Autonomy and Competence: Self-reliance as a Learning Outcome

Many of my conversations with colleagues are about how great are the support needs of students today. There are many different ideas about why this might be the case, such as parents who do too much “helping,” high schools that were more than “accommodating,” and expectations of students and families as “customers.”

Given these conversations, I was drawn to an April 2013 Inside Higher Ed article highlighting research at the University of Rochester that found that

students motivated by a desire for autonomy and competence tended to earn higher grades and show a greater likelihood of persistence than did other students.

. . .While much previous research has suggested that students who form social connections on campus are more likely to be retained, this study found that students who place a high priority (in their decision to go to college) on meeting and interacting with peers tend to earn lower grades than do students for whom that is a lesser motivation.

If this is what the research tells us, student affairs professionals who work in student activities and multicultural affairs, in particular, will want to help students develop autonomy and competence in the work they do with clubs and organizations. Not all students are privileged with too much help, but those who are need to be cut loose from their dependence on paid staff for every need in carrying out the mission of their group.

Some student affairs staff fear that if they reduce the support, or “hand-holding” as some call it, it may appear that they don’t care about students or that they are not doing their jobs. In order to minimize these negative assessments of a change in behavior, it is important that staff establish “helping students develop autonomy and competence” as a learning outcome and support this with the research and with specific objectives and tasks based on what students need to learn to do for themselves.

In addition to supporting students in their self-sufficiency, staff will gain opportunities for planning and interacting with colleagues across campus to plan even more significant learning experiences for students.

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