The Challenge of Autonomy in Isolation

Lee Dieck (September 2021)

As I study and learn more about self-determination theory, I am struck by the interconnectedness of the basic psychological needs: Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence. In these pandemic months I found myself thinking about this more deeply as I reflected on my own work, and on the efforts of my students. Here I’d like to explore one example of the relationship between autonomy and belonging.

We often define fostering autonomy for students as providing “voice and choice” –giving students the opportunity to pursue their learning in a particular course in a variety of ways. By providing choice in assignments and assessments that are tailored to students’ interests and work styles (e.g., offering a choice between a written essay or oral presentation or between working alone or with a partner), teachers can help students “own” their learning, and become more intrinsically motivated to complete their work thoughtfully. The notion of authentic assessment is relevant here as well; by assessing students in a way that demonstrates how the subject matter relates to the real world, instructors can help the learning become more meaningful.

What became deeply apparent to me during this pandemic time is that autonomy doesn’t work in isolation for students or professionals. The power of autonomy is greatly magnified when choice is granted within a community of belonging. This is something I was intellectually aware of prior to the pandemic, but the circumstances of working and learning during this 18-month period provided clarity.  While being given a certain amount of say with regard to the work we do enables us to pursue our learning in ways that make sense to us, our learning depends deeply on the guidance and feedback of those around us. For students, that guidance is often provided by a teacher, and feedback is ideally provided by both instructors and peers. A skilled instructor provides appropriate levels of scaffolding, enabling students to grow and become more competent in that discipline. Formative feedback likewise allows for further growth and development. For professionals, that guidance and feedback are ideally provided by professional peers and mentors. This kind of support for both students and professionals happens best in a community where we experience strong, trusting, learning relationships, i.e. a community of belonging. In these pandemic months, our community connections have been hindered and strained, impeding the provision of this type of guidance and feedback. 

As I begin this academic year, here are some things that I am committing myself to:

  • Prioritizing the fostering of trusting learning relationships in my classes. 
  • Providing structure for assignments and assessments that allows students to feel autonomy and support. 
  • Making time to help students understand how feedback is best given and received and providing practice. 
  • Supporting the colleagues I work with and mentor by checking in with them about their work more actively, providing support and feedback to them as they pursue professional growth.  

For further reading: In March of this year, Kevin Dettmar wrote about this issue in Inside Higher Ed, commenting on the difference between autonomy and isolation, and reflecting upon how deeply the isolation of this last 18 months has impacted him.  (See Kevin’s article here.)