Tierney Wisniewski – Final M.A. Defence (HDLC)

Tuesday, October 5, 2017
Neville Scarfe, Room 278

Supervisor: Dr. Jennifer Shapka (HDLC)
Supervisory Committee: Dr. Deborah Butler (HDLC) and Dr. Nancy Perry (HDLC)

Title: Role Redefinition as Autonomy Support: A Narrative Inquiry


Self-determination theory (SDT) is a well-established theory of motivation that posits that we grow optimally to the degree to which our contexts afford us autonomy support, the collective term for the ways in which others afford us opportunities to satisfy our basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Although Ryan and Niemiec (2009) suggest that self-determination theory can be “critical and liberating,” I trouble their assertion, making use of literature on student voice, student-faculty learning partnerships, and radical collegiality, and propose that redefining the student role is an essential form of autonomy support if we wish to follow through on SDT’s liberating possibilities. To that end, I undertook a narrative inquiry into five students’ experiences of transformation through role redefinition in a set of non-traditional university courses. Participants described their experiences and relationships with peers and instructors before, during, and after this set of courses. A thematic analysis revealed that students experienced their traditional courses as largely controlling, with concomitant negative effects on their engagement and well-being, while they experienced these non-traditional courses as highly autonomy-supportive, with concomitant positive effects. Analysis also revealed that students underwent two transformative processes: an incremental process of integration and a more epochal process of role redefinition. This latter process in particular was fostered through persistent messages that students’ educations belonged to them, through de-emphasis on the instructor-student hierarchy, and through being supported through their struggles with transformation. Once students redefined their roles, they took more responsibility for their peers’ well-being, offered them autonomy support, and engaged more agentically in other courses by expressing themselves more, taking more risks, and even standing up to and defying miseducative instructors on their own and their peers’ behalves. They came to perceive themselves as agents of change not only in their institutions, but also in other arenas, following through on the critical and liberating potential of SDT that Ryan and Niemiec had envisioned. This study has broad implications for how educators engage with students and how our institutions are structured, as well as how SDT research is conducted, if we wish to capitalize on this potential.