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Date Author Title
2012-07-19 Steve Gardiner Self-Determination Theory and Motivation

Throughout my years of teaching, I have believed that most students come to school with the intent to do their best, even though some of the students we see at the high school level seem to indicate otherwise.

For them, it is the accumulation of several years of negative experiences that put them in a mindset of failure. I can't believe it is their true nature, that any student gets up in the morning and ponders the question, “How can I be a failure today?”


This year I discovered an interesting psychological theory that supports my belief. It is called Self-Determination Theory and has it origins in experiments done by Edward Deci in the mid-1960s. These experiments were very controversial because they contradicted many ideas that seemed so firmly held, especially by the operant behavior theorists of the day. Deci found that rewards not only did not increase a participant's motivation to work on a task, in most cases, rewards were a disincentive to intrinsic motivation.


With most parents and teachers believing that the bigger the reward, the more work a student would do, these results were counterintuitive. Self-Determination Theory or SDT was off to a rocky start, but then an interesting thing happened. Other researchers replicated Deci's results. In fact, by the 1990s, Deci and his student Richard Ryan completed a meta-analysis of 128 studies on rewards and motivation and found that the results were identical in each of them. Rewards provide a short-term burst of interest and energy, but when the reward goes away, the motivation and action go with it.


Deci and others studying motivation then added to SDT and developed an organismic approach to human motivation. They found that humans have a natural tendency to seek psychological growth and integration. Deci and Ryan explained that humans possess “an innate striving to exercise and elaborate their interests, individuals tend naturally to seek challenges, to discover new perspectives, and to actively internalize and transform cultural practices.”


By seeking to actualize their potentialities, human beings integrate experiences, and as Deci and Ryan added, they develop “a coherent sense of self—a sense of wholeness, vitality, and integrity. To the degree that individuals have attained a sense of self, they can act in accord with, or be true to, that self.”


Further research by Deci, Ryan, and many others revealed that humans have three basic needs and it is these needs, not rewards, that drive our motivation. The needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness seem to hold for all humans across age, gender, and cultural boundaries.


Autonomy is the need to be in control of one's own actions, to perceive oneself as the locus of causality. Making one's own decisions and choosing actions, even if the idea for those actions comes from elsewhere, is the basis of autonomy. Competence is the demonstration of skill in meeting challenges. This may be perceived competence as opposed to actual skills, but that perception of competence is a basic need for humans. Finally, relatedness is the need to belong, to be connected to others in a way that meaningful. These three basic needs are, according to Deci and Ryan, the most powerful motivators we have and parents and teachers who can provide students with ways to satisfy these needs will do much to foster intrinsic motivation for those students.


Even though more than four decades have passed since the first studies questioned the system of rewards and punishments so often used in homes and schools, their use is still systemic in today's society. Finding a theory like SDT which believes that humans have a tendency to strive for improvement, do their best, and seek well-being in their lives, has been a confirmation of what I have believed since the earliest days of my teaching career. It may still be difficult to reach some of the students with the longest histories of unsuccessful school experiences, but SDT researchers have provided us with hundreds of articles about how motivation works and what we can do to foster it. After all, if SDT is right, motivation is our natural tendency.


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