6 Self-Determination Theory of Motivation

While understanding goal processing is certainly important in an academic context, it is equally important to understand the motivation which affects one’s ability to set and reach goals. To capture the complexity of motivation, we use Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which upholds that understanding motivation requires a consideration of innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Essentially, for a person to have a healthy drive, they need to feel like they are capable of accomplishing something, be able to do it on their own, and have social support available when they need it. Without all three of those things, a person’s ability to have intrinsic motivation is compromised. Intrinsic motivation is the space we want students to be in; at this level of motivation, a person finds something interesting and enjoyable, and would do it in the absence of any consequences or reinforcements (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Intrinsically motivated behaviors are specifically based in the need to feel competent and self-determined, but they also require support from their social environment to function effectively.

Intrinsic motivation is so vital because it shows a person’s ability to self-regulate and practice autonomy. Compared to trying to control youth behavior, autonomously-regulated behavior has been shown to lead to a variety of positive outcomes: higher quality performance in school, improved maintenance of behavior change, and overall better mental health (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Intrinsically motivated behavior is also associated with better learning and overall well-being. Students who are autonomously motivated to take a class have been shown to have higher grades and say they enjoy the course more (Black & Deci, 2000).

There are clear academic benefits to being able to autonomously regulate oneself, but the ability to practice this self-regulation also is important to identity formation. In SDT, humans are assumed to be actively growth-oriented and are naturally inclined toward developing a consistent sense of self. In psychology, coherence is known as the need to maintain a sense of self which is consistent among both psychological makeup and between the self in the social world. In other words, there is a need to feel like you have a consistent sense of self across time and space, so you feel like you are “you” everywhere you go. Through engaging in activities which one is intrinsically motivated for, a person can change and refine their inner representation of themselves. This tendency to integrate our experiences into the identity, then, moves them toward a more unified set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Therefore, doing activities which a person is intrinsically motivated for leads to this unification of processes and integration into identity which helps a person maintain their coherence, or sense of self. This shows the power of what autonomous regulation and motivation can do for a person.