A Summary of Self-Determination Theory

In my Understanding At-Risk Children course, the very first theory that we examined was something called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which states that as human beings, we are each born with a strong desire to develop as individuals and to find happiness. In order to do so, supporters of SDT argue that we must ensure that we have met three basic needs. First, we each have a need for autonomy, meaning that we all want to feel as though we are the ones controlling our own behaviour and actions. There is also a need for competence, or for feeling as though we are successful at interacting with others, and with the world around us. Finally, all individuals must satisfy a need for relatedness, or for feelings of emotional connectedness to other people.

Closely related to SDT is the idea of motivation, which exists on a spectrum and can take on many forms. The first of these is called amotivation, which simply means that someone is not motivated to perform a task whatsoever. External motivation is an extrinsic drive to complete an activity, and it is fuelled primarily by a system of rewards and punishment. In the classroom, this can be seen in the traditional dishing out of candy, high grades, or detention as motivators, and it is arguably one of the least effective forms of motivation in the long run. One step higher is what’s referred to as introjected motivation, which occurs as a result of guilt, or pressure from an outside source. For example, many students pursue  academic goals as a result of family, peer, or larger societal pressure, rather than out of their own desires.

When an individual is motivated by a personal system of reward and punishment, or by a feeling of self-satisfaction after completing tasks, this is called identified motivation. While it is still not the highest level of motivation one can experience, it is definitely more effective than extrinsic motivators, because its source comes from within. Next, an even more self-determined form of motivation is called integrated motivation. This happens when one experiences decision-based pressure and a strong desire to find balance, and a good  example would be a student’s attempt to balance his or her academics with extra-curricular activities, in order to become a more well-rounded person.

Finally, intrinsic motivation is the most effective form of long-term motivation, primarily because it is entirely self-inititated. Rather than external factors, this motivation comes from high levels of interest, an innate desire to succeed, and it is driven by personal pressure and non-materialistic rewards. For example, a student who is intrinsically motivated to study for a test will do so not merely for a high grade, but for the feeling of pride and accomplishment that comes from improving his or her knowledge and understanding of the topic at hand. While intrinsic motivation is definitely not something that teachers can expect to help their students find overnight, it is a form of motivation that I personally feel we should be aiming to build up in them over the course of the school year. When students are intrinsically motivated to accomplish their goals, they will continue to thrive long after they have left our classroom.



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