Self-Determination Theory: What is it and how can learning benefit from it

Self-Determination Theory: What is it and how can learning benefit from it


Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) is a theory of motivation which proposes that humans have basic psychological needs  of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that we seek to satisfy these needs in the activities we pursue in our daily lives. Many of the day-to-day activities pursued will be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Intrinsically motivated activities are pursued out of personal interest or free choice. Externally motivated activities are pursued to obtain an outcome or to avoid a consequence, which is separable from the activity itself.

Deci & Ryan (2000) (R. M. Ryan & Deci, 2000) have articulated further the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how individuals form perceptions of task motivation. Due to the perceptions formed by individuals, Deci & Ryan argue that motivation will vary by level and orientation. This is due to the perception processes of Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) and Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) which refers to underlying goals and attitudes leading the individual to adopt certain behaviour towards the activity.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) investigates the social factors which produce differences in intrinsic motivation. Individuals experience differing interpersonal events which can enhance or challenge feelings of competence. Competence can be satisfied or thwarted through experiences mediated by feedback, such as that given by teachers and parents, or through perceived locus of control (deCharms, 1968) of the activity which should be internal or autonomous for greater perceptions of competence.

Organismic Integration Theory outlines the forms and processes of the internalisation of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is on a continuum from amotivation through to intrinsic motivation. The movement between orientations does not need to be linear, and an individual’s approach to tasks and activities will change over a lifetime due to constant interactions with social values and regulations influencing the internalisation process.

Taxonomy of Human Motivation

Taxonomy of Human Motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000 p.61)

For example, a student may do their homework to avoid punishment from their parents which is an example of an external regulation. The same student may do their homework because they realise the value it has to obtaining a related goal, which is an example of identified regulation due to the goal becoming self-endorsed. This is an example of extrinsic motivation which has been internalised or integrated into behavioural regulations.

Upon entering school, research has shown that human’s natural tendency for intrinsic motivation soon dissipates (Dweck, 2002; Eccles, et al., 1993; Molden & Dweck, 2005; Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998). Teachers can facilitate or thwart these natural intrinsic tendencies in their teaching pedagogy. The use of extrinsic rewards in the class can undermine intrinsic motivation. This is due to the locus of control moving away from the individual to the reward,  thwarting a student’s perception of autonomy (Deci, Ryan, & Koestner, 1999). In fact, in the Deci et al (1999) review, almost all forms of extrinsic motivation were found to undermine intrinsic motivation. In addition, the extrinsic reward does not need to be tangible. It can be deadlines, directive, competition, and pressure. When intrinsic motivation is undermined, it will lead students to the more extrinsic end of the motivation continuum and can have negative effects on their learning.

To facilitate motivation towards the more intrinsic end of the continuum, teachers can use autonomy supportive behaviours in the classroom (Jang, Kim, & Reeve, 2012; Koestner, 2008; Reeve, et al., 2004). When teachers are autonomy-supportive students respond with less task anxiety, more interest and enjoyment, greater perceptions of competence, more persistence in the face of challenges and better coping strategies for moderately difficult tasks, deeper learning and less rote learning, and greater psychological well-being (Richard M. Ryan & Connell, 1989).

deCharms, R. (1968). Personal cuasation. New York: Academic Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., & Koestner, R. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Dweck, C. S. (2002). The development of ability conceptions. In J. Eccles & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 57-88). Burlington: Academic Press.

Eccles, J. S., Wigfield, A., Midgely, C., Reuman, D., MacIver, D. I., & Feldlaufer, H. (1993). Negative effects of traditional middle schools on students’ motivation. Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 553-574.

Jang, H., Kim, E. J., & Reeve, J. (2012). Longitudinal test of self-determination theory’s motivation mediation model in a naturally occurring classroom context. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1175-1188.

Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching one’s personal goals: A motivational perspective focused on autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67.

Molden, D. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2005). Self-Theories: Their impact on competence motivation and acquisition. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), The handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guildford.

Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D., Jeon, S., & Barch, J. (2004). How K-12 teachers can put self-determination theory principles into practice. Motivation and Emotion, 28(2), 147-170.

Ryan, R. M., & Connell, J. P. (1989). Perceived locus of causality and internalization: Examining reasons for acting in two domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(5), 749-761.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., & Rodriguez, D. (1998). The development of children’s motivation in school contexts. Review of Research in Education, 23, 73-118.

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