Self-Determination Theory of Motivation

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Teachers and parents frequently find themselves frustrated with their students or children, wondering how to motivate them to try harder on their school-work. Self-determination theory (SDT) is a broad motivational theory that addresses that issue. The theory begins by distinguishing between two different types of motivation—namely, autonomous motivation and controlled motivation—and it then considers the different consequences of these two motivations as well as their different antecedents. SDT also looks at the concept of goals as well as motivations and considers them in a differentiated manner. This entry discusses each of these ideas in turn, beginning with an explanation of the types of motivation.


Autonomous motivation involves engaging in an activity with eagerness and volition, with a sense of choice and willingness. It is made up of two subtypes: (1) intrinsic motivation, which means doing a task because it is interesting and spontaneously satisfying; and (2) identified motivation, which is a well internalized form of extrinsic motivation and involves doing the task because it feels personally important. A girl is intrinsically motivated when she takes a music class just because it is fun and challenging; a boy's motivation is identified when he studies biology because he is deeply committed to becoming a doctor.

In contrast, controlled motivation involves doing a task with a sense of pressure, demand, or coercion. It comprises two subtypes of extrinsic motivation that have not been well internalized: (1) external motivation, which means doing the activity in order to receive a reward or avoid a punishment; and (2) introjected motivation, which results from partial internalization of the extrinsic contingencies and involves doing an activity because the person would feel approved of for doing it, or guilty and unworthy for not. A boy is externally motivated when he does his homework because his parents pay him for doing it; a girl's motivation is introjected when she takes calculus because she thinks she should and would be ashamed of herself if she did not.

Both autonomy and control are types of motivation; they move students to exert energy and perform tasks. These are clearly distinct from amotivation, which means not to be motivated for a particular activity or in a particular setting. A student who is daydreaming or paying no attention to a history lesson would be amotivated for history, at least at that time.

When one thinks about the various students in a classroom it is likely that the range of motivations will be present, for example, with some students seeming relatively autonomous and others seeming relatively controlled in their motivations. Self-determination theory focuses both on the outcomes of being more autonomous versus more controlled in one's motivation for school-work and on the conditions in classrooms and homes that promote the different types of motivation. Why is it, for example, that some students tend to become more interested in and committed to their school subjects over the course of an academic year, whereas other students come to value school less and become less engaged with learning over the year?


Both types of motivation can lead to learning, but the quality of that learning is very different for the two motivations. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found, for example, that when late-elementary students tended to be autonomous in their motivation because they found the learning material interesting or because they believed the learning was personally important, the students tended to learn the material more deeply—they learned concepts rather than just memorizing facts. But if the students were studying the material because they were told they would be tested on it, they did tend just to memorize facts and not to understand how these facts fit together thematically. In short, the quality of their learning was very different, with autonomy being associated with deeper and fuller learning and control being associated with more superficial learning.

Further, Ryan, along with Richard Koestner, Frank Bernieri, and Kathleen Holt examined school children's motivation for painting pictures and found that when their motivation was more autonomous the students produced paintings that were judged to be more creative than were the paintings produced by students who were more controlled.

Several studies have also linked autonomous motivation to students' adjustment and well-being in school. For example, Grolnick and Ryan found that teachers rated students who were autonomously motivated to be more competent and to have fewer adjustment problem than students who were controlled in their motivation.

In sum, when students are more autonomously motivated because they are interested in learning the material or believe it to be personally valuable, they learn better conceptually, tend to be more creative, and are better adjusted than when their motivation is controlled. As such, it seems very important to give careful consideration to the factors that tend to increase students' autonomous, relative to controlled, motivation.


An enormous amount of research has examined how specific events such as the offer of a reward, the provision of feedback, or the imposition of a deadline affect students' motivation. As well, many studies have explored how the general interpersonal climates in classrooms or homes influence students' motivation.

Experiments on Antecedents. Many studies have shown that giving students tangible rewards such as money, prizes, and awards for doing an activity tends to make the students more controlled rather than autonomous in their motivation for the activity. In other words, it tends to diminish their interest in the activity and also makes them dependent on the reward so they will be less likely to do the activity unless the rewards continue. In fact, Edward Deci, with Koestner and Ryan, reviewed more than one hundred experiments that examined the effects of rewards on autonomous motivation and found that overall the effects of tangible rewards were negative. Rewards can indeed prompt students to do well at school work that is routine and memory focused, but when it comes to more interesting and conceptual kinds of schoolwork, reward effects are more negative, diminishing autonomous motivation and performance. Some schools reward students with pizza parties for completing work or passing tests. Unfortunately, that is not likely to help them maintain motivation for such work. It is fine to have pizza parties, but motivationally, it is best not to make them contingent on certain behaviors or outcomes.

Other external motivators such as competition (i.e., telling students to try to beat their fellow students), evaluations (i.e., telling students that their performance will be evaluated), surveillance (i.e., watching closely at what the students are doing), and threats (i.e., telling students they will be punished if they do not do just what they are told to do) also tend to undermine the students autonomous motivation because, like rewards, they also tend to be controlling. In contrast, offering students choice about what activities to focus on and allowing them to regulate the time they devote to each was found in an experiment to increase their interest and autonomous motivation.

