MOTIVATING STUDENTS – A look at Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Students are most motivated to learn when they feel they are competent, they belong to and are supported by a community, and they are in control of their own learning i.e. autonomous’ (Svinicki 2016, p.6).


The above statement by Syinicki directly relates to the psychology theory on motivation called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT maintains that everyone has the fundamental need to feel competent, autonomous and related to others (Deci & Ryan, 2012). In relation to education, Syinicki (2016) further expanded on the three needs as follows:

  • Competent: Students “must believe that they can understand and operate competently in their environment” (p.7).
  • Autonomous: Students “need to feel that they are in control of their environment” (p.7).
  • Belonging: Students “need to feel that they are part of a group, and accepted and supported by it as they continue to develop” (p.7).

Learning environments that support these needs are more likely to enhance motivation among students. However, this can also be influenced by the source of the motivation i.e. whether it stems from external or internal factors (Sibold, 2016). External factors tend to be outcome focussed e.g. achieve a grade, qualification, reward, whereas internal factors tend to be derived from personal reward, interest or satisfaction. Often, there can be a mixture of both external and internal factors that will motivate a student. It is the internal factors, however, that has the greatest impact therefore thwarting these needs can lead to controlled motivation (i.e. pressure to behave in certain ways) or being unmotivated (Deci & Ryan 2012).

The following table shows some teaching methods identified by Svinicki (2016) for motivating students. These methods serve to address one or more of the students’ needs as classified by SDT.

Many educators use several of the teaching methods listed in the table, however few would consider student motivation within the framework of SDT. An interesting exercise for educators would be to map their activities and assessments with the methods in this table to better address all three of the students’ needs rather than just one or two.


Deci, ED & Ryan RM 2012, ‘Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory’, in RM Ryan (ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 85-107

Sibold, J 2016, Learning A La Carte: A theory-based tool for maximizing student engagement, Journal of College Teaching & Learning – Second Quarter 2016, vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 79-84

Svinicki, MD 2016, Motivation: An updated analysis, IDEA Paper #59, IDEAedu, viewed 28 June 2018,

2018-09-27T13:23:32+10:00August 2nd, 2018|DESIGNING LEARNING, STORIES FROM THE CLASSROOM|0 Comments