Motivation in educational settings: Investigating self-determination theory

Motivation in educational settings: Investigating self-determination theory

For a variety of reasons, motivation of students in schools today is becoming increasingly difficult. Self-determination is a motivational theory which has been shown to have many benefits in educational settings. It is a theory which addresses the core of motivation in individuals, which unlike other theories of motivation, self-determination addresses the fundamental aspects of why and how individuals motivate themselves. Self-determination theory identifies intrinsic and extrinsic motivation including how these motivational qualities affect interest and engagement in activities. Interest and engagement would be considered key qualities for a student to posses.

To apply self-determination theory to educational settings, one needs to promote interest, value, and confidence in students’ capacities and attributes (Deci et al, 1991). These will improve overall intrinsic motivation which is considered the optimal form of motivation for students in their academic endeavours and overall well-being.

Interest and volition is required for learning and accomplishment. These features have been shown to lead to greater flexibility in academic areas, such as problem-solving, knowledge acquisition, deeper conceptual understanding, and flexible use of knowledge. These are considered productive behaviours for optimal academic engagement.

Optimal motivation requires behaviours to be intentional, that is not the result of pressure or control. Intentional behaviours are self-determined as they are endorsed by the self (Deci & Ryan, 1985). When behaviours are controlled, there is lack of choice and volition. Control is brought about through the use of reward or threats of punishment. In these instances, the locus of causality (deCharms, 1968) is external and results in a different quality of behavioural regulation. In academic settings this results in poorer quality of academic engagement and quality of learning.

Self-determination theory acknowledges the ‘energisation’  of behaviour, that is its source. This is in contrast to many other theories of motivation which are primarily focussed on the goal or outcome which drives the behaviour. Self-determination has at its core the universal basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as the energisers of human behaviour. The focus on psychological needs also allows for the identification of contextual conditions which facilitate motivation.

Self-determination differentiates between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Within these categories there is further distinction of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation which addresses the quality of motivation. Intrinsic motivation results in behaviours which are engaged in for their own sake and the satisfaction is derived through the activity itself. These activities are interesting to the individual and are often done without reference to reward or other contingencies (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Extrinsically motivated behaviours usually have an external contingency attached. There is a separable consequence attached to the activity. The consequence need not be wholly related to that activity. Deci and Ryan (Deci & Ryan, 2000) have identified four types of extrinsic motivation: external, introjected, identified, and integrated. The difference lies in the internalisation process.

Internalisation transforms and external activity or regulation (contingency) into an internal motivation. The quality of the internal motivation differs, resulting in some of poorer quality whilst other will be nearer to the quality of intrinsic motivation. External motivation means the individual is performing a behaviour due to an external influence such as a threat of a punishment, time limit, or reward. There is an external contingency attached and therefore the locus of causality is external. External motivation is the least self-determined form of motivation. There is no choice or volition for the individual.

Introjected motivation has some part of the external regulation taken on board but it is not wholly endorsed by the individual. There is an internal pressure to behave in a certain way, and often there are contingencies attached such as to avoid sanctions (guilt or shame) or to receive rewards. The individual will perform the behaviour but it is due to an internal pressure brought about by an external contingency. There is little choice or volition for the individual.

Identified regulation has some part of an external regulation accepted by the individual. The individual will do the activity more willingly because they identify with some aspect of the activity which is considered important to a future goal. There is some choice or volition in identified regulation so it moves closer to a self-determined form of behaviour. The motivation is still extrinsic because the behaviour, although high in usefulness for achieving a future goal, and not because it is volitional, choiceful, or interesting to the individual.

Integrated regulation is the most developed form of extrinsic motivation. The individual has taken onboard the external regulation because they identify with its values and the activity is considered important to them. It is said that the external regulation is very close to the individual’s sense of self and thus the motivation is considered integrated. Integrated regulation is similar to intrinsic motivation as is has an autonomous quality to it. The difference is that intrinsic motivation has interest inherent in the activity whereas integrated motivation has an important value or valuable outcome attached to the activity.

Studies have demonstrated innumerable benefits of self-determination in educational settings. Students who are more self-determined are likely to stay in school (Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997) and have positive academic performance (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987). Self-determined students display greater conceptual learning and better memory recall (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987). Further studies have shown that self-determined students are more satisfied, enjoy school more, and display less anxiety than less self-determined students (Ryan & Connell, 1989). Positive links have also been found between self-determination and self-esteem (Deci, et al., 1981).

Social and contextual variable will also influence self-determination in educational contexts. Generally, support for basic psychological needs is found when feedback is given to students in an autonomy-supportive way (Deci, et al., 1981; Reeve, 2006; Reeve, 2013; Reeve, et al., 2004). The feedback must be informational and competence enhancing. Autonomy-supportive contexts assists the internalisation process to facilitate integrated regulation of the feedback.

When feedback is given in a controlling context or manner, controlled forms of motivation are more likely to develop (Reeve, 2009). Feedback of this nature is of the “should have” “must do” type and does not typically contain mastery information so that the student can improve their competence on the task. Negative feedback has been found to decrease perceived competence (Vallerand & Reid, 1984). The administration of the feedback (autonomy-supportive or controlling) is key to development of self-determination of students in education contexts.

External contingencies are often found in educational contexts to motivate students. These contingencies can be money or rewards, or sanctions such as punishment. The use of rewards or sanctions undermines the development of self-determination in students (Ryan, Mims, & Koestner, 1983). External contingencies disrupt the internalisation process, particularly for uninteresting activities (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The use of evaluations in the form of rewards, grades, and appraisals are common contingencies in education contexts which can undermine the internalisation process. This results in less integrated forms of intrinsic motivation, poor conceptual learning (Benware & Deci, 1984), and lower levels of creativity (Amabile, 1983).

Other contingencies such as imposed goals and competition results in an external pressure on students to behave in a specific way. Again, these external contingencies lead an individual be feel controlled and result in lower levels of intrinsic motivation, such as introjection. Alternatively, when students are given choices surrounding their activities it can improve levels of intrinsic motivation (Sierens, et al., 2009).

Teachers set the climate of the classroom. The teachers’ orientation to either autonomy-supportive or controlling teacher style affects students’ motivation. Teachers with an autonomy-supportive teaching style are more likely to have students who report higher levels of self-determination in relation to their academic studies (Deci, et al., 1981; Jang, Kim, & Reeve, 2012).

To support the development of self-determination in students, teachers can help students to understand the utility of their activities, provide them with choices regarding activities and how to proceed with them with a minimum of pressure, and acknowledge the perspective of the student when undertaking these activities. These initiatives help students to understand the value of the activity. When students value an activity they are more likely to internalise and integrate the activity, thereby moving towards a more intrinsic form of motivation. When students feel self-initiated in their behaviour they are more likely to adopt self-determined approaches to learning and academic activities.

Teachers are under continuous pressure and these pressures have been acknowledged to lead teachers to a more controlling teaching styles (Deci, et al., 1982; Reeve, 2009). Students in classes of such teachers have been shown to have lower levels of intrinsic motivation and have lower reports of academic achievement and related learning behaviours (Reeve, 2009).

The development of self-determination in students has potential benefits including greater academic engagement, improved achievement, as well as benefits to overall well-being. Understanding what energises or motivates students and how it affects their levels of engagement, provides a model for teachers to develop autonomous forms of self-regulation and encourage intrinsic motivation in students.


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