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Students are able to engage themselves when they’re given the opportunity to focus on their interests. The autonomy to choose a topic of interest to apply a concept, choose the format of examination, or have a voice in the direction of the course, makes a significant difference in their motivation.

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Students wish that professors would cater to a wider range of student needs, identities, and learning styles when planning their courses. [2.1]

“Attention to varying learning styles is very helpful.” - Anthropology/Environmental Sciences/Digital Marketing

“Students learn in different ways, paces, styles...and from different starting points. How can we enable more types of learners to engage and learn well?” - Finance Faculty

Top Photo: Math

Bottom Photo: Engineering Faculty

Autonomy: Work

Variety. Many students appreciate when material is presented in a variety of ways, and a variety of assignments. Students say that variation helps them learn concepts more deeply. [2.2]

“This class worked for me because the assignments were varied and worked with the material in different ways, and the exams were like that too. I learn best with varied repetition, this keeps things interesting, fresh, and fun, and helps me learn deeper.” - Neuroscience

“The medium of homework is more engaging when variable." - Anthropology/Environmental Sciences/Digital Marketing

Left Photo: Science Group. Right Photo: Chemistry

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Autonomy: Work
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Allow students to pursue their interests. Students are more interested and engaged when they’re able to choose an assignment topic or format they’re interested in. Even a small degree of autonomy makes learning more invigorating. [2.3]

“Bright Spot: Spending more time on topics that I find interesting makes me want to engage in the class more.” - Political Science

“I was interested in my biology class this semester because I was interested in the topics that we were discussing. This made it easier for me to engage well with the material and put time into it.” - Biological Sciences

Top Photo: Finance

Bottom Photo: Unknown Major

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Responsive to feedback. Students appreciate when professors are open to pivoting during the semester based on student feedback. They appreciate when professors check in for understanding, and change deadlines or topics covered accordingly. [2.4]

“Candid conversations and checking in between professors and peers to make sure we’re accomplishing what we want to. Checking in also allows for a better connection and better collaboration.”

- Anthropology/Environmental Sciences/Digital Marketing 

Top Photo: Engineering Faculty

Bottom Photo: Finance Faculty


A voice in how learning is tested. When students have a say in the topic or format for demonstrating their knowledge, testing feels much more rewarding. [2.5]

“Assignment options that challenge students to be creative.” - Engineering Faculty

“Reduce student stress by valuing more student-centered forms of assessment and course goals.” - German and Russian Faculty 

Photo: Engineering Faculty

Autonomy: Work

Ideas for Increasing Autonomy

Below are some tangible ways to implement the above insights into your classroom structure.

Identify areas of the class that could incorporate autonomy

Look at your previous syllabus and identify some areas of your class that can reasonably accommodate student choice or independence. Guiding question: "Are there areas of my class that have lessons or directions that are set in stone? Do they need to be? Could this be an area to extend choice to students?

  • This could be areas where students learn a concept, and choose an area of interest to apply it in. 

  • Students are tasked to find a good example of a phenomena. 

  • Students are tasked to compare and contrast a class concept with one of their choice. 

Ideas for Varying Assignment Types

Some students feel that a variety of assignments and methods for absorbing the material helps them learn more deeply and identify the best way to reach their 'aha' moment. 

  • Survey. To get an idea of what is working, considering surveying former students and asking which assignment types or lecture-delivery methods (or combination) worked best for them. 

  • Candid conversations in person. Mid-semester, ask students which delivery and assignment methods are working, and continue with the methods that are serving that class best. 

Ideas for Autonomy in Lecture

If it's difficult to incorporate an element of choice into assignments, consider:

  • Pre-class reading responses, that you can use to gauge understanding and points of interest. You could bring up specific students' responses (anonymously) to use as discussion points.

  • Frequently asking students what they would like to explore in the next lecture. This gets students thinking about what they still want to know. 

  • Leaving time built into lecture for discussions to diverge from the planned path, allowing students to tie topics to their specific interests.

  • Leaving time built into the end of lecture for students to share what they found interesting. This helps stay on top of what students think is interesting and relevant. 

Professor - Student Check-In

Check in with students often in regards to deadlines, material presentation, class content, etc. to cultivate a shared sense of purpose working towards learning goals. ​The best questions try to understand what students themselves would do differently to learn better. You might ask:

  • "If you had to suggest one change for this class, either assignments, lecture style, etc, to help yourself learn better, what would it be?"

  • "Are the homework assignments actually helping you learn the material? Which ones? Why or why not?"

  • "Are the deadlines of this class working for your learning needs? What would be your ideal deadline schedule?" [Be open to changing within reason if asking]. 

  • "Is what we're doing during class time helping you learn? Are the lectures effective? The pace? What would YOU change?"

Autonomy: CV
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