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Proposed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 1985, when applied to education primarily relates to students confidence in their own capacities and attributes, how much they value the education (or learning) that is taking place, and also their interest in learning the topic at hand. Self determination theory looks at what engages a student in an activity, or causes some action to be performed. It separates actions that are entered into by the student freely of their own choice vs. actions that are compelled by an outside source (like a teacher).[Deci]

Self Determination theory postulates that there are basic psychological needs that are important for all people. Three of these needs are focused on when talking about self determination in education. They are competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence is the ability to attain goals (either internal or external) to the person, and being efficacious in the attainment of those goals. Relatedness is more of a social goal and speaks to the personal connections made in such a way that the student feels safe and satisfied with others in their social context. Autonomy is the ability to control both the actions you take, as well as regulating the self through various tasks.[Deci]

General Theoretical Underpinnings

One of the major theoretical underpinnings of Self Determination Theory is Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Motivation has been positively correlated with educational outcomes, and intrinsic motivation shows more long term retention than extrinsically motivated students. Intrinsic motivation has also been shown to produce more positive emotions in the classroom, more satisfaction and more enjoyment of school work.

There are social contextual theoretical aspects underlying Self Determination Theory as well. Deci and Ryan state that "To the extend that social contexts do not allow satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy, they will diminish motivation, impair the natural development process, and lead to alienation and poorer performance." [Deci]

The study of the context for which students set their goals also supports Self Determination as a learning theory. Autonomy supportive contexts, where students set their own goals have been shown to correlate to more intrinsic motivation, deep learning, persistence, and achievement.

Research Examples

Teaching Patterns and Learning Quality in Swiss and German Mathematics Lessons

In 2008 Hugener et al published a paper "Teaching patterns and learning quality in Swiss and German Mathemetics lessons". The authors postulated that self generated thoughts, feelings and actions that are orientated towards the goals of the instruction would be a contributor to student success. The study used videos of 19 Swiss (German speaking) schools and 20 German schools. A pretest, a video of a three lesson series on pythagorean theorum, and a post test were used to gather data.

The video lessons were coded based upon predetermined teaching patterns that looked at the social form of the lessons (whole class instruction, working in groups, pairs or individual work), content related activities (proofs, problems, theoretical background, etc), the type of introduction to the lesson that was observed, and aspects of the learning sequence (who presents, shares information) were coded. These observations helped break the class lessons into one of three groups: lecturing pattern, developing pattern (questioning from the teacher leads to understanding) and discovery pattern.

Each video was rated also for student cognitive activation (engagement in the material being presented) and the students were asked to complete a questionnaire on their perception of their own learning quality. There was a Self-Determined Learning Motivation scale as a part of the questionnaire. In order to control for prior factors, students were also asked about their prior attitude towards the teacher.

In the analysis the attitude toward the teacher significantly predicted all the dependent variables. Hugener also found that the discovery pattern students had more negative emotions and tended to assess their positive emotions lower than students in the lecturing pattern.

Although Hugener et al found negative correlations between the pattern with the most student choice (which according to self determination principle should have positive impact on motivation and emotions), they postulated that this was in line with what Krapp in 2005 found when looking at the basic needs and development of interest in intrinsic motivational orientations. Perhaps this paper serves as the best warning to us as educators that all things should be taken in moderation and that self determination without confidence or knowledge is not beneficial.

Variables Affecting Students' Intrinsic Motivation for School Mathematics

In this study 335 seventh and eighth grade students were studied to determine if the controlling strategies of their teachers affected their intrinsic motivation for mathematics. Harald Valas and Nils Sovik published two studies in 1993 in Learning and Instruction.

As a part of the first study, schools and classrooms were chosen randomly from a large Norwegian city and neighborhood. The students in those classes took several instruments that measured their intrinsic motivation for math, their mathematical and academic self concept, math achievement, and student' perceptions of their math teachers' controlling behavior. Using a cross sectional path model the authors showed that student's perceptions of their teacher's control orientation significantly affected their internal motivation for mathematics.

The teacher's control orientation for mathematics was instrumented through questions that assessed the students perceptions of the teacher's emphasis on tests and grades and the teacher's willingness to give students choices.

The second study was a longitudinal study that was conducted over the course of a year. Students were again assessed using the instruments mentioned above and a model was built based upon their answers. In both cohorts there were significant paths in the model from teacher control to self concept and math achievement. Both self concept and math achievement contained a significant path to intrinsic motivation.

In the results of the paper the authors make the statement "it is the students' interpretation of their own experience, or the functional significance of the environment, which are important for their feeling of self-determination and their intrinsic motivation."

The Effects of Instructors' Autonomy Support and Students' Autonomous Motivation on Learning Organic Chemistry

Aaron Black and Edward Deci looked at two particular aspects of autonomy on the part of the students in order to measure outcomes of sustained motivation and course performance. The results support the idea that self determination leads to improvements in student learning.

The first measure of autonomy was the reason the students entered the course. Students who entered the course for more autonomous reasons (desire to study the subject) vs. controlled reasons (course requirement) had several correlational aspects. Students with less autonomous reasons for taking the course were significantly correlated with dropping out of the course. Students with high autonomy for enrolling in the course were also significantly correlated with perceived competence, interest/enjoyment of the course, low anxiety, and were more focused on learning rather than grade achievement.

The second measure of autonomy was the students perception of Leader Autonomy Support (LAS). Each study group had a leader that was either an advanced undergraduate or graduate student. LAS was significantly positively correlated to performance on the first four exams, percieved competence, interest and enjoyment of chemistry, and course grade. LAS was significantly negatively correlated to causality orientation (perception of who or what controls success), and anxiety about chemistry (negative indicates more anxiety).

Overall this study is a good example of how individual control over goal setting and perception of autonomy correlates to higher learning gains and increase in motivation on the part of the students.

Other Examples

The wikipedia article on Self-Determination Theory includes many more examples of research that align to, or have contributed to the theory.


  1. Black, A., Deci, E., The Effects of Instructors' Autonomy Support and Students' Autonomous Motivation on Learning Organic Chemistry: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective, (2000) Science Education, Vol. 84, Issue 6
  1. Deci, E., Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., Ryan, R., "Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective", Educational Psychologist, 26:3, 325-346
  1. Hugener, I., Pauli, C., Reusser, K., Lipowsky, F., Rakoczy, K., Klieme, E., "Teaching Patterns and Learning Quality in Swiss and German Mathematics Lessons", Learning and Instruction 19(2009) 66-78