Tag Archives: self determination theory

Self-determination in the Classroom.


Edward Deci and Richard Ryan view motivation in terms of different types, and like earlier researchers stress the importance of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. They suggest that people have three basic psychological needs.

The need for competence:

Our desire to control or master the environment and outcomes. People want to know how things are going to turn out and they want to know the results or consequences of their own actions.

The need for relatedness:

Our desire to interact with, be connected to and experience caring for other people. Everything we do in some way concerns others and our actions impact on those around us. Through this need to build up a sense of belonging develops the feeling that we are part of a wider world beyond the limits of ourselves.

The need for autonomy:

The urge to be causal agents and have full volition and choice over what we do. If autonomous motivation concerns choice, then controlled motivation relates to the lack of choice. Ryan and Deci describe it as ‘behaving with the experience of pressure or demand towards specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self’. Autonomy, however, does not necessarily mean acting independently; it merely means acting with choice, so it can mean acting alone but also acting interdependently with others.

The main premise of Ryan and Deci’s theory involves the role of self-determining factors (hence their theory is known as ‘self-determination theory’ or SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation, emotion and development concerned with factors related to assimilative and growth orientated processes in people. The theory’s primary concern is with the factors that promote or prevent people from intrinsically engaging in positive behaviours.

In order to be intrinsically engaged we need to feel that our actions are based on choice and free will, even if such feelings are illusionary. Motivation, therefore, becomes intricately entwined with emotional states such as interest curiosity and boredom. How motivated we are is often related to how we feel; whether a task bores us, excites us or sends us into a state of anxiety or helplessness. Yet, motivation isn’t just about internal states – environments play a major role.

The interpersonal climate of the classroom, for example, can have a major impact on motivation, especially motivation of the intrinsic kind. Teachers, classrooms and schools all differ in terms of the control they use. Some might be highly controlling, relying heavily on the absolute authority of teachers over pupils, strictly adhered to rules of behaviour and consistent and heavily relied on extrinsic reward and punishment procedures. Others might be more liberal in their approach towards control, allowing students a greater say in how and what they learn, implementing more restorative behaviour management policies and more flexible classroom rules. Schools represent complex systems and some might require more stringent behaviour management policies than others. A greater emphasis on rules doesn’t always have to mean a more controlling environment.

The emphasis here is on the nature of control. Highly controlled classroom environments undermine intrinsic motivation while autonomy supportive classrooms nurture it. This doesn’t mean that extrinsic reward systems don’t work in the classroom – they often do, so long as the interpersonal classroom context remains informational and supportive rather than critical and authoritarian. Conversely, positive feedback given in a controlling context will also tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Classroom environments that encourage autonomy (autonomy-supportive) lead to greater learning and performance outcomes than controlling styles and there is ample evidence that suggests that practices and policies that rely on motivating pupils through sanctions, rewards and evaluations (and other forms of coercion and manipulation) undermine quality student engagement.

While controlling environments often stifle motivation, autonomy-supportive classrooms that foster interest, value and volition encourage greater persistence and better quality engagement and learning. Autonomy and competence are essential to the maintenance of intrinsic motivation – it’s difficult to find an activity either exciting or enjoyable if we feel we have little control over what we are doing. In his 1968 book ‘Human Causality’, educational psychologist Richard deCharms described this as our ‘internal perceived locus of causality’, meaning an experience that emanates from within ourselves rather than from any external source (our perceived locus of causality can be both internal and external). Intrinsic motivation, therefore, represents a locus of causality that is internal, although there it often occurs on a continuum.

Students must feel both autonomous and confident if they are to sustain intrinsic motivation so that a student who feels competent but feels that they have little or no autonomy will be unable to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Teacher and classroom style is often a prickly subject and is often dictated by personal ideology. Authoritarian teachers maintain that an approach that insists on things being done correctly, that students should be told what to do and use a number of controlling strategies lead to more manageable classrooms and more positive outcomes in terms of exam results.

Others emphasise the importance of allowing students to be more self-directed, to learn from their own successes and failures and to solve problems for themselves and, although I have known teachers at both extremes, the majority of teachers fall somewhere between them. There is a growing view in education that there exists a uniform way of teaching and that as long as these skills can be taught to teachers outcomes will improve. However, many of these skills appear authoritarian in nature (even going as far as punishing students for failing to track the teacher’s movements). Unfortunately for us, authoritarian teaching styles appear to do little in terms of intrinsic motivation and related educational outcomes. Early research conducted by Edward Deci found that in classrooms where teachers were more autonomy-supportive, students tended to be more intrinsically motivated, displaying behaviours such as curiosity, a preference towards challenge and greater mastery orientations. They also felt more competent in their schoolwork and had higher levels of self-esteem.

Cross-cultural evaluations appear to support this. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found that evaluative pressure undermined students’ intrinsic motivation and their school performance in the USA while Kage and Namiki obtained similar results with Japanese students. Additional cross-cultural studies have found that interest is enhanced for lessons where the teacher is autonomy-supportive but diminished when the teacher is more controlling.

The hypothesis has also been tested in various subject domains. Martyn Standage of the University of Bath compared student and teacher ratings of autonomy, autonomy-support, confidence, relatedness and self-determined motivation in physical education. Standage found that perceived autonomy-support was associated with higher levels of autonomous self-regulation, including intrinsic motivation and these, in turn, were associated with greater effort and persistence.

These and other studies are suggestive of a number of important points.

1. Teacher orientation and certain aspects of the learning task play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation. Teachers perceived as autonomous-supportive nurture students higher in intrinsic motivation than those teachers with more authoritarian styles – and this remains consistent across cultures.

2. Where children are high in intrinsic motivation and are taught in environments that support autonomy, they display a tendency towards better learning, especially on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.

3. The way in which teachers introduce learning tasks is important in that when tasks promote the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence they allow for greater intrinsic motivation and deeper learning. If these basic psychological needs are not met, intrinsic motivation and achievement suffer.