Increasing Student Success Through Instruction in Self-Determination

An enormous amount of research shows the importance of self-determination (i.e., autonomy) for students in elementary school through college for enhancing learning and improving important post-school outcomes.
Findings

Research by psychologists Richard Ryan, PhD, and Edward Deci, PhD, on Self-Determination Theory indicates that intrinsic motivation (doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable), and thus higher quality learning, flourishes in contexts that satisfy human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Students experience competence when challenged and given prompt feedback. Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems. Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met, students are more intrinsically motivated and actively engaged in their learning.

Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning. Some studies have found that the use of external rewards actually decreased motivation for a task for which the student initially was motivated. In a 1999 examination of 128 studies that investigated the effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivations, Drs. Deci and Ryan, along with psychologist Richard Koestner, PhD, concluded that such rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation by undermining people’s taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves.

Self-determination research has also identified flaws in high stakes, test focused school reforms, which despite good intentions, has led teachers and administrators to engage in precisely the types of interventions that result in poor quality learning. Dr. Ryan and colleagues found that high stakes tests tend to constrain teachers’ choices about curriculum coverage and curtail teachers’ ability to respond to students’ interests (Ryan & La Guardia, 1999). Also, psychologists Tim Urdan, PhD, and Scott Paris, PhD, found that such tests can decrease teacher enthusiasm for teaching, which has an adverse effect on students’ motivation (Urdan & Paris, 1994).

The processes described in self-determination theory may be particularly important for children with special educational needs. Researcher Michael Wehmeyer found that students with disabilities who are more self-determined are more likely to be employed and living independently in the community after completing high school than students who are less self-determined.

Research also shows that the educational benefits of self-determination principles don’t stop with high school graduation. Studies show how the orientation taken by college and medical school instructors (whether it is toward controlling students’ behavior or supporting the students’ autonomy) affects the students’ motivation and learning.
Significance

Self-determination theory has identified ways to better motivate students to learn at all educational levels, including those with disabilities.
Practical Application

Schools throughout the country are using self-determination instruction as a way to better motivate students and meet the growing need to teach children and youth ways to more fully accept responsibility for their lives by helping them to identify their needs and develop strategies to meet those needs.

Researchers have developed and evaluated instructional interventions and supports to encourage self-determination for all students, with many of these programs designed for use by students with disabilities. Many parents, researchers and policy makers have voiced concern about high rates of unemployment, under-employment and poverty experienced by students with disabilities after they complete their educational programs. Providing support for student self-determination in school settings is one way to enhance student learning and improve important post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. Schools have particularly emphasized the use of self-determination curricula with students with disabilities to meet federal mandates to actively involve students with disabilities in the Individualized Education Planning process.

Programs to promote self-determination help students acquire knowledge, skills and beliefs that meet their needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness (for example, see Steps to Self-determination by educational researchers Sharon Field and Alan Hoffman). Such programs also provide instruction aimed specifically at helping students play a more active role in educational planning (for example, see The Self-directed Individualized Education Plan by Jim Martin, Laura Huber Marshall, Laurie Maxson, & Patty Jerman).

Drs. Field and Hoffman developed a model designed to guide the development of self-determination instructional interventions. According to the model, instructional activities in areas such as increasing self-awareness; improving decision-making, goal-setting and goal-attainment skills; enhancing communication and relationship skills; and developing the ability to celebrate success and learn from reflecting on experiences lead to increased student self-determination. Self-determination instructional programs help students learn how to participate more actively in educational decision-making by helping them become familiar with the educational planning process, assisting them to identify information they would like to share at educational planning meetings, and supporting students to develop skills to effectively communicate their needs and wants. Examples of activities used in self-determination instructional programs include reflecting on daydreams to help students decide what is important to them; teaching students how to set goals that are important to them and then, with the support of peers, family members and teachers, taking steps to achieve those goals. Providing contextual supports and opportunities for students, such as coaching for problem-solving and offering opportunities for choice, are also critical elements that lead to meeting needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness and thus, increasing student self-determination.

