How to Motivate Your Students to Learn with Self-Determination Theory

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
5 min readFeb 27


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Let’s start with an understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from deep feelings of interest in an activity. Picture a student who is so engrossed in schoolwork that they’re sharply focused and even excited. Psychologists call this state of being absorbed in a challenging but accomplishable task “flow”. Intrinsic motivation is what educators often strive to foster in the classroom. What can serve as a more gratifying reminder of the value of your work than watching your students work and learn in a state of flow?

Extrinsic motivation comes from an externally imposed need. These are the tasks that we do simply because we must. While it’s important for students to experience intrinsic motivation in learning, it’s also critical that they have the skills to accomplish a task when the primary motivation is extrinsic. After all, adulthood is certainly filled with tasks that are necessary, but not particularly interesting!

This is where psychology and cognitive science come in. With the right conditions, you can create a learning environment where students can access the motivation they need to master important skills and content.

Self Determination Theory

University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed an oft-cited and useful framework for understanding what students need to complete extrinsically motivated tasks. Self Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) states that when three important needs are met, students care more about the tasks and are more motivated to complete them.

The first need is autonomy. Student agency, also referenced as voice and choice, is critical. It’s all about giving students options for exploration and assessment.

The second is competence. Students should understand why the task is important and relevant to their lives and receive feedback that helps them feel competent in it.

The third is relatedness. The task should feel relevant to your students’ lives and reflect their lived experiences. It should also contribute to a sense of belonging in your learning community.

The examples below illustrate what meeting these needs can look like in learning activities and education technology.

How to Meet Students’ Need for Autonomy

Giving students lots of choices in the classroom may feel overwhelming. Technology can serve as an excellent tool to foster agency at a manageable scale. Here are some examples:

Autonomy in Science

Our middle school Inspire Science courses include digital simulations that allow students to choose different conditions or variables then run the simulation to observe the outcome of their choices. In the life science example below, students can choose the number of glucose and water channels in the cell membrane, which appear and disappear when students slide the glucose and water sliders. Students are also able to change the concentration of oxygen, glucose, carbon dioxide, and water outside the cell using the “dropper”. When students run the simulation, they can see how the concentration of molecules changes inside and outside the cell based on their choices.

Image Credit: Inspire Science

Autonomy in Math

Our online math program for grades 3–12, ALEKS, guides students on a personalized learning path where they can choose what they want to learn next, provided they have the prerequisite knowledge to successfully obtain the skill and learn the content. Students pull down a topic carousel to see what’s coming up in their path and jump to a different topic. They can see which topics they’ve started but not completed, search for a specific topic, or identify topics that include a video for extra support.

How to Meet Students’ Need for Competence

Fostering a growth mindset, providing immediate and constructive feedback, and leveraging tools for growth tracking can all contribute to building competence. Here’s how that might look in practice:

Competence in ELA

Achieve3000 Literacy, our digital supplemental literacy acceleration solution for grades 2–12, uses Lexile® scores to measure and track student growth. Over the course of each month, as students complete lessons, the Lexile scores adjust. The more students do — with intentionality and a steady success rate — the more they grow. Providing students with a tangible reflection of the correlation between their efforts and their growth is a powerful tool for fostering competence.

Image Credit:

Competence in Math

The first unit in grades K-5 of Reveal Math, our core math program, focuses on empowering students to see themselves as “doers” of mathematics. These “Math Is…” units instill a growth mindset through practicing thinking skills that are integral to success in rigorous mathematics. Students develop competence through the belief that they can grow and learn as mathematicians in a math-positive environment. Reveal Math’s STEM units also provide students with the opportunity to see how math can be used in the real world through career exploration.

How to Meet Students’ Need for Relatedness

Relatedness in Social Studies

Social Studies naturally lends itself to promoting students’ understanding of the world and connecting to their individual place in it. In IMPACT Social Studies, our K-5 program, students analyze relevant information, critique arguments, and make connections to their own lived experiences through reading, writing, speaking, and listening. By taking an active role in their learning, students enrich and deepen their content-specific knowledge and their ability to understand the world around them. At all grade levels, the “Connections in Action” feature encourages students to make connections between chapter concepts, their own community, and inspires them to make a difference.

Image Credit: ©2020 IMPACT Social Studies, Exploring Who We Are, Grade 2

Relatedness in ELA

Wonders, our K-5 ELA program, features “Talk About It” classroom digital discussion boards that mimic a social media environment. The teacher can post any question, such as a unit’s Essential Question or a brainstorming question, to launch a new writing task. Students use the discussion boards to post their answers, view their peers’ responses, and reply to each other. The “Talk About It” discussion board fosters relatedness through community-building and connection and offers students opportunities to share what they know to contribute to knowledge-building.

For more teaching tips based on science, check out:


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. opens in a new window



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