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  • Destiny Yarbro

Discipline in the Sign Language Classroom: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to university-level students allows for flexibility as discipline issues are quite minimal compared to my colleagues who teach at elementary or secondary institutions. My classroom management usually manifests as helping students be engaged in class and keep up with course work. As I read through each of the levels of discipline discussed in our readings this week, it was clear to me that the ideal level of discipline for my classroom is low / guiding.

I recognize that with all of the stimuli, distractions, and new experiences college-age students are navigating, helping them engage in classroom learning can be a challenge. Many university professors opt for (resort to?) inflexibility to “control” their students; strict attendance policies, standardized examinations, homogenizing assignments, and systematic learning hierarchy. However, I believe that especially in the case of learning languages, intrinsic motivators are much more effective than extrinsic motivators. My students may be learning ASL to serve their local congregations, become medical or educational interpreters, or communicate with their in-laws or friends. Why would I get in the way of these natural impetuses by enforcing generic and sterile objectives on my students? After all, we know that emotional connection to the content “facilitates encoding” in the brain and helps the efficient “retrieval of information” (Tyng, Amin, Saad & Malik, 2017). I do not want my students to be focused on doing everything I want them to do so they can get an A, but rather joyfully explore the language in order to reach their personal language goals.

In addition, when college-age students are motivated intrinsically they are also much more likely to govern themselves through inner-discipline. Rather than using “reinforcers...that strengthen behavior” and “punishments...that weaken behavior” (Mather & Goldstein, 2001, para. 1), teachers empower students of this age group with the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate. These future professionals need the key skill set of inner-discipline as well as learning how to break down projects, plan their time, and prioritize competing demands. Thus, I feel my role is to allow my college-age students to “have control and responsibility for their actions...whether or not it’s a choice with a positive outcome, unless there is a threat to the student or others” (The Edvocate, n.d).

This approach works, of course, if a student is attending class semi-regularly and turning in most of their assignments. If I have an ASL student who seems especially overwhelmed with assignments or misses class regularly, a more hands-on medium / interacting approach seems to be more effective. Students who have grown up with extensive trauma, without structure, or lacking support, may need a mentor who brainstorms solutions, models how to problem-solve, and discusses work-arounds for any mental barriers the student may be facing when it comes to language learning or college life. This “shared responsibility” approach, I believe, allows me to help a struggling student progress to a point where they “self-monitor” and “maintain positive engagement” (NEA, 2019, p. 1) so that only a low / guiding approach is needed from their future teachers.

As a teacher for college students, when I see my students resist an assignment I ask myself whether it is too restrictive, too unclear in its instructions, too generic in its objectives. I have found that rather than giving a single assignment prompt, providing a variety of choices for students to show their understanding of the content is engaging (and dare I say, enjoyable?) to them. For example, rather than having my students take a test on fingerspelling, students could choose from one of the following project ideas:

  • Create an ABC story with fingerspelled letters. The story can be a personal experience of yours or the plotline to your favorite book. Film yourself performing this ABC story.

  • Ask a Deaf friend to fingerspell the names from a TV show for you. Write down the names and at the end, have your friend mark which ones you did correctly. Have them re-fingerspell any names you missed so you can recognize them easier in the future.

  • Build a fingerspelling game to help the class improve on both the reception and production of fingerspelled words. Build a game from scratch or adapt a favorite game.

  • Screen and audio record yourself as you read fingerspelled words from Dr. Bill’s website ( Stop when you have correctly read 20 fingerspelled words out loud; disregard any words that you missed.

Kohn (1995) makes the universal point that “children learn to make good choices by having the chance to choose, not by following directions” and that children dependent on teachers are hostile to assignments, to guidance, and to learning.

My desire in using a low / guiding approach to discipline in the classroom is to let go of antiquated, behaviorist techniques for controlling students. Behaviorists use extrinsic consequences to enforce “proper” behavior and use prompts, hints, and other stimuli to ensure a student “make[s] the correct responses” (Borch & Tombari, n.d). What kind of power dynamics does this create in the classroom? The teacher holds all of the power; the student desperately seeks for the answer the teacher wants. A ‘good’ classroom is one in which all of the students conform. A ‘good’ student is one who aligns themselves with the teacher’s objectives and disregards their own reasons for learning a language. A ‘good’ teacher is one whose students do well on examinations and papers, regardless of whether they thrived in the classroom. At some point, a student interprets “learning” as micro-management and loses the desire to grow scholastically.

In conclusion, I have found that most of my college students thrive in a low / guiding classroom. In the words of Ginott, “the more autonomy, the less enmity; the more self-dependence, the less resentment of others” (Hein, n.d) and I add, the more inner-discipline, the less apathy; the more intrinsic motivation, the less aversion to learning.


Borich, G. D. & Tombari, M. L. (n-d). “Behaviorism in the Classroom.” Lumen Educational Psychology.

Hein, S. (n.d.). Notes from Haim Ginott's books.

Kohn, A. (1995). Discipline is the problem - not the solution.

Mather, N. & Goldstein, S. (2001). Behavior modification in the classroom.

The Edvocate. (n.d). What is inner discipline? Edudpedia.

Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454.


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