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How to Build a Better Educational System: Jigsaw Classrooms

The jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements.
Findings

In the early 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, educators were faced with a social dilemma that had no obvious solution. All over the country, well-intentioned efforts to desegregate America’s public schools were leading to serious problems. Ethnic minority children, most of whom had previously attended severely under-funded schools, found themselves in classrooms composed predominantly of more privileged White children. This created a situation in which students from affluent backgrounds often shone brilliantly while students from impoverished backgrounds often struggled. Of course, this difficult situation seemed to confirm age-old stereotypes: that Blacks and Latinos are stupid or lazy and that Whites are pushy and overly competitive. The end result was strained relations between children from different ethnic groups and widening gaps in the academic achievement of Whites and minorities.

Drawing on classic psychological research on how to reduce tensions between competing groups (e.g., see Allport, 1954; Sherif, 1958; see also Pettigrew, 1998), Elliot Aronson and colleagues realized that one of the major reasons for this problem was the competitive nature of the typical classroom. In a typical classroom, students work on assignments individually, and teachers often call on students to see who can publicly demonstrate his or her knowledge. Anyone who has ever been called to the board to solve a long division problem – only to get confused about dividends and divisors – knows that public failure can be devastating. The snide remarks that children often make when their peers fail do little to remedy this situation. But what if students could be taught to work together in the classroom – as cooperating members of a cohesive team? Could a cooperative learning environment turn things around for struggling students? When this is done properly, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

In response to real educational dilemmas, Aronson and colleagues developed and implemented the jigsaw classroom technique in Austin, Texas, in 1971. The jigsaw technique is so named because each child in a jigsaw classroom has to become an expert on a single topic that is a crucial part of a larger academic puzzle. For example, if the children in a jigsaw classroom were working on a project about World War II, a classroom of 30 children might be broken down into five diverse groups of six children each. Within each group, a different child would be given the responsibility of researching and learning about a different specific topic: Khanh might learn about Hitler’s rise to power, Tracy might learn about the U.S. entry into the war, Mauricio might learn about the development of the atomic bomb, etc. To be sure that each group member learned his or her material well, the students from different groups who had the same assignment would be instructed to compare notes and share information. Then students would be brought together in their primary groups, and each student would present his or her “piece of the puzzle” to the other group members. Of course, teachers play the important role of keeping the students involved and derailing any tensions that may emerge. For example, suppose Mauricio struggled as he tried to present his information about the atomic bomb. If Tracy were to make fun of him, the teacher would quickly remind Tracy that while it may make her feel good to make fun of her teammate, she is hurting herself and her group – because everyone will be expected to know all about the atomic bomb on the upcoming quiz.
Significance
When properly carried out, the jigsaw classroom technique can transform competitive classrooms in which many students are struggling into cooperative classrooms in which once-struggling students show dramatic academic and social improvements (and in which students who were already doing well continue to shine). Students in jigsaw classrooms also come to like each other more, as students begin to form cross-ethnic friendships and discard ethnic and cultural stereotypes. Finally, jigsaw classrooms decrease absenteeism, and they even seem to increase children’s level of empathy (i.e., children’s ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes). The jigsaw technique thus has the potential to improve education dramatically in a multi-cultural world by revolutionizing the way children learn.
Practical Application

Since its demonstration in the 1970s, the jigsaw classroom has been used in hundreds of classrooms settings across the nation, ranging from the elementary schools where it was first developed to high school and college classrooms (e.g., see Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Rosenfield, & Sikes, 1977; Perkins & Saris, 2001; Slavin, 1980). Researchers know that the technique is effective, incidentally, because it has been carefully studied using solid research techniques. For example, in many cases, students in different classrooms who are covering the same material are randomly assigned to receive either traditional instruction (no intervention) or instruction by means of the jigsaw technique. Studies in real classrooms have consistently revealed enhanced academic performance, reductions in stereotypes and prejudice, and improved social relations.