The thing that ties together these various results is that the typical external motivators such as rewards, deadlines, punishments, and evaluations tend to diminish people's sense of initiation, self-regulation, and volition, whereas offering them opportunities to make choices and guide their own activities tends to allow a greater sense of autonomy. It has become clear, from a huge amount of research, that people need to feel a sense of autonomy or self-determination in order to perform effectively and be well adjusted. In other words, based on many different studies, SDT maintains that autonomy is a basic psychological need—something that must be satisfied for people to be optimally motivated, function effectively, and be psychologically healthy. Factors that help students satisfy this need promote autonomous motivation and positive outcomes, whereas those that are likely to thwart satisfaction of this need diminish autonomous motivation and lead to poorer outcomes.

Other research related to autonomous and controlled motivations has highlighted two other basic psychological needs that are operative in people and affect their motivation. First, it seems that everyone needs to feel competent or effective in dealing with his or her environment. Accordingly, studies have shown that positive feedback enhances students' autonomous motivation because it signifies competence, whereas negative feedback decreases autonomous motivation and leaves students amotivated. Studies also show that satisfaction of the need for competence leads people to be healthier and more effective, but thwarting of this need leads to a sense of ill-being and poorer achievement. Thus, it is important to recognize that students who get continual negative feedback about their work may get into a spiral of feeling ineffective and amotivated, performing even worse and showing signs of poor adjustment, which leads to more of the same. Second, all people need to feel a sense of relatedness, a sense that there are other people who know and care about them. Students who feel a satisfying relationship with one or more teachers tend to do better in school than those who do not. In fact, studies have shown that feeling a sense of relatedness to important others supports the students' autonomous motivation, which in turn leads to better performance and adjustment.

Indeed, looking across a range of studies, it seems that external forces that promote satisfaction of all three needs—that is, the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness—lead to the most optimal school engagement and adjustment. Students who experience such need satisfaction feel a sense of vitality, interest, and flexibility; but those who do not are uninterested and disaffected, and they show signs of greater adjustment problems.

Classroom Studies. Research conducted in public schools has shown that the interpersonal climate or ambience of classrooms relates to the motivation and well-being of students in those classrooms. For example, Deci and Ryan, with Allan Schwartz and Louise Sheinman, examined whether teachers in fourth through sixth grade classes were oriented toward controlling the students' behavior versus supporting the students' autonomy. When teachers are controlling, they make all the decisions, tell the students what they have to do, and use rewards and punishments to ensure that the students do what they—the teachers—demand. This is an extreme version of the traditional classroom that is sometimes called a teacher-centered classroom. Supporting students' autonomy, in contrast, means understanding and acknowledging the students' perspectives, encouraging them to take initiative and solve problems for themselves, allowing students to make choices when possible, and minimizing the use of rewards, punishments, and controlling language (e.g., “should” and “have to”). Such classrooms involve the teachers being supportive of the students' basic need satisfaction and are sometimes referred to as more student-centered classrooms.

At the beginning of a school year, Deci and colleagues did a study in which teachers completed a questionnaire from which the researchers were able to glean whether the teachers were more oriented toward controlling the students' behavior or supporting their autonomy. As well, students in those classrooms completed a set of questionnaires during the first week of school and then two months later. These questionnaires assessed the students' intrinsic motivation, feelings of competence at schoolwork, and general sense of self-worth. Results of the studies showed clear relationships between the teachers' orientations and the students' motivation, perceived competence, and self-worth. In classrooms where teachers were more oriented toward supporting the students' own motivation, the students became more intrinsically motivated and felt more competent and personally worthy, whereas in the classrooms where the teachers were more controlling the students tended to show decreases in intrinsic motivation, perceived competence, and self-worth.

Johnmarshall Reeve and Hyungshim Jang did a study in which they found that specific teacher autonomy-supportive behaviors such as being responsive to students' comments and questions, making time for students' independent work, acknowledging signs of improvement and mastery, offering progress-enabling hints when students seemed stuck, and acknowledging students' experiences and perspectives were linked positively to students' autonomous motivation.

Studies of Parents. Other studies have shown that parents' orientations toward controlling children versus supporting the children's autonomy also affected their children's autonomous motivation for schoolwork and classroom outcomes. For example, Grolnick and Ryan did in-home interviews with parents concerning how they motivated their late-elementary-school children concerning homework and chores around the house. Mothers and fathers were interviewed separately and two interviewers rated each parent on the degree to which the responses represented autonomy support versus control. The researchers then assessed the children's autonomous motivation and perceived competence in their classrooms and gathered information from the teachers about each student's adjustment and academic competence. Results indicated that parents who were judged to be more autonomy supportive—who understood their children's feelings, while supporting and encouraging them—had children who reported more autonomous motivation and higher perceived competence than the children of parents judged to be more controlling. Further, the students who were rated by teachers as more academically competent and better adjusted were the ones who had more autonomy-supportive parents.

