, when teachers provide high structure by communicating clear expectations and framing students’ learning activity
with explicit directions and guidance, these instructional acts support
students’ engagement by keeping students on task, managing their
behavior, and avoiding chaos during transitions (Skinner & Belmont,
1993; Tucker et al., 2002).
While both autonomy support and structure make important
contributions to supporting students’ classroom engagement, the
nature of the relation between them has been portrayed rather
confusingly in the literature in at least three different ways—as
being antagonistic, curvilinear, and independent. These differing
portrayals of the relation between provision of autonomy support
and provision of structure call for a deeper understanding of their
interrelation as the multiple portrayals mislead and confuse teachers and researchers alike. To shed light on the relation between
Engagement expresses the behavioral intensity and emotional
quality of a student’s active involvement during a learning
activity (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Skinner, Furrer,
Marchand, & Kindermann, 2008; Wellborn, 1991). In classroom settings, engagement is particularly important because it
functions as a behavioral pathway through which students’
motivational processes contribute to their subsequent learning
and development (Connell & Wellborn, 1991), including the
skills they develop (Skinner & Belmont, 1993) and the grades
they make (Finn & Rock, 1997). In contrast, disengaged students are distracted, passive, do not try hard, give up easily in
the face of challenge or difficulty, express negative emotions,
fail to plan or monitor their work, and generally withdraw (e.g.,
“When I am in class, I usually think about other things”;
Skinner & Belmont, 1993).
When students engage in classroom learning, there is almost
always some aspect of the teacher’s behavior that plays a role in
the initiation and regulation of the engagement. To better understand students’ academic engagement, many researchers have in-
Hyungshim Jang, Department of Educational Psychology, University of
Wisconsin—Milwaukee; Johnmarshall Reeve, World Class University
Project Group, Department of Education, Korea University, Seoul, Korea;
Edward L. Deci, Department of Psychology, University of Rochester.
This research was supported by the Grant for Excellence in Urban
Education awarded to Hyungshim Jang.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Hyungshim Jang, who is now at the Department of Education, #325
West Building, Inha University, Incheon 402-751, South Korea. E-mail:
hjang@inha.ac.kr
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AUTONOMY SUPPORT AND STRUCTURE
teacher-provided autonomy support and teacher-provided structure, we pursued two research questions. First, how do these two
engagement-fostering aspects of a teacher’s instructional style
relate to one another in teachers’ naturally occurring instruction?
Second, do both autonomy support and structure contribute positively and uniquely to the support of students’ engagement during
learning activities? Before presenting our hypotheses, we, in the
following sections, discuss autonomy support and structure as two
different engagement-fostering aspects of teachers’ instructional
styles and then discuss their potential interrelation.
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Autonomy Support
Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2002) proposes
that a teacher’s instructional style can be conceptualized along a
continuum that ranges from highly controlling to highly autonomy
supportive (Deci, Schwartz, Sheinman, & Ryan, 1981). In general,
teachers who adopt an autonomy-supportive style engage students
by facilitating an on-going congruence between students’ autonomous sources of motivation and their moment-to-moment classroom activity. Autonomy-supportive teachers facilitate students’
personal autonomy by taking the students’ perspective; identifying
and nurturing the students’ needs, interests, and preferences; providing optimal challenges; highlighting meaningful learning goals;
and presenting interesting, relevant, and enriched activities.
More specifically, what autonomy-supportive teachers say
and do to engage students during learning activities can be
characterized by three categories of instructional behavior: (a)
nurture inner motivational resources, (b) rely on noncontrolling
informational language, and (c) acknowledge the students’ perspective and feelings (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994;
Mageau & Vallerand, 2003; Reeve & Jang, 2006; Reeve, Jang,
et al., 2004; Ryan & La Guardia, 1999). When autonomysupportive teachers nurture students’ inner motivational resources, they create opportunities for students to take the initiative during learning activities by building instruction around
students’ interests, preferences, personal goals, choice making,
and sense of challenge and curiosity, rather than relying on
external sources of motivation such as incentives, consequences, directives, and deadlines. When autonomy-supportive
teachers rely on noncontrolling informational language, they
provide explanatory rationales for requested tasks and communicate through messages that are informative, flexible, and rich
in competence-related information, rather than neglecting rationales and by communicating through messages that are evaluative, controlling, pressuring, or even rigidly coercive. When
autonomy-supportive teachers acknowledge the students’ perspectives and feelings, they consider and communicate a valuing of the students’ perspectives during learning activities,
inquire about and acknowledge students’ feelings, and accept
students’ expressions of negative affect as a potentially valid
reaction to classroom demands, imposed structures, and the
presentation of uninteresting or devalued activities.