Aronson is not the only researcher to explore the merits of cooperative learning techniques. Shortly after Aronson and colleagues began to document the power of the jigsaw classroom, Robert Slavin, Elizabeth Cohen and others began to document the power of other kinds of cooperative learning programs (see Cohen & Lotan, 1995; Slavin, 1980; Slavin, Hurley, & Chamberlain, 2003). As of this writing, some kind of systematic cooperative learning technique had been applied in about 1500 schools across the country, and the technique appears to be picking up steam. Perhaps the only big question that remains about cooperative learning techniques such as the jigsaw classroom is why these techniques have not been implemented even more broadly than they already have.

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Have Your Children Had Their Anti-Smoking Shots?

Findings

In the early 1960s, social psychologist William McGuire published some classic papers showing that it is surprisingly easy to change people’s attitudes about things that we all wholeheartedly accept as true. For example, for speakers armed with a little knowledge of persuasion, it is remarkably easy to convince almost anyone that brushing one’s teeth is not such a great idea. McGuire’s insight into this curious phenomenon was that it is easy to change people’s minds about things that they have always taken for granted precisely because most people have little if any practice resisting attacks on attitudes that no one ever questions.

Taking this logic a little further, McGuire asked if it might be possible to train people to resist attacks on their beliefs by giving them practice at resisting arguments that they could easily refute. Specifically, McGuire drew an analogy between biological resistance to disease and psychological resistance to persuasion. Biological inoculation works by exposing people to a weakened version of an attacking agent such as a virus. People’s bodies produce antibodies that make them immune to the attacking agent, and when a full-blown version of the agent hits later in life, people win the biological battle against the full-blown disease. Would giving people a little practice fending off a weak attack on their attitudes make it easier for people to resist stronger attacks on their attitudes that come along later? The answer turns out to be yes. McGuire coined the phrase attitude inoculation to refer to the process of resisting strong persuasive arguments by getting practice fighting off weaker versions of the same arguments.
Significance

Once attitude inoculation had been demonstrated consistently in the laboratory, researchers decided to see if attitude inoculation could be used to help parents, teachers, and social service agents deal with a pressing social problem that kills about 440,000 people in the U.S. every year: cigarette smoking. Smoking seemed like an ideal problem to study because children below the age of 10 or 12 almost always report negative attitudes about smoking. However, in the face of peer pressure to be cool, many of these same children become smokers during middle to late adolescence.
Practical Application

Adolescents change their attitudes about smoking (and become smokers) because of the power of peer pressure. Researchers quickly realized that if they could inoculate children against pro-smoking arguments (by teaching them to resist pressure from their peers who believed that smoking is “cool”), they might be able to reduce the chances that children would become smokers. A series of field studies of attitude inoculation, conducted in junior high schools and high schools throughout the country, demonstrated that brief interventions using attitude inoculation dramatically reduced rates of teenage smoking. For instance, in an early study by Cheryl Perry and colleagues (1980), high school students inoculated junior high schools students against smoking by having the younger kids role-play the kind of situations they might actually face with a peer who pressured them to try a cigarette. For example, when a role-playing peer called a student “chicken” for not being willing to try an imaginary cigarette, the student practiced answers such as “I’d be a real chicken if I smoked just to impress you.” The kids who were inoculated in this way were about half as likely to become smokers as were kids in a very similar school who did not receive this special intervention.

Public service advertising campaigns have also made use of attitude inoculation theory by encouraging parents to help their children devise strategies for saying no when peers encourage them to smoke. Programs that have made whole or partial use of attitude inoculation programs have repeatedly documented the effectiveness of attitude inoculation to prevent teenage smoking, to curb illicit drug use, and to reduce teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In comparison with old-fashioned interventions such as simple education about the risks of smoking or teenage pregnancy, attitude inoculation frequently reduces risky behaviors by 30-70% (see Botvin et al., 1995; Ellickson & Bell, 1990; Perry et al., 1980). As psychologist David Myers put it in his popular social psychology textbook, “Today any school district or teacher wishing to use the social psychological approach to smoking prevention can do so easily, inexpensively, and with the hope of significant reductions in future smoking rates and health costs.” So the next time you think about inoculating kids to keep them healthy, make sure you remember that one of the most important kinds of inoculation any kid can get is a psychological inoculation against tobacco.