Some studies have examined students' perceptions of autonomy support from both teachers and parents and have found that each contributes predictability to students' motivation, performance, and adjustment. A study of Russian and American high school students, for example, showed that autonomy support from parents and teachers led students to be focused on learning instead of just on grades and to display greater well-being. A study of Canadians indicated that high school students' perceptions of their parents and teachers being high in autonomy support led the students to be less likely to have dropped out of school a year later.

To summarize, considerable research conducted in the psychology laboratory, in school classrooms, and in homes has indicated that external factors as well as interpersonal climates affect students' sense of volition and autonomy versus their sense of being pressure and control, as well as their school engagement, learning, performance, and psychological growth. Those teachers who are supportive of students' autonomy, competence, and relatedness enhance autonomous motivation, learning, and well-being, whereas those who thwart any of these basic needs tend to diminish the important developmental and educational outcomes.


As mentioned above, self-determination theory also studies the kinds of goals people use to guide their life pursuits. Some people, for example, place the strongest emphasis on accumulating wealth, whereas others place the strongest emphasis on having meaningful relationships. Research has shown that these types of goals can be categorized into two broad groups: extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals. For example, Tim Kasser and Ryan found that wealth, fame, and attractive image fell into the category labeled extrinsic goals because they are concerned with external indicators of worth and do not provide direct satisfaction of the basic psychological needs. In contrast, relationships, personal growth, health, and community involvement fell into the category labeled intrinsic goals because they are satisfying in their own right and lead more directly to basic need satisfaction.

Vansteenkiste and colleagues did research that applied these goal concepts to classrooms. They introduced classroom activities by telling students that learning the material would be useful in the future either for achieving one of the extrinsic goals (e.g., making money) or for attaining one of the intrinsic goals (e.g., contributing to the community). It turned out that when learning activities were framed in terms of the intrinsic goal of helping the community, students learned the material more fully, performed better when using it, and persisted longer in learning about the topic than when it was said to be useful for making money for themselves. Further, in the experiments, the goal framing was done in either an autonomy-supportive or a controlling manner, and results indicated that intrinsic goal framing and the autonomy-supportive style each contributed to better learning outcomes. In short, orienting students learning more toward intrinsic goals and communicating with them in a more responsive and supportive way facilitates autonomous motivation, deep learning, and effective performance.


The fact that teachers' orientations toward autonomy support versus control in their classroom behaviors has been found to have a significant impact on students' motivation, engagement, achievement, and well-being led researchers to consider what school conditions might affect the teachers' orientations with their students. Research by Deci, Ryan, and Koestner, with Nancy Spiegel and Manette Kauffman, hypothesized that when teachers are pressured for accountability, they will tend to become more controlling with their students. The researchers then did an experiment in which teachers were given the task of teaching students how to solve a particular set of problems. In one group, teachers were told it was their responsibility to ensure that their students performed up to high standards, whereas this accountability statement was not made to teachers in another group. Results indicated that those teachers who were reminded of accountability talked much more during the teaching session, made more commands, used language that contained more control words such as “should,” and, remarkably, gave the students the answers rather than giving them hints and encouraging them to find the problem solutions themselves. In short, when teachers are pressured, they in turn pressure their students and teach in ways that have been found to be detrimental to motivation, performance, and psychological adjustment. Facilitating optimal motivation in students is thus not just an issue for teachers, for it is influenced by the school, the district, and political forces acting upon them.

Substantial research has shown that autonomous motivation, in which students read, study, and discuss their work out of interest and the belief in its importance for themselves, is the optimal motivation for deep learning, creativity, and psychological health. It is also clear that this optimal motivation requires teachers and parents to provide supports that allow students to satisfy their basic needs for feeling competence, relatedness, and autonomy by encouraging the students' initiations, respecting them as individuals, listening to their perspectives, creating opportunities for choice and self-regulation, helping out when they run into barriers, and providing positive and constructive feedback. In these ways, teachers and parents will be supporting students' motivation, engagement, achievement, and psychological well-being. When schools, districts, and states create and reinforce conditions that allow teachers to satisfy their own needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy on the job, schools will be characterized by more effective teaching and learning.


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627–668.

Deci, E. L., Schwartz, A. J., Sheinman, L., & Ryan, R. M. (1981). An Instrument to assess adults' orientations toward control versus autonomy with children: Reflections on intrinsic motivation and perceived competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 642–650.

Deci, E. L., Spiegel, N. H., Ryan, R. M., Koestner, R., & Kauffman, M. (1982). Effects of performance standards on teaching styles: Behavior of controlling teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 852–859.

Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). Autonomy in children's learning: An experimental and individual difference investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 890–898.

Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Parent styles associated with children's self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 143–154.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22, 80–87.

Koestner, R., Ryan, R. M., Bernieri, F., & Holt, K. (1984). Setting limits on children's behavior: The differential effects of controlling versus informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity. Journal of Personality, 52, 233–248.

Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students' autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 209–218.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Sheldon, K. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic effects of intrinsic goal contents and autonomy-supportive contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 246–260.

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