4.4 Self-Determination Theory

Common sense suggests that human motivations originate from some sort of inner “need.” We all think of ourselves as having various “needs”—a need for food, for example, or a need for companionship—that influences our choices and activities. This same idea also forms part of some theoretical accounts of motivation, though the theories differ in the needs they emphasize or recognize. Some needs may decrease when satisfied (like hunger), but others may not (like curiosity). Either way, needs differ from the self-efficacy beliefs discussed earlier, which are relatively specific and cognitive, and affect particular tasks and behaviors fairly directly.

A theory of motivation based on the idea of needs is self-determination theory, proposed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, among others. The theory proposes that understanding motivation requires taking into account three basic human needs:

  • Autonomy—the need to feel free of external constraints on behavior
  • Competence—the need to feel capable or skilled
  • Relatedness—the need to feel connected or involved with others

Note that these needs are all psychological, not physical; hunger and sex, for example, are not on the list. They are also about personal growth or development, not about deficits that a person tries to reduce or eliminate. Unlike food or safety, you can never get enough autonomy, competence, or relatedness. You (and your students) will seek to enhance these continually throughout life.

The key idea of self-determination theory is that when people (such as you or one of your students) feel that these basic needs are reasonably well met, they tend to perceive their actions and choices to be intrinsically motivated or “self-determined.” In that case they can turn their attention to a variety of activities that they find attractive or important, but that do not relate directly to their basic needs. Among your students, for example, some individuals might read books that you have suggested, and others might listen attentively when you explain key concepts from the unit you happen to be teaching.

If one or more basic needs are not met well, however, people will tend to feel coerced by outside pressures or external incentives. They may become preoccupied, in fact, with satisfying whatever need has not been met and thus exclude or avoid activities that might otherwise be interesting, educational, or important.

In proposing the importance of needs, then, self-determination theory is asserting the importance of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the person. You are intrinsically motivated when you find an activity enjoyable, interesting, meaningful, or worthwhile.  For example, Cindy looks forward to summer vacation because it gives her plenty of time to read novels. Cindy’s prolific reading habits come from her intrinsic motivation to read. In contrast, extrinsic motivation occurs when you expect an external reward, such as a salary or a good grade. Jan does not inherently enjoy reading as much as Cindy does, but she is enrolled in a summer reading program at the local library. Jan receives points each time she completes a book, and she knows that the top five readers at the end of the summer will win prizes. Here, Jan’s motivation to read during her summer vacation is primarily extrinsic.

The self-determination version of intrinsic motivation, however, emphasizes a person’s perception of freedom, rather than the presence or absence of “real” constraints on action. Self-determination means a person feels free, even if the person is also operating within certain external constraints. In principle, a student can experience self-determination even if the student must, for example, live within externally imposed rules of appropriate classroom behavior. To achieve a feeling of self-determination, however, the student’s basic needs must be met—needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In motivating students, then, the bottom line is that teachers have an interest in helping students meet their basic needs, and in not letting school rules or the teachers’ own leadership styles interfere with or block satisfaction of students’ basic needs.

“Pure” self-determination may be the ideal for most teachers and students, of course, but the reality is usually different. For a variety of reasons, teachers in most classrooms cannot be expected to meet all students’ basic needs at all times. One reason is the sheer number of students, which makes it impossible to attend to every student perfectly at all times. Another reason is teachers’ responsibility for a curriculum, which can require creating expectations for students’ activities that sometimes conflict with students’ autonomy or makes them feel (temporarily) less than fully competent. Still another reason is students’ personal histories, ranging from divorce to poverty, which may create needs in some individuals that are beyond the power of teachers to remedy.

The result from students’ points of view is usually only a partial perception of self-determination, and therefore a simultaneous mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Self-determination theory recognizes this reality by suggesting that the “intrinsic-ness” of motivation is really a matter of degree, extending from highly extrinsic, through various mixtures of intrinsic and extrinsic, to highly intrinsic (Koestner & Losier, 2004). At the extrinsic end of the scale is learning that is regulated primarily by external rewards and constraints, whereas at the intrinsic end is learning regulated primarily by learners themselves. By assuming that motivation is often a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic, the job of the teacher becomes more realistic. The job is not to expect purely intrinsic motivation from students all the time, but simply to arrange and encourage motivations that are as intrinsic as possible. To do this, the teacher needs to support students’ basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

To learn more about the levels of intrinsic-extrinsic motivation or other details about self-determination theory, explore the following links:

Supporting Autonomy in Learners

A major part of supporting autonomy is to give students choices wherever possible (Ryan & Lynch, 2003). The choices that encourage the greatest feelings of self-control are those that concern relatively major issues or that have relatively significant consequences for students, such as whom to choose as partners for a major group project. But choices also encourage some feeling of self-control even when they are about relatively minor issues, such as how to organize your desk or what kind of folder to use for storing your papers at school. It is important, furthermore, to offer choices to all students, including students needing explicit directions in order to work successfully. Avoid reserving choices for only the best students or giving up offering choices altogether to students who fall behind or who need extra help. All students will feel more self-determined and therefore more motivated if they have choices of some sort.