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Early Intervention Can Improve Low-Income Children’s Cognitive Skills and Academic Achievement

National Head Start program conceptualized while psychologists were beginning to study preventive intervention for young children living in poverty.
Findings
As a group, children who live in poverty tend to perform worse in school than do children from more privileged backgrounds. For the first half of the 20th century, researchers attributed this difference to inherent cognitive deficits. At the time, the prevailing belief was that the course of child development was dictated by biology and maturation. By the early 1960s, this position gave way to the notion popularized by psychologists such as J. McVicker Hunt and Benjamin Bloom that intelligence could rather easily be shaped by the environment. There was very little research at the time to support these speculations but a few psychologists had begun to study whether environmental manipulation could prevent poor cognitive outcomes. Results of studies by psychologists Susan Gray and Rupert Klaus (1965), Martin Deutsch (1965) and Bettye Caldwell and former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond (1968) supported the notion that early attention to physical and psychological development could improve cognitive ability.
Significance

These preliminary results caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, President Lyndon Johnson’s chief strategist in implementing an arsenal of antipoverty programs as part of the War on Poverty. His idea for a school readiness program for children of the poor focused on breaking the cycle of poverty. Shriver reasoned that if poor children could begin school on an equal footing with wealthier classmates, they would have a better of chance of succeeding in school and avoiding poverty in adulthood. He appointed a planning committee of 13 professionals in physical and mental health, early education, social work, and developmental psychology. Their work helped shape what is now known as the federal Head Start program.

The three developmental psychologists in the group were Urie Bronfenbrenner, Mamie Clark, and Edward Zigler. Bronfenbrenner convinced the other members that intervention would be most effective if it involved not just the child but the family and community that comprise the child-rearing environment. Parent involvement in school operations and administration were unheard of at the time, but it became a cornerstone of Head Start and proved to be a major contributor to its success. Zigler had been trained as a scientist and was distressed that the new program was not going to be field-tested before its nationwide launch. Arguing that it was not wise to base such a massive, innovative program on good ideas and concepts but little empirical evidence, he insisted that research and evaluation be part of Head Start. When he later became the federal official responsible for administering the program, Zigler (often referred to as the “father of Head Start”) worked to cast Head Start as a national laboratory for the design of effective early childhood services.

Although it is difficult to summarize the hundreds of empirical studies of Head Start outcomes, Head Start does seem to produce a variety of benefits for most children who participate. Although some studies have suggested that the intellectual advantages gained from participation in Head Start gradually disappear as children progress through elementary school, some of these same studies have shown more lasting benefits in the areas of school achievement and adjustment.
Practical Application

Head Start began as a great experiment that over the years has yielded prolific results. Some 20 million children and families have participated in Head Start since the summer of 1965; current enrollment approaches one million annually, including those in the new Early Head Start that serves families with children from birth to age 3. Psychological research on early intervention has proliferated, creating an expansive literature and sound knowledge base. Many research ideas designed and tested in the Head Start laboratory have been adapted in a variety of service delivery programs. These include family support services, home visiting, a credentialing process for early childhood workers, and education for parenthood. Head Start’s efforts in preschool education spotlighted the value of school readiness and helped spur today’s movement toward universal preschool.

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Family-Like Environment Better for Troubled Children and Teens

The Teaching-Family Model changes bad behavior through straight talk and loving relationships.
Findings

In the late 1960′s, psychologists Elaine Phillips, Elery Phillips, Dean Fixsen, and Montrose Wolf developed an empirically tested treatment program to help troubled children and juvenile offenders who had been assigned to residential group homes. These researchers combined the successful components of their studies into the Teaching-Family Model, which offers a structured treatment regimen in a family-like environment. The model is built around a married couple (teaching-parents) that lives with children in a group home and teaches them essential interpersonal and living skills. Not only have teaching parents’ behaviors and techniques been assessed for their effectiveness, but they have also been empirically tested for whether children like them. Teaching-parents also work with the children’s parents, teachers, employers, and peers to ensure support for the children’s positive changes. Although more research is needed, preliminary results suggest that, compared to children in other residential treatment programs, children in Teaching-Family Model centers have fewer contacts with police and courts, lower dropout rates, and improved school grades and attendance.

