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Keeping self-determination in perspective

30 December, 2015 - 09:33
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In certain ways self-determination theory provides a sensible way to think about students' intrinsic motivation and therefore to think about how to get them to manage their own learning. A particular strength of the theory is that it recognizes degrees of self-determination and bases many ideas on this reality. Most people recognize combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation guiding particular activities in their own lives. We might enjoy teaching, for example, but also do this job partly to receive a paycheck. To its credit, self-determination theory also relies on a list of basic human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that relate comfortably with some of the larger purposes of education. Although these are positive features for understanding and influencing students' classroom motivation, some educators and psychologists nonetheless have lingering questions about the limitations of self-determination theory. One is whether merely providing choices actually improves students' learning, or simply improves their satisfaction with learning. There is evidence supporting both possibilities (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003; Deci & Ryan, 2003), and it is likely that there are teachers whose classroom experience supports both possibilities as well.

Another question is whether it is possible to overdo attention to students' needs—and again there is evidence for both favoring and contradicting this possibility. Too many choices can actually make anyone (not just a student) frustrated and dissatisfied with a choice the person actually does make (Schwartz, 2004). Clearly the number of choices given must be developmentally appropriate: adolescents can handle far more choices than can kindergartners. Furthermore, differentiating activities to students' competence levels may be challenging if students are functioning at extremely diverse levels within a single class, as sometimes happens. These are serious concerns, though in our opinion not serious enough to give up offering choices to students or to stop differentiating instruction altogether. In Motivational Challenges in the Classroom,” therefore, we explain the practical basis for this opinion, by describing workable ways for offering choices and recognizing students' diversity.