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5 ways Self-Determination Theory can help student motivation

5 ways Self-Determination Theory can help student motivation

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Motivation is an important predictor of learning and achievement. The hope is that the more motivated a student is, the greater dedication and attention they will pay to their studies. A well-studied theoretical explanation of motivation is the Self-Determination Theory. Understanding it can transform the way you teach and maximise your students’ learning. So, here’s what you need to know…

What is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-Determination Theory argues that students need to feel these three components to become motivated:

  • Autonomy – Feeling in control of their behaviours and goals
  • Competence – Believing that their actions will be impactful in shaping their academic success
  • Relatedness ­– Feeling a sense of belonging in class

These three factors need to be maintained and supported. The three motivation components may fluctuate due to a number of factors, including:

Extrinsic motivators

Extrinsic motivators can undermine autonomy. As students become increasingly controlled by external rewards, they feel less in control of their behaviour, and their intrinsic motivation diminishes.

This was shown in a study where students were asked to learn a set of Swahili-English word pairs. They found that the participants who were rewarded for learning the words spent less time studying in their free time than participants who were not rewarded. 

Positive encouragement 

Positive encouragement increases students’ intrinsic motivation, as it helps to make them feel more competent. Research has found that positive feedback on students’ performance makes them feel interested in their immediate task and motivates them to maintain their behaviour. 

Social support

Social support involves being cared for and having assistance available from others. Research has consistently shownthat students with strong social support from their teachers and peers have greater internal motivation to learn, as they feel a sense of belonging in class. 

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

How can you use Self-Determination Theory to motivate students?

So, how can you make sure these factors are always at a high level for your students?

Here are some strategies that can help you introduce the findings of Self-Determination Theory to your classroom and increase your students’ motivation to learn…

Build in success

One of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction is to ensure a high success rate. This is because previous performance is one of the biggest drivers of student self-efficacy. Being able to refer to a bank of previous positive outcomes can boost student confidence and motivation, especially when they are struggling with a piece of work. This, in turn, boosts their self-perception of their own competency levels.

Give quality feedback 

Try to provide high quality feedback to your students. Let your students know when they improve on an exam or an assignment and ask them what strategies they used to improve. This can help increase their competence and relatedness, raising their motivation to learn.

Encourage a sense of belonging 

One way to develop a sense of belonging is to focus on strengthening relationships between you and your students and between students through team-building activities.

Some have tried to facilitate this, for example, by greeting students at the door when they arrive at class. However, this may be quite time costly and not something everyone feels comfortable doing in their setting, advocates of this would say it can help set a positive tone and foster a strong relationship between you and your class

Consistently checking on each student’s progress and well-being can also highlight to them that you care and that they ‘belong’ in your setting.

Limiting rewards 

While it is fine to occasionally reward students for achievements, overdoing it can weaken your students’ intrinsic motivation. Educational psychologist Jere Brophy recommends only rewarding students if they meet standards or skills that require a lot of practice or repetition.

So, try to deliver rewards alongside meaningful feedback (e.g., tell students specifically what they did well on a task and how they can improve) to boost their competence and increase their motivation. 

Give student (some) choices

Try to give your students some choices within their learning journey. This can be tricky, as students often aren’t great predictors of what helps them learn best. For more on this, see our blog ‘4 strategies students like that are not actually good for them’.

Final thoughts

Self-Determination Theory offers a valuable insight into what it takes to increase students’ motivation. When you support students’ autonomy, competence and relatedness, it enhances their intrinsic motivation to learn. This is easier said than done, as motivation is complex, nuanced and in a constant state of flux. But in trying to do so, we can hopefully help develop independent, self-motivated and lifelong learners.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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