It’s a well-known fact that students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to be engaged in the classroom, find meaning in their work, and are more resilient. Motivation is what drives us forward in life, yet many find it to be a puzzle since there isn’t one single factor to explain motivation.
We are all motivated to grow and develop. Students are naturally curious and inclined to learn about their environment. That is intrinsic motivation.
At the same time, many classroom practices still focus only on external rewards such as grades, badges, and praise. That is extrinsic motivation.
While both are important and need to coexist, the first makes students lifelong learners, in which the activity itself is enough. In order words, they find joy in learning. Teachers can guide students in developing intrinsic motivation, although the status quo still pushes for external rewards despite the evidence that it doesn’t work in the long run. For example, giving students money for every book they read is just as ineffective as chastising them for not reading.
That is why the self-determination theory (SDT) seeks to explain how students can become better learners through three core concepts: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
Autonomy in learning
When students have a sense of control over their learning, their intrinsic motivation improves; they are likely to persist at tedious academic tasks and they learn to process information at a deeper level.
To support students’ autonomy, teachers can encourage them to set their own learning objectives, contribute to course material, and use learning techniques that work best for them.
For example, lessons can be structured in a more flexible way, in which students can choose which tasks to solve and the order in which to solve them. They can also have a say in the topics they want to discuss and the formats in which to create projects. Students can experiment with writing an essay, creating a presentation, or a short video, instead of sticking to only one format that might not showcase their strengths and talents.
Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to and cared for by others. Research shows that social isolation and loneliness are linked to student anxiety, lower intellectual achievement, diminished self-control, and poorer health. But when students feel a sense of belonging, they experience more meaningful relationships, higher self-esteem, better academic performance, and improved well-being.
Teachers have the ability to foster a culture of empathy in the classroom, where nobody feels left out. The empathy driven classroom abandons rigid disciplinary approaches (think detention) in favor of techniques such as mindfulness.
Students also learn better when examples used in class relate to them and their experiences. This is especially important for students of different ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
Students should be able to talk about their struggles without feelings of shame or being judged. Instead, they are encouraged to see learning challenges as part of the process. Many teachers also encourage relatedness by ditching the old classroom design in favor of U-shaped seat arrangements or flexible furniture that allows students to collaborate more.
Students need to be challenged by schoolwork and know that expectations are high, but they also need a sense of competence — a feeling that they are equipped to meet these challenges and standards. Studies have shown that once students perceive themselves as competent in learning class material, they develop more intrinsic learning motives, even in the face of obstacles.
Teachers need to find activities that are not too hard nor too easy for students, and increase the difficulty as they progress through lessons. They can also provide timely and constructive feedback so students can learn how to improve, and not dwell on what they perceive as a failure to learn.
To develop competence, students can be taught effective strategies for learning. In other words, how to read critically, or how to approach a Maths problem instead of learning formulas by rote.
Ultimately, competence is about students developing a sense of mastery and control over their learning, where challenges are stepping stones and not roadblocks.
Students have an innate desire to learn that needs to be nurtured. This can be achieved through teaching practices that encourage learning autonomy, relatedness, and competence, the three core elements of the Self Determination Theory.
Students simply learn better and are more creative when engaged in a learning activity for the activity’s sake, with less emphasis on external rewards. This leads to lifelong learners that are confident in their abilities to solve problems, many years after graduating from formal education.