March 13, 2015

Self-Determination Theory: Supporting Students’ Intrinsic Motivation

by Adrienne Kowcz, PharmD., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

From day one, we are innately curious. Children constantly explores the world around them, and as we grow, we gravitate toward careers and hobbies that interest us.  We are intrinsically motivated to learn more. Educators should capitalize on this desire when designing instruction.  Unfortunately, external motivators play far too great a role in education today.2 Overly prescriptive supervision and standardized evaluations can thwart the learning process, and cause learners to lose interest.

Self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that teachers can capitalize on internal motivation by supporting each student’s natural tendency to be curious and desire for autonomy.  That is, teaching should be guided by students’ interests. If we can find ways to support autonomous motivation in the delivery of instruction, we can achieve optimal learning. Although SDT has been around for 4 decades, Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan expanded on the theory by refining the differentiation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as well as proposing three key intrinsic needs involved in self-determination.1

Motivation is often examined from the perspective as to how we convince others to change their behavior. External factors, such as rewards, punishments, grades, evaluations, and other’s opinions often motivate people. However, SDT explores the intrinsic motivation, or how people are motivated from within when there is no tangible reward or external push. Deci and Ryan postulated that an individual needs intrinsic motivation as well as three intrinsic psychological needs in order to initiate these behaviors and maintain good psychological well-being and self-determination. These universal needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Below is a model that depicts SDT in higher education. These components together form the self-determination model which emphasizes supporting student autonomy in order to achieve positive learning outcomes.

Autonomy relates to people feeling as though they have power over their behaviors. Giving students opportunities for growth and the ability to make their own choices, increases their sense of autonomy and reduces coercion / controlled. One study examined the learning outcomes of college students in a science course where the teachers used two different outcome expectations: one group was told they had to teach the material to others (autonomy supported) and the other group was told they had to pass an exam (controlling behavior).3 Those who had the expectation of teaching others had a deeper conceptual understanding of the material.  Autonomy can be supported in the classroom by teachers reducing the number of evaluations and encouraging active student participation, fostering positive feelings that what students say has purpose in the classroom. Also, teachers should provide a clear rationale for the learning activity. This has been shown to improve student’s effort to learn.

Competence refers to a person’s effectiveness at performing the skill or task. When someone feels competent that they can perform a task, they are more likely to continue to use what they have learned and strive to achieve more. A way to support competence in an educational setting is introducing challenging activities where students can use their previous knowledge and skill. When students perform well, providing feedback about the process can be beneficial to their growth. Not congratulating a job well done, but rather letting the student know that their effort was recognized.  In addition, providing feedback on how to master more has been shown to make students continue to strive for greater results after a compliment.6

Relatedness is the last need that Deci and Ryan believe should be satisfied in order to support self-determination. In a classroom, when students have a sense of belonging, that those around them truly understand and value them, they will more likely have intrinsic motivation to perform the tasks at hand. Acknowledging student’s feelings can help improve that connection. In an education setting, studies have shown that students who feel connected to teachers do better in school than those who are disconnected and do not have a relationship with someone who truly cares about them in the school.4 As professors, we have the ability to get to know students, as well as teach in an inviting environment where we encourage participation and provide positive feedback to encourage growth.

Creating an autonomy supporting environment is not only beneficial in the classroom, but in the clinical environment too. In the study titled Reducing the Health Risks of Diabetes: How Self-determination Theory May Help Improve Medication Adherence and Quality of Life the investigators applied the SDT model to predict medication adherence, quality of life, and physiological outcomes among patients with diabetes.5 Patients were surveyed assessing their perceived autonomy-support from their providers, autonomous self-regulation for medicine use, perceived competence to perform self-management, medication adherence, and quality of life. Results showed that when clinicians elicit patients’ perspectives, just as teachers elicit student’s responses, and support autonomy, patients have higher quality of life, improved medication adherence, and better health outcomes.

Regardless of setting, supporting autonomy, competence, and relatedness leads individuals — students and patients — to become better learners motivated by their internal desires. When these needs are supported, people gain self-determination and their intrinsic motivation to learn is enhanced.


  1. Deci EL, Ryan RM. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry 2000; 11: 227-268.
  2. Williams G., Deci E. The Importance of Supporting Autonomy in Medical Education. Ann Intern Med. 1998;129:303-308.
  3. Niemiec CP, Ryan, RM. Autonomy, competence and relatedness in the classroom:Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education. 2009; 7(2): 133-144.
  4. Vallerand RJ, Reid G. On the causal effects of perceived competence on intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Sport Psychology 1984; 6: 94–102.
  5. Williams, G. Patrick, H. et al. Reducing the Health Risks of Diabetes: How Self-determination Theory May Help Improve Medication Adherence and Quality of Life. Diabetes Educ 2009; 35 (3): 484-492.
  6. Dweck, Carol. The power of believing that you can improve. Dec 2014. 

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