Motivation Monday: Self-Determination Theory

A group of students and teachers excitedly building a structure

According to self-determination theory North East Arrow (link opens in new tab/window), humans feel motivated when these three psychological needs are met: 

  • Autonomy: the desire for choice and control of personal decisions
  • Competency: feelings of mastery and potential for success 
  • Relatedness: the need for connectedness and belonging with others 

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the psychologists behind self-determination theory, believe there are two main types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is internally driven and based on our core values and interests. Extrinsic motivation is based on external sources and rewards. Both types of motivation are powerful forces and can shape our behavior.

Deci and Ryan also acknowledge the complexity of human motivation. Various goals, feelings, and ideas shape our wants and needs, and these elements can change over time. Deci and Ryan present a continuum of motivation that ranges from non-self-determined to self-determined.

Why it matters for education

Understanding what motivates our students is vital for shaping self-directed and curious lifelong learners. Self-determination theory offers concrete guidelines for breaking down the various factors that influence human motivation.

Self-determination theory can also be beneficial for creating a motivational school climate. Do students trust teachers and school administrators? Do students feel like their identities are supported across the school? Do teachers feel autonomous and well-supported? Approaching these questions from an SDT-perspective can pave the way for positive shifts in school culture. 


  • Autonomy 
    • Provide maximum amount of choice to students. Options include organizational choice (e.g., students can choose their project group members) and procedural choice (e.g., students can select the format their final project will take). 
  • Competency 
  • Relatedness 
    • Foster strong teacher-student relationships by reflecting students’ interests and identities in teaching materials. 


  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: