Self-Determination Theory at Work in a History Classroom

One of the most effective and engaging learning experiences I had was in a high school history class. What sticks with me the most was a two-part research assignment that involved students putting together a newspaper and brochure relating to the fallout of World War II. The goal of this assignment (and the part that resonated with me) was that the teacher tasked us to find topics outside of what we talked about in class, or to significantly elaborate on already-discussed topics.

Before delving into what made the assignment so effective, I want to describe how I approached the assignment and why. When my teacher introduced the assignment, I remember jittering with excitement. Immediately, I knew I was going to research Taiwan because at the time, I was confused about the relationship between Taiwan and China. I had many friends who distinctly identified as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, but I never understood why this was the case. When starting the assignment, I wondered how I could relate Taiwan to the fallout of World War II, but after preliminary research, I discovered that Taiwan and China were major players to the United States’ containment policies.

The final products of the assignment were a detailed newspaper article and a brochure that distinguished key points from the article. For the newspaper part of the assignment, I wrote over 1,000 words (which is a lot for a high school student) because I was passionate about researching the topic. The brochure part of the assignment had me print a finished product and share copies of it with the class. Researching Taiwan and connecting it to containment allowed me to research a topic that I genuinely wanted to learn about, and it got me excited to learn more history, even beyond this topic!

While taking education classes at the graduate level, it makes sense to me why I remember this assignment so fondly. What comes to mind is self-determination theory (hereafter SDT) because this assignment exceeded at promoting autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Below is a list and brief description of how each element of SDT was met:

  1. Autonomy was the very essence of this assignment because students were tasked with researching any topic that related to the fallout of World War II. Not only that, but students were encouraged to research topics that were barely (or not at all) discussed in class. The teacher made it perfectly clear that this assignment encouraged autonomy.
  2. For me, and many others, this assignment excelled at satisfying competence. Unlike most instances of high school research, I went beyond just using what was on Wikipedia. Particularly, the teacher helped me look into the notes at the bottom of Wikipedia pages to find even more information on my topic. This enabled me to utilize dense, collegiate-level resources that were challenging to interpret. Despite being an immense challenge, I was able to derive meaning from these sources and use them to enhance my research.
  3. This assignment facilitated relatedness because I genuinely wanted to learn more about Taiwan. Before conducting my research, I wondered why my Taiwanese friends spoke Chinese, but were offended to be called Chinese. By learning about the history between Taiwan and China, my Taiwanese friends’ offense made much more sense to me. Not only did I understand history that related to my friends, but I had a much better sense of the then-current political affairs between Taiwan and China.

Despite doing this assignment over five years ago, I remember it with much detail and hope to implement something similar in my future classes. Assignments like this remind me how important it is to take research-based practices into account when designing lessons.

Featured Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

2 Replies to “Self-Determination Theory at Work in a History Classroom”

  1. Matt! I really enjoyed your post and how you applied the principles of SDT to the assignment you did in high school. SDT was my favorite theory we learned about this summer, and I agree that creating assignments using the three principles helps engage students and give them a sense of ownership over their education. I also love the creative elements to this assignment and how the two parts, newspaper and brochure, allow for both a larger written analysis portion but also a creative and artistic portion with the brochure.

  2. That sounds like a great experience, Matt! I think it’s cool that you were able to tie what we’re learning now into the assignments you were doing in school. That’s very resourceful but I think it also gives your teacher a bit of method to their madness, too. It’s important to know the “why” behind an assignment, and the fact that you can see that in an old assignment likely gives you an even greater appreciation for it looking back. Nice job!

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