Faculty Club / Student Engagement / Self-Determination Theory: How to Spark Intrinsic Motivation

Self-Determination Theory: How to Spark Intrinsic Motivation

Learn how to foster intrinsic motivation in students using the three basic needs of Self-Determination Theory as a framework.

Fostering motivation in students can be a complex code to crack. With so many ideas and teaching strategies out there, what solution will get students excited about the course and invested in the outcomes? 

In many educational settings, extrinsic motivation takes center stage. Educators entice students with good grades, early dismissals, or prizes, hoping to build momentum for what’s ahead. But while these rewards may yield short-term results, they often don’t nurture a genuine passion for learning.

Intrinsic motivation differs from extrinsic motivation because the desire to succeed comes from the student, not from outside sources. While intrinsic motivation is harder to build, the long-term benefits are worth it. In this article, we’ll explain the importance of intrinsic motivation and explore strategies that can serve as your cipher key.

Image Source: Simply Psychology

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), coined by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 2000, can help us understand how to cultivate intrinsic motivation. SDT states that all individuals have inherent motivation, but certain needs must be met to unlock it.  

The theory identifies three basic human needs for motivation:

  1. Competence: Students need to feel capable in their academic pursuits.
  2. Autonomy: Students need choices and the freedom to make decisions about their learning.
  3. Relatedness: Students need a sense of connection and community with their peers and with their teachers.
Image Source: BCcampus

When building a toolkit for motivating students, keep these three categories in mind. If you align your teaching methods with these strategies, your students are more likely to invest in the course and remember the material after the term ends.

Give students ownership over their learning.

Student ownership falls in the “autonomy” basket of SDT. Deci and Ryan explain that students are more intrinsically motivated by tasks that give them choices. These choices allow students to work toward something they’re interested in. 

You can offer choice in both what and how students learn. For example, let students choose a relevant topic to explore in their final projects. Then, offer options for how they can display their knowledge—in a presentation, a written paper, or maybe a creative visual. 

You can also involve students in shaping the course’s direction. This can include co-creating learning objectives and establishing class norms. 

Other classroom strategies that promote student autonomy include:

  • Making time for students to work independently.
  • Providing students with an opportunity to talk.
  • Encouraging students’ effort.
  • Acknowledging the experiences and perspectives of students.

Try This:

To maintain structure for the students who need it, allow students choice within set parameters. For example, you may say, “Choose one of these three readings to analyze,” or “Choose one topic out of these five topics for your presentation.”

Make learning meaningful to students.

Meaningful learning speaks to the basic human need for relatedness. The key to making learning meaningful is to connect students—with their own thoughts, with their peers, and with the outside world. To do this, focus on the “why” behind what you’re teaching. Ask yourself: Why is this course material important to students’ lives and what impact does it have? 

Here are some examples of meaningful learning experiences based on discipline:

🔬 Science: Use a relatable scenario like shopping at the grocery store to investigate environmental impact.

🌍 Social science: Simulate real-world experiences like a mock trial or a UN security council to explore the importance of persuasion and policy.

📚 English: Write opinion papers that tie students’ perspectives to the assigned literature.

🎨 Art: Create art projects that reflect personal perspectives on shared experiences, like quarantine.

You can also use the Purpose for Learning framework to inform your instruction. This framework encourages students to learn with the goal of making a broader, positive impact on the world. Research shows that students with purpose-driven goals were more than twice as likely to enroll in college after graduation compared to students who reported other reasons for learning.

Try This:

At the beginning of the course, ask students to identify their interests. Then, have students set a purpose-driven goal that aligns with their interests and the course objectives. 

For example, in a research class for teacher candidates, a student’s purpose-driven goal may be, “I will improve my research skills in this course so I can better meet the needs of my future students.”

Promote students’ sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy—the belief in one’s ability to succeed—is a fundamental element of intrinsic motivation, and it meets students’ basic need for competence. Research shows that students are most motivated when they believe they have the skills and tools necessary to succeed. 

To foster self-efficacy in students, challenge them appropriately using their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). A student’s ZPD is like the Goldilocks version of learning—not too easy, not too hard, but just right. Strive to challenge students enough to stretch their abilities but not so much that they become discouraged.

Image Source: University of Alaska

Other ways to promote student self-efficacy is to decenter grades and focus more on constructive feedback. Grades are an example of extrinsic motivation. They motivate students to get points, but they can distract from the purpose of learning, which is skill mastery.

Here’s an example from Harvard’s School of Education of an activity that prioritizes skill mastery:

  1. Ask students to identify challenging vocabulary words they’ve encountered in their coursework. 
  2. Present effective strategies for using flashcards to learn vocabulary. 
  3. Ask students to practice these strategies in the classroom and at home.
  4. Test students on the flashcard strategy, not on word memorization.

Try This:

Use ungraded pre-tests at the beginning of the course to determine how much students do or don’t know in your discipline. Analyze the data to find a general ZPD for the class. If you have outliers, address these students’ needs individually.

Foster relationships among students.

The social aspect of learning is highly valuable and meets the human need for relatedness. An advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, warns that we’re in a loneliness epidemic, with the only cure being social connection and community. 

Research also shows that loneliness and social isolation are linked to student anxiety, lower achievement, diminished self-control, and poorer health. To counter these effects and keep students engaged in the classroom, shift the focus away from yourself and encourage students to interact with one another. 

Collaborative learning strategies like Socratic seminars and group projects can help students feel connected and motivated. Focusing on social belonging in schools can also improve academic and health outcomes of minority students.

Try This:

Be mindful of how you group students, as choice grouping can cause anxiety for some students. Use different strategies to ensure groups are varied and inclusive. For example, try sorting students using cards one day, then ask them to partner with someone wearing a similar colored shirt the next day.

Show students you care.

A critical piece of relatedness is showing students that their success matters to you as the teacher. A survey from Gallup asked Americans to describe the best teacher they ever had, and the most common word they used was “caring.” 

When students feel cared for by faculty, the result is:

  • Greater student enjoyment.
  • Improved attendance and attention. 
  • More study time devoted to the class.
  • More courses taken in that discipline. 

You can show students you care by using a strength-based (or asset-based) teaching approach. The image below offers examples of how to shift student feedback from deficit-based to strength- or asset-based:

Image Source: TCEA

Try This:

At the beginning of the course, show you care about students by asking them things like:

  • Their preferred names and pronouns.
  • If there’s any way you can support them in their learning.
  • If they have specific preferences for instruction, activities, or assessment.

Intrinsic Motivation Leads to Greater Engagement

Intrinsic motivation and student engagement are closely linked. When you spark students’ motivation from within, you gain active learners who are excited to participate. 

To spark intrinsic motivation, keep the three basic human needs of SDT in mind—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. With these as your guideposts, you can shape any activity or assessment into an authentic and stimulating learning experience.

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.


About the Author

Morgan Westling is an Associate Content Specialist at Course Hero. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of the South. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing for over 7 years. Find more of her work at www.morganwestling.com.

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