My interest in learning about motivation in education began many years ago when I started learning about motivation in game design. In a way, while this blog post will follow a different format, it is an outgrowth of my previous post on how game design can influence course design. In order to better understand motivation, in a classroom, while playing a game, and in an online learning environment, I am turning to the body of research that has grown from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
What is Self-Determination Theory?
Deci and Ryan’s theory stems from the larger investigation of human needs for well-being. While physiological needs like food, water, and shelter may be obvious, what are our psychological needs? SDT posits that the three basic psychological needs of humans are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. “Like physical needs, these needs are said to be objective phenomena in that their deprivation or satisfaction has clear and measurable functional effects, effects that obtain regardless of one’s subjective goals or values” (Deci & Ryan, 2017, p. 10). In addition to the basic needs, each is also associated with a dichotomy of social environments.
- Autonomy: “the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 10). A feeling of autonomy is not simply being able to make choices, but feeling that your actions and behaviors are in alignment with your own values. Being able to independently make your own choices is certainly one way to feel volitional engagement, but not the only way to fulfill the need of autonomy. Social environments vary between autonomy supportive and demanding/controlling. When was the last time you were able to engage with a situation or action wholeheartedly and felt fulfilled?
- Competence: “[the] need to feel effectance and mastery” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). This need is often paired with receiving positive feedback, seeking and overcoming challenges, and following curiosities. This need has received the most research in motivation and psychological studies, especially in education research. Social environments vary between effectance supporting and overly challenging, inconsistent, or being otherwise discouraging. When was the last time you sought a challenge and positively progressed (or achieved) mastery?
- Relatedness: “[the need to] feel socially connected” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). Feeling relatedness isn’t just about feeling cared for or taken care of, it is also about feeling valued in a community and having a sense of belonging. Social environments vary between relationally supportive and impersonal/rejecting. When was the last time you felt a sense of belonging and valued in a community?
These needs are essential for optimal motivation, well-being, and vitality (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). The research on how SDT promotes more intrinsic motivation is significant, as well as helps empirically establish different types of motivation (autonomy-control, intrinsic-extrinsic, and internally regulated-externally regulated) (Ryan & Deci, 2017, pp. 14–15).
Designing and Teaching with SDT in Mind
If we want our learning spaces (no matter the modality: face-to-face, hybrid, online, etc.) to promote optimal student (and teacher!) motivation and overall well-being, how can we design these spaces to fulfill these three needs?
- Autonomy: allow students to make meaningful decisions about their learning, which may include students pursuing objectives in an order of their choice, providing students with additional relevant applications and rationales for activities and materials, providing students with opportunities to roleplay or act through a scenario.
- Competence: balance the challenge/difficulty of a given task with student ability/skill, set clear goals, scaffold materials or activities, have a system for transparently communicating student progress, provide positive feedback.
- Relatedness: foster an inclusive learning environment, instill a value of learning, design activities and interactions for peers to share and collaborate their knowledge and experience, provide instructor-to-student interaction.
“In fact, classroom climates supporting autonomy, providing high structure [competence support], and conveying relatedness and inclusion foster personal well-being and feelings of connection to one’s school and community” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 18). Many of these goals may already be met in your courses. However, there are actions and elements of design that can negatively impact need satisfaction as well. For example, overly difficult challenges, overwhelming negative feedback, and social comparisons can inhibit a sense of competence. The role of assessments and grading will need to be covered in a follow-up blog post, as these can have both negative and positive impacts depending on how they are implemented and designed.
In summary, striving to create a learning environment that fulfills all three needs of SDT can be positive and rewarding for everyone in the class, including the instructor. While this is only a brief introduction to Self-Determination Theory as a whole, I hope it has inspired you to consider how your courses can be designed with SDT in mind.
References and Resources
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11(4), 227–268.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.
Self-Determination Theory. (2019).
- This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.