Student Autonomy in a Nontraditional Middle School Classroom: How Do Students Handle Freedom?

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Dr. Stephen C. Scogin, Biology/Education

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STREAM School is a nontraditional, project-based learning program at a rural middle school in western Michigan. The program promotes high levels of student autonomy, which has been shown to lead to higher levels of engagement in projects (Bowman, 2011). In order to obtain a holistic understanding of students’ experiences in the seventh-grade STREAM program, this research utilized a convergent-parallel mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2011). Qualitative data were collected from face-to-face interviews with 51 seventh-grade students and analyzed using grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Quantitative data were taken from 50 students’ pre-post responses to the S-STEM Survey for Middle and High School (S-STEM; Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, 2012) and the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI; Ryan, 1982). Paired-samples t-tests were run on the S-STEM and IMI survey data to determine if students’ attitudes and motivations changed over the course of the school year. Furthermore, scores from the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) were collected and analyzed using independent-samples t-tests to compare STREAM (n = 60) and non-STREAM (n = 138) students. Ultimately, researchers found that students frequently mentioned the autonomous atmosphere of STREAM School when describing their experiences. For some, the transition to a highly autonomous environment was difficult and required teacher scaffolding. However, analysis of standardized test scores demonstrated that STREAM students either outperformed or were right on par with their peers in math, science, and language arts. These findings indicated the program was not detrimental to students’ mastery of mandated content standards. In addition, the S-STEM and IMI surveys indicated that students’ attitudes toward math improved after their STREAM School experience, and students felt most motivated by the projects that offered them the most freedom and choice. This study addresses a major issue in modern education: how to provide students with freedom in their learning while keeping them deeply engaged in the material and performing well on standardized tests.


This research was supported by the Hope College Biology Department and the Jacob E. Nyenhuis Faculty Development Grant Program.

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