How Autonomy Can Transform Your Classroom and Empower Students

ALI Research Staff | Published  March 09, 2023

Giving students autonomy over their learning doesn’t just engage and motivate them; it gives them the skills to achieve academically and in life. Find out how you can empower your students with autonomy. 


fist representing student empowerment


What is Student Autonomy? 

Student autonomy refers to any situation in which students are given opportunities to make choices about their learning.

As with any approach in education, there are a variety of ways and levels of implementation.

One way to think about it is as a 3D matrix.

matrix of student autonomy

One axis of the matrix might be called the impetus of autonomy.

By this, I mean the degree to which student autonomy is “pushed” by the teacher.

Are students required to make choices, encouraged to make choices, or merely allowed to make choices?

Another axis of the matrix is the focus of autonomy, which refers to what students are making choices about.

It might be something simple and relatively inconsequential, such as whether to use a pen or pencil to complete an assignment.

It could be something significant, such as the selection of learning goals.

The third and final axis is the scope of autonomy, by which I mean the range of options, from a simple binary choice to allowing students a free range of options.


The Benefits of Student Autonomy 

What exactly are the benefits of student autonomy? In brief, they include promoting metacognition, self-efficacy, and motivation and increasing student empowerment and ownership. Let’s look at each of these in turn. 



Metacognition is the process of thinking about one's own thinking, including the ability to reflect on and regulate one's cognitive processes. Student autonomy has been shown to promote metacognition.

A study conducted by Kramarski and Michalsky (2010) found that promoting student autonomy in mathematics classes increased metacognition and improved academic achievement.  

This makes sense. If students make decisions about their learning, it forces them to reflect on how they learn.

Additionally, students who make choices are liable to make mistakes which can lead to learning from them, further enhancing their metacognitive skills.



Self-efficacy refers to an individual's belief in their ability to accomplish a task or goal.

When students have autonomy over their learning, they take ownership of the learning process, resulting in increased confidence and belief in their ability to succeed.  

Choosing learning experiences that are personally meaningful and engaging can enhance student self-efficacy and lead to higher academic success.

A study conducted by Patall, Cooper, and Robinson (2008) found that providing students autonomy in homework assignments led to increased self-efficacy as well as better learning outcomes.  


Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation results from outside factors, such as rewards or punishments. Intrinsic motivation, conversely, refers to the drive to engage in an activity because it is personally meaningful and enjoyable.  

Research indicates that when students can select learning experiences that align with their interests and needs, this can increase engagement and enjoyment of the learning process.

For example, a study by Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999) found that student autonomy in learning environments increased intrinsic motivation and academic success.  


Student Empowerment

Empowerment refers to the sense of control and agency a person feels they have over their own life and circumstances. It is easy to see how allowing students to make decisions about their learning can provide a sense of empowerment. 

As discussed above, when students make decisions for themselves, they will no doubt struggle and even fail.

We might assume this would result in a reduced feeling of empowerment.  

However, when students are guided through the (metacognitive) process of analyzing problems and working out solutions, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which can actually enhance their sense of empowerment.  

While most of us would see empowerment as a goal in itself, it actually has knock-on effects on student academic achievement.

A study conducted by McCombs and Miller (2006) found that student empowerment was positively correlated with academic achievement and social-emotional well-being.

Therefore, promoting student autonomy can be an effective way to promote student empowerment and improve learning outcomes. 


Student Ownership

Ownership refers to a sense of responsibility and investment in one's learning process.

Students take ownership of their education when they choose the path and make decisions that align with their learning needs and goals.

This, in turn, leads to increased investment in their learning process.  

Student autonomy also requires students to develop self-directed learning skills, which can further enhance their sense of ownership.

Once again, research, like that conducted by Núñez and León (2015), shows how this leads to broader academic achievement.


Bringing the Power of Student Autonomy into Your Classroom 

Many teachers are already convinced of the power of student autonomy and try to infuse it into their teaching.

Most teachers, however, won’t be able to attain the highest levels on the Matrix of Student Autonomy. After all, very few teachers work in a situation where students are allowed free range in choosing their learning goals. 

On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of even a tiny bit of autonomy. The best advice is to follow three simple rules.

  1. Start where your students are. 
  2. Continually push yourself and your students further. 
  3. Provide explicit guidance and support. 

For students who have little experience with autonomy, a simple choice can be exciting and a little scary. With help from the teacher, students can learn to weigh options and evaluate the results of their choices.

As they gain metacognitive skills, they can make more complex choices about more significant aspects of their learning. 

The more proficient students become in exercising autonomy, the more autonomy they will be able to handle and the more they will want.

In this way, student autonomy becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, with students increasing in skills and motivation, encouraging the teacher to create more opportunities for autonomy, leading to greater skill and motivation, and so on.

The overall result is that students are better prepared for success in school and life. 



Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668. 

Kramarski, B., & Michalsky, T. (2010). Investigating preservice teachers' professional growth in self-regulated learning environments that utilize video-cases, metacognitive prompts, and peer feedback. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 808–821. 

McCombs, B. L., & Miller, L. M. (2006). The journey to student empowerment: An exploration of issues and themes. Research on Social Work Practice, 16(2), 165–180. 

Núñez, J. L., & León, J. (2015). Student ownership of learning as a key component of academic achievement: A meta-analytic review. Educational Research Review, 16, 89–103. 

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270–300. 


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