Dog running through water with a stick
Image by Wolfgang Horvath from Pixabay.

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.

game controller on work desk

What can instructional designers learn from video game design? This might seem like a silly question—what do video games have to do with learning? Why might we use video games as an inspiration in pedagogy? As instructional designers, faculty often come to us with a variety of problems to address in their course designs—a lack of student interaction, how to improve student application of a given topic, and many more. While there are many tools at our disposal, I’d like to propose an extra tool belt for our kit: what if we thought more like game designers?

Video games excel at creating engaging and motivating learning environments. Hold on a minute, I hear you saying, video games don’t teach anything! In order for games to onboard players, games teach players how to navigate the “physical” game world, use the game’s controls, identify the rules of what is and is not allowed, interpret the feedback the game communicates about those rules, identify the current outcome, form and execute strategies, and a large variety of other things depending on the game, and that’s usually just the tutorial level!

What is the experience like in a learning environment when students begin an online course? They learn how to navigate the course site, use the tools necessary for the course, identify the assessment directions and feedback, identify the short-term and long-term course outcomes, learn material at a variety of different learning levels, and large variety of other things depending on the class, and that’s usually just the first week or two! Sound familiar? What are some things that video games do well during this on-boarding/tutorial to setup players for success? And how might instructional designers and faculty use these elements as inspiration in their classes?

The following list includes nine tips on how game design tackles tutorial levels and how these designs could be implemented in a course design:

  1. Early tasks are very simple, have low stakes, and feedback for these tasks is often very limited—either “you got it” or “try again”. Consider having some low-stakes assignments early in the course that are pass/fail.
  2. If negative feedback is received (dying, losing a life, failing a level, etc.), it is often accompanied by a hint, never an answer. If you have a MCQ, do not allow students to see the correct answer, but consider adding comments to appear if a student selects an incorrect answer that offers hints.
  3. If negative feedback is received, the game does not move on until the current outcome is achieved. Allow multiple attempts on quizzes or assignments and/or setup prerequisite activities or modules.
  4. Game levels allow for flexible time—different players complete levels at different rates. Design tasks with flexible due dates. Many courses already allow some flexibility for students to complete activities and assessments within weekly modules—can that flexibility be extended beyond a weekly time frame?
  5. Tutorial quests usually have predetermined and clearly communicated outcomes. All objectives are observable by both the game and the player. Create outcomes and rubric conditions/language that are self-assessable, even if the instructor will complete the grading.
  6. Tasks and game levels are usually cumulative in nature and progress using scaffolded levels/activities. Consider breaking up large assignments or activities into smaller, more cumulative parts.
    • For example, the first quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a great example for Nos. 5 and 6 above. It consists of four required objectives and two optional objectives:
      • Make your way to the keep.
      • Enter the Keep with Hadvar or Ralof.
      • Escape Helgen.
      • Find some equipment (Hadvar) / Loot Gunjar’s body (Ralof).
        • Optional: Search a barrel for potions.
        • Optional: Pick the lock of a cage.
  7. There are varying degrees of assumed prior knowledge, but no matter what, everyone participates in the tutorial levels. They are not optional. Consider saving optional “side quests” for later in a course or having an introductory module for everyone, regardless of skill level.
  8. The “tutorial” process usually ends when all skills have been introduced, but some games continue to add new skills throughout, inserting mid-game tutorials when necessary. Return to some of the design ideas on this list if a course introduces new topics throughout.
  9. After a requisite number of skills are mastered and players are able to fully play the game, the only major changes in design are increases in difficulty. These changes in difficulty are usually inline with maintaining a flow state by balancing the amount of challenge to the skill level of the player. As course material and activities increase in difficulty, make sure there are ample opportunities for students to develop their abilities in tandem.

Games are a great model for designing engaging learning experiences, with significant research in psychology and education to back it up. By understanding how games are designed, we can apply this knowledge in our course designs to help make our courses more motivating and engaging for our students.

Additional Resources

Want to know more about the psychology of why these designs work? Start with these resources: