Guest Post: Kevin Mason, “Choose Your Own Adventure: Creating Assignment Autonomy with Self-Determination Theory in the US History Survey”

Today’s guest post comes from Kevin Mason, Chair of the Department of History at Waldorf University. 


College students crave structured autonomy. As students enter the classroom they often find themselves disappointed by a curriculum that exposes them to a broad variety of content, often in areas outside of their intended majors.  Engaging these students serves as a consistent challenge for teachers of the US history survey. Even for enthusiastic students, the core curriculum history requirement can represent a challenge in self-motivation.  Flexible assignments based around self-determination theory (SDT) provide student control over content while allowing for improved engagement and empowerment, as well as higher quality work.

SDT suggests that autonomy, competency, and relatedness all vitally serve the basic psychological needs of students while helping to increase motivation.[1]  In survey courses, I merged the AHA’s ‘tuning core’ with Calder’s ‘six aspects of historical thinking’ to provide a structured foundation of competencies that met course learning outcomes. I constructed themes that allowed students to focus on specific interests they had or their declared major. Social justice issues, gender studies, representation of underrepresented populations, and economic history all served as themes often embraced by students due to personal interest or course of study.

As the course got underway, we spent the first day exploring the structure of a weekly assignment due each Thursday prior to the start of class. The assignment allowed students to select one of five pre-formulated questions. Each question incorporated one of Calder’s skills, as well as a tie to a specific theme for the course. For example, in United States History to 1877, five questions for an assignment early in the course might look like:

  1. How does understanding of progress and decline reframe the struggles for Indigenous peoples when encountering early colonists?
  2. How did the success of tobacco draw the Chesapeake colonies into the broader Atlantic World?
  3. In order to provide greater freedom for higher social orders in England and North America, lower social orders had to do without. How did this help to establish continuity in social formation?
  4. Many people arrived in North America seeking religious freedoms, however, they proved extremely intolerant of other beliefs. What were their justifications?
  5. How did England’s settlement/colonization of North America compare to Spain’s? What economic, political, social, and/or cultural factors played a role in their different strategies?

During the first class, students autonomously signed up for one of the questions. I allowed students to sign-up with whomever they liked, and found that over time groups formed based on comfort, friendships, and personalities. Initially, my instinct suggested having students collaborate with different individuals each week, however, I found that comfortable students created higher quality work.  “When students were comfortable in their group, content mastery increased by 27.5%,” found Theobald, et. al. in a 2017 study.[2] To stimulate competence, I encouraged students to develop expertise in areas of personal interest. I fostered relatedness through expressing the expectation that everyone would participate, and detailed that I would hold them accountable with part of the assignment credit deriving from sharing their work with the class.

Over the next week, students started their work outside of class by reading and analyzing the text in relation to their selected question in 150 to 200 words. Next, they headed to a resource base I developed in the course Blackboard shell to locate primary and secondary source material related to their topic. During the class session between initial assignment and submission, we talked about student experiences identifying sources, and discussed the broader narratives related to the questions in lecture. “Student-centered opportunities do not have to replace traditional lectures. Incorporating breakout sessions can enhance the content,” wrote Stephanie Wasmanski in a 2019 article for Teaching Professor.[3] “After students found their sources, they analyzed each source individually in relation to their question in 150 to 200 words. Finally, the students constructed a longer section of text, between 450 and 500 words, relating their question, the text, and their sources to the broader course content and the world of today.

After submission prior to the start of class each Thursday, students who selected the same question worked together to discuss the assignment. They shared experiences locating source material, and identified who in each group would share with the class about each section of the assignment. By having one student share about each source or section, a jigsaw activity developed where each student developed responsibility for specific content. Theobald, et. al. found that jigsaw activities led to a 67% decrease in students feeling that someone had dominated the group, as well as an increase in students mastering content.[4] The discussions organically grew out of the small groups to provide a confident platform for all students to weigh in.  As we moved through each question, a more diverse historical picture emerged that helped to reinforce practice of Calder’s historical thinking skills.  Following the class session I read through the assignments. I provided written feedback on the quality of content, sources, and discussion through Blackboard. I also returned marked rubrics in person. Providing students with multiple avenues of feedback allowed for a greater likelihood that a student might feel comfortable asking for help or encouragement.

Students enjoyed the option to control their focus and felt empowered to participate in discussions. 90.25% of respondents to course evaluations over six sections taught during the 2018-2019 academic year agreed or strongly agreed that discussions vitally supported the course.[5]  “Our weekly analysis helped relate what we were learning to stuff that is happening today,” “The class discussions helped me enjoy the course even though I don’t like history,” and “it challenged me to get out of my comfort zone,” all came as student responses to what they liked about the course.[6]  Many students focused on specific topics that might normally get glossed over due to the sheer quantity of potential content in the US survey.  Others jumped from topic to topic for several weeks before settling into one that fit.  Students displayed a greater ability on exams to link topics from decade to decade and event to event. By focusing on providing students with a course based around autonomy, competence, and relatedness, student-centered learning helped to empower students while creating deeper learning experiences.[7]


[1] Martin, K., Galentino, R., & Townsend, L. (2014). Community college student success: The role of motivation and self-empowerment. Community College Review, 42(3), 221–241.

[2] Theobald, E. J., Eddy, S. L., Grunspan, D. Z., Wiggins, B. L., & Crowe, A. J. (2017). Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLoS ONE, 12(7).

[3] Stephanie L. Wasmanski. “Break Out of the Comfort Zone: Facilitating Successful Breakout Sessions.” The Teaching Professor. August 26, 2019:

[4] Theobald, E. J., Eddy, S. L., Grunspan, D. Z., Wiggins, B. L., & Crowe, A. J. (2017). Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLoS ONE, 12(7).

[5] Waldorf University 2018-2019 evaluation data. Available from the author upon request.

[6] Waldorf University 2018-2019 evaluation data. Available from the author upon request.

[7] Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-centered learning in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 92–97. Retrieved from

One thought on “Guest Post: Kevin Mason, “Choose Your Own Adventure: Creating Assignment Autonomy with Self-Determination Theory in the US History Survey”

  1. Thank you Dr. Mason, for posting this article. It provides a splendid focus on facilitating the teaching of key principles in history, using a student-centered approach. History can be overwhelming to some students, but in the end it is about people in other times and places encountering challenges and how they went about dealing with them. The themes that occur again and again through time resonate to the challenges each of us face today in our lives: weighing in the balance solutions, ethics, values, strategies . . . history is all about our dealing with challenges in the now, and you have very ably assisted students in making powerful connections, assisting them to grow and develop as people and as future professionals and leaders. Very well done!

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