medical sciences

Giving students more autonomy in gym class has far-reaching benefits

2019_08_08_football (pixabay)

Studies show that students’ health-related quality of life (HRQoL) is declining with age. This has an adverse effect on their physical, social, emotional and academic capabilities. Since young people spend a large portion of their time at school, the school as a whole, as well as the physical education teachers, have an important role on the students’ HRQoL. A doctoral thesis written at the University of Tartu showed that for ensuring students’ HRQoL, teachers need to reduce controlling behaviour towards students and pay more attention to behaviour that would support the autonomy of students.

A doctoral student at the University of Tartu’s Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy, Henri Tilga, said that in studies, children coming into adolescence admit that they are physically less active, have trouble concentrating, their cognitive abilities while studying have decreased and relationships with teachers are no longer as good as they could be.

“The key factor here is how the student perceives the teacher. Self-determination theory divides teachers’ behaviour towards students in two: controlling and autonomy-supportive. When with the former, the teacher’s attitude is commanding and unyielding towards students’ choices, then with the latter, the teacher is understanding, gives students relevant information, options and opportunities,” explained Tilga. With a controlling teacher, a student may feel that their psychological needs are thwarted or frustrated. For example, the student may feel that their actions are not self-determined, that they are not capable of completing the required task, or they do not feel a sense of solidarity with their classmates. With an autonomy-supportive teacher, the student is likely to perceive their psychological needs to be fulfilled.

The doctoral thesis by Henri Tilga, a specialist at the University of Tartu’s Department of Physical Education and Sport, includes four studies conducted among 28 physical education teachers and 3,870 students between the ages of eleven and fifteen from 75 Estonian schools. The practical aim of the doctoral thesis is to raise awareness in physical education teachers about autonomy-supportive as well as controlling behaviour, and their effect on students.

The doctoral thesis showed that in order to improve students’ HRQoL, physical education teachers need to reduce controlling behaviour, including intimidation. HRQoL affects students’ physical, social, emotional and academic functioning. A student with better HRQoL feels they can complete physically strenuous exercises, they get along with other students, sleep well and are academically successful. With a decline in HRQoL, their relationships with classmates may deteriorate, they may feel scared or worried, have difficulty concentrating in class and miss more classes. “The positive effect of supporting autonomy and the negative effect of controlling behaviour take different paths. When a teacher intimidates a student, later affirmation will not compensate for the intimidation. Controlling behaviour must be decreased. We need to pay more attention to both behaviours at schools,” said Tilga.

The results of the studies showed that physical education teachers need to offer students cognitive, procedural and organisational autonomy support. “This means that to support students’ HRQoL, physical education teachers should try to understand the student, show interest in their wishes, encourage them and increase their self-confidence, create discussion, explain why something is being learnt, guide them towards finding solutions and give an overview of the learning process. The students should have the opportunity to choose between the exercises, equipment and exercise place. The teacher should know how to accept different reasonable solutions,” described Tilga.

Based on research, a web-based training programme has been developed, which gives physical education teachers feedback on their behaviour, its effects on students as well as on the more specific mechanisms behind this influence.

More information:

Henri Tilga, Specialist at the University of Tartu Department of Physical Education and Sport, Doctoral Student, +372 737 5382,

Notice forwarded by:

Virge Ratasepp, Communication Specialist at University of Tartu Faculty of Medicine, +372 5815 5392,

The translation of this article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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