Each of these aspects of what autonomy-supportive teachers say
and do during instruction is important because empirical research
shows that students with autonomy-supportive teachers, compared
to students’ with controlling teachers, display an impressive and
589
wide range of positive educational outcomes (Reeve, 2009; Reeve,
Deci, & Ryan, 2004), including enhanced classroom engagement
(Jang, 2008; Reeve, Jang, et al., 2004). For instance, Reeve, Jang,
and colleagues (2004) showed that raters’ scoring of high school
students’ engagement increased markedly after their teachers participated in a training program on how to nurture inner motivational resources, rely on informational language, provide explanatory rationales, and acknowledge and accept negative feelings. A
series of laboratory studies with college students showed that both
students’ self-reported engagement and rater-scored engagement
were greater when tutors or teachers relied on informational language, provided explanatory rationales, and acknowledged negative feelings (Deci et al., 1994; Jang, 2008; Reeve, Jang, Hardre, &
Omura, 2002). The reason students benefit so widely and so
substantially (e.g., engagement, preference for optimal challenge,
conceptual understanding, grades, psychological well-being) from
their exposure to teachers with an autonomy-supportive motivating
style is because such a style supports students’ internal perceived
locus of causality, experience of volition, and sense of choice
during learning activities (i.e., it supports students’ autonomous
motivation; Reeve, 2009).
Structure
Another aspect of a teacher’s instructional style that has been
used to promote students’ engagement is structure (Connell &
Wellborn, 1991; Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Skinner et al., 2008;
Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998). Structure refers to
the amount and clarity of information that teachers provide to
students about expectations and ways of effectively achieving
desired educational outcomes (Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Skinner
et al., 1998). Its opposite is chaos in which teachers are confusing
or contradictory, fail to communicate clear expectations and directions, and ask for outcomes without articulating the means to
attain them.
Teacher-provided structure has been studied extensively within
the classroom management literature as establishing order (Doyle,
1986), introducing procedures (Emmer, Evertson, & Anderson,
1980), communicating policies about how to get things done (e.g.,
how to give completed work to the teacher; Carter & Doyle, 2006),
and minimizing misbehavior while encouraging engagement and
achievement (Brophy, 2006). It has also been examined in the
literature on promoting students’ social and cognitive development
(Huston-Stein, Friedrich-Cofer, & Susman, 1977) and on implementing “structured conversations” within peer learning
(O’Donnell, 2006). For those who study structure from a motivational point of view, teacher-provided structure further helps students to develop a sense of perceived control over school outcomes—that is, to develop perceived competence, an internal
locus of control, mastery motivation rather than helplessness,
self-efficacy, and an optimistic attributional style (Skinner, 1995;
Skinner et al., 2008). Hence, when taken as a whole, teachers
provide structure by clearly communicating expectations and directions, taking the lead during some instructional activities, providing strong guidance during the lesson, providing step-by-step
directions when needed, scheduling student activities, marking the
boundaries of activities and orchestrating the transitions between
them, offering task-focused and personal control-enhancing feed-
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
590
JANG, REEVE, AND DECI
back, and providing consistency in the lesson (Brophy, 2006;
Doyle, 2006; Huston-Stein et al., 1977; Skinner & Belmont, 1993).
More specifically, what structured teachers say and do can be
characterized by three categories of instructional behavior: (a)
present clear, understandable, explicit, and detailed directions; (b)
offer a program of action to guide students’ ongoing activity; and
(c) offer constructive feedback on how students can gain control
over valued outcomes (Brophy, 1986; Skinner, 1995; Skinner &
Belmont, 1993; Skinner et al., 1998). When teachers establish
clear and understandable directions, they establish clear expectations with respect to students’ future behavior and prescribe ways
for students to manage their moment-to-moment activity during a
forthcoming learning activity. When teachers offer strong guidance, they provide students with the leadership and the scaffolding
needed for students to instigate and maintain effort toward achieving their plans, goals, and learning objectives. When teachers offer
constructive feedback, they help students diagnose and build on
their skills and sense of competence. In these ways, teachers can
prescribe to students what is expected of them and help them come
to understand “what it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve
got it” (Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990, p. 22).
