Research Highlight 4: Structuring Classroom Learning for Student Success and Agency

an organized classroom

Thanks to a podcast, Emerging Research in Educational Psychology, from professor Jeff Greene speaking with professor Erika Patall about a meta-analysis she was the lead author on, I learned about her paper that looked across a large number of studies to synthesize findings on the impact of classroom structure. I thought some of the high-level takeaways were well worth highlighting with you for our 4th research highlight in this series!

I think it’s no surprise to most educators that providing structure for kids, both in terms of the classroom environment and culture, and in terms of the design of instructional tasks, is critical to improving student learning. Part of this work is what we often term “classroom management,” but as the paper describes, the work is far more encompassing than that:

“In sum, creating structure is a multifaceted endeavor that involves a diverse assortment of teacher practices that can be used independently or in various combinations, as well as to various extents, and are all intended to organize and guide students’ school-relevant behavior in the process of learning in the classroom.”

So what’s the top line item from this extensive meta-analysis?

Students benefit from predictable environments for learning

“Students universally need predictable environments that support their attempts to experience and develop competence at all school levels (e.g., Aelterman et al., 2019; Ryan & Deci, 2017; Skinner et al., 2008).”

OK. Makes sense. But where it gets interesting is that a standard assumption could be, as the authors hypothesized initially, that it’s mostly younger kids that need more structure, whereas older students need less. But that’s not what they found!

All students benefit from structure

Instead, they found that all students consistently benefited from structured learning no matter the age or grade-level:

“There was no instance, regardless of what moderator we considered, in which the relationship between classroom structure and either student engagement or competence beliefs was negative. Moreover, there was no instance in which classroom structure interventions had a negative effect on achievement.”

Classroom and school structure should build student autonomy

The other important pattern that emerged was that structure that focuses more on control of student behavior, rather than on building student autonomy, can be counter-productive:

“. . . moderator analyses with the correlational studies revealed that the relationship between classroom structure and achievement was statistically significantly stronger when structure was delivered within the context of support for autonomy and positive emotion.”

This is important in reframing how we may think about classroom management strategies at large. The ultimate goal of structured learning is to build greater student agency and autonomy.

While this may be visibly evident in kindergarten, for example, when students shift from more open-ended play to sitting for longer periods of time at desks engaged in more overtly academic tasks, this trajectory can be just as important in 6th grade, when students are learning to take on greater loads of homework and reading a higher volume of texts on their own, or in 8th grade, when students are learning to construct and debate viable and complex arguments from multiple perspectives and sources.

How are we building their autonomy with paraphrasing and summarizing evidence, both in oracy and in writing? How are we building their agency and automaticity with precise and fluent reading and spelling of multisyllabic words? These questions also show us a pathway to the type of structure we need to provide in terms of modeling, feedback, and repeated opportunities over time, based on the discipline and the grade-level we teach.

“These findings provide support for a rarely tested key principle from perspectives on classroom management and motivation, namely, that good classroom structure guides students in planning and self-regulating their own behavior, helping them to know how to act effectively within the classroom environment (e.g., Emmer & Stough, 2001; Skinner & Belmont, 1993).”

This larger goal supports our planning and vision at the school-level as well. How are we consistently teaching our students to plan and set goals to accomplish tasks? Do they know how to listen and take notes? Do they know what types of questions they can ask to learn something from an expert or from a text? Do they know how to study, how to manage their time and attention and materials? How to marshal and gather resources when they don’t have them at hand?

What are we teaching across our grade-levels and classrooms so that when students graduate from our school they are equipped for success at the next level of their lives, and we have evidence of their progress towards these expectations along the way?

While rewards and punishment may be a part of teaching students to do these things, the goal must always be towards developing that greater autonomy:

“Taking a slightly stronger position, self-determination theory has routinely emphasized that well-intended strategies for supporting learning like rewards and surveillance can back-fire because they have potential to be experienced as pressure or attempts to control students, even as they simultaneously provide information about competence (e.g., Reeve, 2009; Deci et al., 2001).”

Ask students about their perceptions of their learning

Our schools are getting much more accustomed to harvesting and using an abundance of data about students, but sometimes what can get missed in all of that data collection and analysis is talking to students themselves about their experiences with learning:

“Though not without bias, asking students themselves about their perceptions of the environment reveals the strongest associations between structure and engagement.”

In my own experience, I was sometimes surprised to learn when I talked one-on-one with students who were the most challenging – the ones who would be out in the hallways, cursing out their teachers, egging on and fighting with other kids, etc – they were the ones who would express the most interest in having more structure and guidance from adults in their lives. They wouldn’t say it directly – I don’t think they always knew how to express it, but it came out in comments like, “why aren’t there more teachers out in the hallways?,” or that their favorite teacher was the gym teacher because “he told us what to do.”

Kids can be challenging, especially teenagers, but they are often screaming out for more structure and guidance from adults in various ways. And the more they are left stranded to make their own decisions, the more they will act out.

That said, we also know that when we provide that structure in a way that the student doesn’t like, it can blow up in our faces. Students may perceive attempts to provide structure as more about control than about supporting their learning:

“Anecdotally, teachers have often noted that structure and support for autonomy seem at face value to be at odds with one another, with teachers sometimes feeling like they need to prioritize communicating their own expectations, organizing, and guiding student behavior, while limiting students’ choices and opportunities to influence learning activities, particularly when students misbehave or are at risk of poor achievement (Jang et al., 2010; Reeve, 2009). However, rather than being at odds with one another, it is important to recognize that the effects of structure vary to the extent that structure is open to interpretation depending on how it is delivered and in what broader context (e.g., Cheon et al., 2020; Ryan & Deci, 2017).”

In Sum

So what are some key takeaways from this meta-analysis? Consider the following points based on developmental expectations for that age and grade:

Key points for teachers:

Key points for school leaders:

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