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Teaching Tips

Self-Determination Theory, Motivation, and Your Classroom

Self-Determination Theory provides a framework to help you foster your students’ motivation.

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If you are interested in learning about ways to increase student motivation, you are not alone. There are a variety of theoretical perspectives that aim to explain motivation, but understanding self-determination theory (SDT) has the potential to transform the way you think about teaching, student motivation, and course preparation. SDT has been effectively applied in educational settings with positive outcomes (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). The core tenets of self-determination theory emphasize a relationship between three “basic needs” (autonomy, relatedness, and competence) and intrinsic (e.g. reading for fun) and extrinsic (e.g. reading to earn a grade) motivators (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Implementation of this framework can ensure conditions that foster motivation—setting the tone for the way teaching can be approached, and allowing the instructor to model the way students can approach their own learning. Such skills can easily surpass the classroom; potentially aiding your students throughout their lives. Below are strategies that will help you incorporate this theory into your teaching:

  1. Support Autonomy. Performance increases when people believe they are engaging in self-governed behaviors. Give students choices: provide students with multiple ways to complete an assignment or solve a problem and allow them to select their preferred method of doing so. Establish a deadline system that is standardized for the course, but flexible in the sense that students are able to have some choice regarding when they create and submit their work (e.g. all assignments are accessible and available to submit at the start of the term). When appropriate, poll students to determine topical preferences the next lecture (e.g. students select one from two themes that meet the same learning objectives for the course). Create parameters that allow students to set their own learning goals. 
  2. Encourage Relatedness. Relatedness coincides with feeling connected to others and/or a sense of belonging. Make it a goal to learn your students’ names. Facilitate collaborative, active learning assignments that are part of the overall grading system, but considered low-risk for failure may build students’ confidence and sense of community (e.g. pairing students to solve a problem or develop responses to questions related to lecture). Send a student a personal email when he/she improves on an exam or on a writing assignment and ask them what strategies they used to improve. Ask students to share how they personally relate to the topics you are teaching. Tell students you value their feedback and ask them for feedback. Help them see the value of your discipline by making the material meaningful. Connect with your colleagues (and meet your own need for relatedness) and ask them how they enhance the competence, relatedness, and autonomy needs of their students. It is extremely productive to engage with colleagues in positive dialogue about how to encourage motivation. 
  3. Cultivate Competence. Competence refers to feeling effective in the context of one’s social environment. Those who we feel competent, are more willing to take on challenges. Thus, educators could provide students with video resources and/or handouts that cover evidence-based study strategies tailored to the course, note-taking and reading strategies, and goal setting skills. Post the resources to your institution’s course management system and your students will have access to them for the duration of the semester. Try standardizing the materials you provide to students. When faculty make it difficult for students to access and utilize basic information (i.e. course requirements, required assignments, etc.), students suffer. Encountering environments that are unreasonably challenging to work within due to a subpar system for organization of materials creates barriers to motivation. Further simplification can be established by using color coding of course documents (e.g. the syllabus and calendar of assignments are supplied on a fluorescent paper) and standard texts within documents (e.g. bolded text for assignments due, underlined text for tests, etc.) for ease of identification. 

As you begin to think about your courses and your students’ needs within this framework, you may notice that it is possible to address multiple needs through a single strategy/activity. How will you apply this theory to your teaching practice?


Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., Pelletier, L. G., Ryan, R. M. (2009) Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2) ,133-144
Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25 ,54-67

Additional resources

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY, US: University of Rochester Press.

Submitted by:

Amanda M. Vanner
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
Community College of Rhode Island

This work is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) License.