top of page

Motivation Module 4:

Self-Determination Theory


Background Information

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a motivational theory developed by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2012, 2008).  This theory examines the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. SDT posits that every individual has psychological needs to feel motivated; namely, competency, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  Like Maslow (1954), Ryan and Deci believe that environmental factors have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes, values, motivations  , and  behaviors.  

  1. Autonomy: Individuals desire to perceive themselves as having control over their fate and possessing some degree of power in shaping their existence. Above all, people seek to feel in command of their actions.

  2. Competence: This need pertains to our accomplishments, expertise, and abilities. Individuals desire to enhance their proficiency and acquire expertise in tasks that are significance to them.

  3. Relatedness (also called Connection): Individuals require a sense of inclusion and interconnectedness with others.


Taking charge of one’s life involves setting goals, evaluating options, making choices, and then working to achieve those goals. Each person’s behavior is, in part, determined by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and both drive us to meet these three basic needs. Self-determination involves many attitudes and abilities including self-awareness, assertiveness, creativity, pride, problem-solving, and self-advocacy skills.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci are the originators of the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation, which challenged the widely held notion that rewarding behavior is the most effective way to motivate people to perform tasks. To better understand motivation, Ryan and Deci introduced the self-determination continuum, a framework that categorizes motivational styles into six levels ranging from least motivational to most motivational. The ultimate goal is to achieve self-determination, which is at its highest point at the intrinsic regulation or intrinsic motivation stage (O’Hara, 2017). Self-determination is the sense that each person is in control of their own life and choices, is motivated, and can meet they’re potential.



Performance and motivation increases when students believe that they are engaging in self-governed behaviors. How can I support autonomy in my classroom? 

  • Give students choices 

  • Establish deadlines for assignments but allow for early submissions 

  • Collaborate with students to set their own learning goals 

  • Poll the students to make class decisions concerning learning 

Encourage relatedness: In order to feel motivated, a student must feel a sense of belonging and feel connected to their teacher and their peers. How can I encourage relatedness in my classroom? 

  • Learn the students’ names and use them often 

  • Speak to each student individually at least once a week. 

  • Facilitate group projects and active learning assignments. 

  • Give individualized and personal feedback.  

  • Accept feedback from your students. 

Cultivate competence: When a student feels able and effective in their learning environment they will experience higher levels of motivation.  

How can I cultivate competence in my classroom? 

  • Avoid micromanaging and allow students to make their own mistakes. 

  • Equip students with learning strategies early on such as note taking techniques or reading strategies.  

  • Eliminate unnecessary challenges to learning by standardizing materials, assignments and color-coding documents. 

1. Choice-making. Express your preference between two or more options and exert control over your actions to implement your choice.


2. Decision-making. Similar to making choices, decision making requires effective judgments about what choices or solutions are right at any given moment. Identify possible alternatives for an action, consider the potential consequences of each action, assess the probability of each result occurring, select the best alternative, and finally, implement the alternative decision.


3. Problem-solving. Identify a problem, generate possible solutions, consider the potential pros and cons of each solution and finally, decide upon a solution.

4. Goal-setting. For goal setting activities to work they need two key things: i. be small, achievable and measurable over time and ii. have specific and clear outcomes. Write 3 goals that reflect these two criteria.

 5. Self-regulation. Self-regulation involves setting goals, developing a plan to achieve goals, implementing and following the action plan, evaluating the outcomes of the action plan, and adjusting accordingly. Write a scenario that incorporates the elf-regulation component



Record observations of students displaying autonomous behavior and this list becomes the template for identifying the meaning of autonomous behavior. 

Discuss with a colleague steps you now take to encourage relatedness. 

List new pedagogy you now use to cultivate competence in student behavior.

Choice Maker Self-Determination Assessment© is a curriculum-based motivation  assessment developed by Martin & Marshall (2016) who describe their work as follows: 


The ChoiceMaker Self-Determination Assessment is a curriculum-based assessment and planning tool. The Assessment questions directly match the ChoiceMaker Self-Determination Curriculum objectives. The Curriculum is designed to teach students the self-determination skills they need to be successful in life. Self-determination occurs when individuals define goals for themselves and take the initiative needed to achieve their goals. In the ChoiceMaker Self-Determination Curriculum, students learn self-determination skills by managing their own Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The ChoiceMaker Self-Determination Assessment has three parts: Part I: The ChoiceMaker Assessment consists of three sections that rate the student's skills and proficiency in performing each of 51 self-determination skills, and the opportunity the school provides for the student to engage in these behaviors. Part II: The ChoiceMaker Assessment Profile is a monitoring tool for graphically displaying student progress and showing the opportunities students have at school to exhibit these self-determination behaviors. Part III: The ChoiceMaker Curriculum Matrix enables the teacher and other team members to observe at a glance those skills in which the student needs instruction. Each “Teaching Objective” relates to a lesson or set of lessons in the ChoiceMaker Self-Determination Curriculum 


This assessment may be accessed as follows: 


bottom of page