Supporting student autonomy in physical education



Publication Details

Perlman, D and Webster, CA, Supporting student autonomy in physical education, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 82(5), 2011, 46-49.


Physical education can be a personally rewarding experience for children and adolescents. It also has the potential to help students acquire the skills, knowledge, and values to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle by regularly participating in physical activity. However, not all students enjoy physical education, and motivation to learn in class tends to wane as children reach adolescence (Mowling, Brock, Eiler, & Rudisill, 2004). Students who lack motivation or whose motives are maladapted to desired program outcomes are more likely to feel unsatisfied with their learning experiences, be disengaged in class, and be truant from class (Ntoumanis, Pensgaard, Martin, & Pipe, 2004). For these students, physical education falls short of meeting its potential. The problem of unmotivated students in physical education is not new, and substantial research has been done to try to find a solution. Recently, this research has drawn on self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) to tease out variables related to motivation. Studies within this theoretical frame have clearly demonstrated that student motivation is influenced by the extent to which autonomous learning is supported in class (Ntoumanis, 2001, 200Si Vallerand & Losier, 1999), Autonomy support is a powerful mechanism in student motivation because it facilitates self-determination, which, as will be discussed, has more staying power than other behavioural regulators. Self-determined students are motivated to learn because they possess an internalized desire to do so, not because they feel pressure from external sources, such as guilt, threats, tangible rewards, or other extrinsic incentives. External motivators can be effective in the short term as long as they are present, but they lose their effect once removed or when the goal is long-term maintenance of a behaviour. Given the overarching goal of physical education to foster lifelong participation in physical activity, it is essential for teachers to understand self-determined motivation and to explore pedagogical strategies for enhancing autonomous learning.

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