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Self-determination and intrinsic motivation

26 July, 2019 - 10:13
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In proposing the importance of needs, then, self-determination theory is asserting the importance of intrinsic motivation, an idea that has come up before and that will come again later. The self-determination version of intrinsic motivation, however, emphasizes a person's perception of freedom, rather than the presence or absence of “real” constraints on action. Self-determination means a person feels free, even if the person is also operating within certain external constraints. In principle, a student can experience self-determination even if the student must, for example, live within externally imposed rules of appropriate classroom behavior. To achieve a feeling of self-determination, however, the student's basic needs must be met—needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In motivating students, then, the bottom line is that teachers have an interest in helping students to meet their basic needs, and in not letting school rules or the teachers' own leadership styles interfere with or block satisfaction of students' basic needs.

“Pure” self-determination may be the ideal for most teachers and students, of course, but the reality is usually different. For a variety of reasons, teachers in most classrooms cannot be expected to meet all students' basic needs at all times. One reason is the sheer number of students, which makes it impossible to attend to every student perfectly at all times. Another reason is teachers' responsibility for a curriculum, which can require creating expectations for students' activities that sometimes conflict with students' autonomy or makes them feel (temporarily) less than fully competent.

The result from students' point of view is usually only a partial perception of self-determination, and therefore a simultaneous mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Self-determination theory recognizes this reality by suggesting that the “intrinsic-ness” of motivation is really a matter of degree, extending from highly extrinsic, through various mixtures of intrinsic and extrinsic, to highly intrinsic (Koestner & Losier, 2004). At the extrinsic end of the scale is learning that is regulated primarily by external rewards and constraints, whereas at the intrinsic end is learning regulated primarily by learners themselves. Table 4.1 summarizes and gives examples of the various levels and their effects on motivation. By assuming that motivation is often a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic, the job of the teacher becomes more realistic; the job is not to expect purely intrinsic motivation from students all the time, but simply to arrange and encourage motivations that are as intrinsic as possible. To do this, the teacher needs to support students' basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Source of regulation of action



Table 4.1 Combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

“Pure” extrinsic motivation

Person lacks the intention to take any action, regardless of pressures or incentives

Student completes no work even when pressured or when incentives are offered

Very external to person

Actions regulated only by outside pressures and incentives, and controls

Student completes assignment only if reminded explicitly of the incentive of grades and/or negative consequences of failing

Somewhat external

Specific actions regulated internally, but without reflection or connection to personal needs

Student completes assignment independently, but only because of fear of shaming self or because of guilt about consequences of not completing assignment

Somewhat internal

Actions recognized by individual as important or as valuable as a means to a more valued goal

Student generally completes school work independently, but only because of its value in gaining admission to college

Very internal

Actions adopted by individual as integral to self-concept and to person's major personal values

Student generally completes school work independently, because being well educated is part of the student's concept of himself

“Pure” intrinsic regulation

Actions practiced solely because they are enjoyable and valued for their own sake

Student enjoys every topic, concept, and assignment that every teacher ever assigns, and completes school work solely because of her enjoyment