Teachers can also support students’ autonomy more directly by minimizing external rewards (like grades) and comparisons among students’ performance, and by orienting and responding to students’ expressed goals and interests. In teaching elementary students about climate change, for example, you can support autonomy by exploring which aspects of this topic have already come to students’ attention and aroused their concern. The point of the discussion would not be to find out “who knows the most” about this topic, but to build and enhance students’ intrinsic motivations as much as possible. In reality, of course, it may not be possible to succeed at this goal fully—some students may simply have no interest in the topic, for example, or you may be constrained by time or resources from fully individualizing certain activities. But any degree of attention to students’ individuality, as well as any degree of choice, will support students’ autonomy.

Supporting the Need for Competence

The most obvious way to make students feel competent is by selecting activities that are challenging but nonetheless achievable with reasonable effort and assistance (Elliott, McGregor, & Thrash, 2004). Although few teachers would disagree with this idea, there are times when it is hard to put into practice, such as when you first meet a class at the start of a school year and therefore are unfamiliar with the students’ backgrounds and interests. But there are some strategies that are generally effective even if you are not yet in a position to know the students well. One is to emphasize activities that require active response from students. Sometimes this simply means selecting projects, experiments, discussions and the like that require students to do more than simply listen. Other times it means expecting active responses in all interactions with students, such as by asking questions that call for “divergent” (multiple or elaborated) answers. In a social studies class, for example, try asking “What are some ways we could find out more about our community?” instead of “Tell me the three best ways to find out about our community.” The first question invites more divergent, elaborate answers than the second.

Another generally effective way to support competence is to respond and give feedback as immediately as possible. Tests and term papers help subsequent learning more if returned—with comments—sooner rather than later. Discussions teach more if you include your own ideas in them, while still encouraging students’ input. Small group and independent activities are more effective if you provide a convenient way for students to consult authoritative sources for guidance when needed, whether the source is you personally, a teaching assistant, a specially selected reading, or even a computer program. In addition, you can sometimes devise tasks that create a feeling of competence because they have a “natural” solution or ending point. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle of the community, for example, has this quality, and so does creating a jigsaw puzzle of the community if the students need a greater challenge.

Supporting the Need to Relate to Others

The main way to support students’ need to relate to others is to arrange activities in which students work together in ways that are mutually supportive, that recognize students’ diversity, and minimize competition among individuals. Having students work together can happen in many ways. You can, for example, deliberately arrange projects that require a variety of talents; some educators call such activities “rich group work” (Cohen, 1994). While studying medieval society after being place in small groups, for example, one student can contribute drawing skills, another can contribute writing skills, and still another can contribute dramatic skills. The result can be a multi-faceted presentation—written, visual, and oral. The groups needed for rich group work provide for students’ relationships with each other, whether they contain six individuals or only two.

As a teacher, you can add to these organizational strategies by encouraging the development of your own relationships with class members. Your goal, as teacher, is to demonstrate caring and interest in your students not just as students, but as people. The goal also involves behaving as if good relationships between and among class members are not only possible, but ready to develop and perhaps even already developing. A simple tactic, for example, is to speak of “we” and “us” as much as possible, rather than speaking of “you students.” Another tactic is to present cooperative activities and assignments without apology, as if they are in the best interests not just of students, but of “all of us” in the classroom, yourself included.

Keeping Self-Determination in Perspective

In certain ways self-determination theory provides a sensible way to think about students’ intrinsic motivation and therefore to think about how to get them to manage their own learning. A particular strength of the theory is that it recognizes degrees of self-determination and bases many ideas on this reality. Most people recognize combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation guiding particular activities in their own lives. We might enjoy teaching, for example, but also do this job partly to receive a paycheck. To its credit, self-determination theory also relies on a list of basic human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that relate comfortably with some of the larger purposes of education.

Although these are positive features for understanding and influencing students’ classroom motivations, some educators and psychologists nonetheless have lingering questions about the limitations of self-determination theory. One is whether merely providing choices actually improves students’ learning, or simply improves students’ satisfaction with learning. There is evidence supporting both possibilities (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003; Deci & Ryan, 2003), and it is likely that there are teachers whose classroom experience supports both possibilities as well. Another question is whether it is possible to pay too much attention to students’ needs—and again there is evidence that both favors and contradicts this possibility. Too many choices can actually make anyone (not just a student) frustrated and dissatisfied with the choice the person actually does make (Schwartz, 2004). Furthermore, differentiating activities to students’ competence levels may be impractical if students are functioning at extremely diverse levels within a single class, as sometimes happens. Differentiating may be inappropriate, too, if it holds a teacher back from covering key curriculum objectives that students need and at least some students are able to learn. These are serious concerns, though not serious enough to give up offering choices to students or to stop differentiating instruction altogether.


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Foundations of Educational Technology Copyright © 2017 by Penny Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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