These aspects of what structured teachers say and do during
instruction are important because empirical research shows that
students with structured teachers, compared to chaotic or laissezfaire ones, display positive educational outcomes (Brooks, 1985;
Brophy, 1986, 2006; Brophy & Good, 1986; Evertson & Weinstein, 2006; Huston-Stein et al., 1977), including enhanced classroom engagement (Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Tucker et al., 2002).
For instance, Skinner and Belmont (1999) conducted time-lagged
analyses to show that elementary school students (Grades 3–5)
showed enhanced engagement in the fall when their teachers
provided highly structured learning environments in the spring.
Skinner and her colleagues (2008) showed a similar result with
older children (Grades 4 –7). Sierens, Vansteenkiste, Goossens,
Soenens, and Dochy (2009) showed that teacher-provided structure was associated with high levels of high school students’
self-regulating management of their classroom engagement. The
reason students benefit from their exposure to teachers with a
structured instructional style is because such a style supports
students’ perceptions of competence, perceived control over valued outcomes, and self-regulated learning strategies (Skinner et al.,
1998; Sierens et al., 2009).
The term structure is often used in discussions of education
generally and of education of students with special needs in
particular. However, in many cases, there is a confluence between
the concepts of structure and control. That is, people use the term
structure to refer to demands, insistences, sanctions, and rigid
rules. We emphasize, in contrast, that whereas structure can be
used in controlling ways and often is, control is by no means
essential to structure. Indeed, we hypothesized that when structure
is used in controlling ways, it will be detrimental to, rather than
facilitative of, student engagement; whereas when it is used in
autonomy-supportive ways, it will be facilitative of engagement.
As an illustration of the confluence between structure and control—and of the more general point that structure can be provided
in either controlling or autonomy-supportive ways—Koestner,
Ryan, Bernieri, and Holt (1984) introduced rules to structure
children’s painting activity. When the rules were imposed in a
controlling way (without explanatory rationale, without acknowl-
edging the children’s perspective and feelings), children’s engagement in the painting activity was lower than it was for children
randomly assigned to a control group without the rules. When
these same rules were provided to the children in an autonomysupportive way (with explanatory rationales, with the acknowledgment of the children’s perceptive and feelings), however, children
showed no decrease in engagement compared to the children in the
control group and greater engagement than children who received
the rules presented in a controlling way. Beyond rules, other
research has shown essentially the same effects for other elements
of structure—including communications, goals, expectations, rewards, and feedback (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; Grolnick &
Ryan, 1987; Jang, 2009; Ryan, Mims, & Koestner, 1983; Schuh,
2004)—namely, that any element of structure can be presented in
either an autonomy-supportive or controlling way and, also, that
student outcomes are enhanced when the element of structure is
presented in an autonomy-supportive way, yet diminished when
the element of structure is presented in a controlling way (Sierens
et al., 2009).
Relation Between Autonomy Support and Structure
Teacher-provided autonomy support and structure both make
important contributions to supporting students’ classroom engagement. The nature of their relation with each other, however, has
been portrayed in the literature in at least three different ways.
First, autonomy support and structure have been conceptualized
as being both antagonistic to each other and opposites in their
effects on students’ engagement. Some argue that the various
elements of classroom structure, such as rules, interfere with
teachers’ provision of choice, spontaneity, and the cultivation of
personal responsibility (Daniels & Bizar, 1998). This view of the
relation between structure and autonomy support proposes that a
greater implementation of one aspect of a teacher’s style necessarily leads to a lesser implementation of the other. Our view,
however, is that this supposed antagonism between autonomy
support and structure is not inherent in the concepts, but rather
results from the implicit inclusion of control in some approaches to
using structure.
Second, some have proposed that there is a curvilinear relation
between structure and autonomy support, with teachers moderate
in structure being highest in autonomy support, and also that high
autonomy support with moderate structure yields optimal engagement (deCharms, 1984). According to deCharms (1984), when
teachers provide too little structure, students fail to develop the
prerequisite skills they need to experience engagement-fostering
personal causation (i.e., high perceived autonomy, high perceived
competence). When teachers provide too much structure, students
may learn task-relevant skills but come to hate the experience if it
is overly scripted and hence void of a sense of personal causation.
It is only with moderate structure—some supervision but not
totalitarian supervision—that students learn both prerequisite skills
and the experience of personal causation that promotes engagement.
Here too we believe there may be some confusion between
structure and control. Specif …
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