Couples are selected to be teaching-parents based on their ability to provide individualized and affirming care. Teaching-parents then undergo an intensive year-long training process. In order to maintain their certification, teaching-parents and Teaching-Family Model organizations are evaluated every year, and must meet the rigorous standards set by the Teaching-Family Association.
Significance
The Teaching-Family Model is one of the few evidence-based residential treatment programs for troubled children. In the past, many treatment programs viewed delinquency as an illness, and therefore placed children in institutions for medical treatment. The Teaching-Family Model, in contrast, views children’s behavior problems as stemming from their lack of essential interpersonal relationships and skills. Accordingly, the Teaching-Family Model provides children with these relationships and teaches them these skills, using empirically validated methods. With its novel view of problem behavior and its carefully tested and disseminated treatment program, the Teaching-Family Model has helped to transform the treatment of behavioral problems from impersonal interventions at large institutions to caring relationships in home and community settings. The Teaching-Family Model has also demonstrated how well-researched treatment programs can be implemented on a large scale. Most importantly, the Teaching-Family Model has given hope that young people with even the most difficult problems or behaviors can improve the quality of their lives and make contributions to society.
Practical Application
In recent years, the Teaching-Family Model has been expanded to include foster care facilities, home treatment settings, and even schools. The Teaching-Family Model has also been adapted to accommodate the needs of physically, emotionally, and sexually abused children; emotionally disturbed and autistic children and adults; medically fragile children; and adults with disabilities. Successful centers that have been active for over 30 years include the Bringing it All Back Home Study Center in North Carolina, the Houston Achievement Place in Texas, and the Girls and Boys Town in Nebraska. Other Teaching-Family Model organizations are in Alberta (Canada), Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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Believing You Can Get Smarter Makes You Smarter

Thinking about intelligence as changeable and malleable, rather than stable and fixed, results in greater academic achievement, especially for people whose groups bear the burden of negative stereotypes about their intelligence.
Findings

Can people get smarter? Are some racial or social groups smarter than others? Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, many people believe that intelligence is fixed, and, moreover, that some racial and social groups are inherently smarter than others. Merely evoking these stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of these groups (such as women and Blacks) is enough to harm the academic perfomance of members of these groups. Social psychologist Claude Steele and his collaborators (2002) have called this phenomenon “stereotype threat.”

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.
Significance

This research showed a relatively easy way to narrow the Black-White academic achievement gap. Realizing that one’s intelligence may be improved may actually improve one’s intelligence, especially for those whose groups are targets of stereotypes alleging limited intelligence (e.g., Blacks, Latinos, and women in math domains.)
Practical Application

Blackwell, Dweck, and Trzesniewski (2002) recently replicated and applied this research with seventh-grade students in New York City. During the first eight weeks of the spring term, these students learned about the malleability of intelligence by reading and discussing a science-based article that described how intelligence develops. A control group of seventh-grade students did not learn about intelligence’s changeability, and instead learned about memory and mnemonic strategies. As compared to the control group, students who learned about intelligence’s malleability had higher academic motivation, better academic behavior, and better grades in mathematics. Indeed, students who were members of vulnerable groups (e.g., those who previously thought that intelligence cannot change, those who had low prior mathematics achievement, and female students) had higher mathematics grades following the intelligence-is-malleable intervention, while the grades of similar students in the control group declined. In fact, girls who received the intervention matched and even slightly exceeded the boys in math grades, whereas girls in the control group performed well below the boys.

These findings are especially important because the actual instruction time for the intervention totaled just three hours. Therefore, this is a very cost-effective method for improving students’ academic motivation and achievement.
Cited Research

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1-13.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002), Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In Mark P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 34, pp. 379-440. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.
Additional Sources

Blackwell, L., Dweck, C., & Trzesniewski, K. (2002). Achievement across the adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Manuscript in preparation.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

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