Self Determination Theory

Continuing through the Gameful Learning MOOC on EdX we have arrived at what Barry Fishman describes as a key concept. Self Determination Theory.

SDT has three components:

  • Autonomy
  • Belonging
  • Competence

Traditional classroom teaching provides little autonomy to students. In general students do what the teacher wants them to do at the time they want them to do it. SDT tells us that students will be more highly motivated and successful if they have a higher degree of agency. Gameful learning does not mean that students do anything they want, but it does mean that students are able to choose between a curated range of pathways to the learning outcomes. They may also be given some agency in how they demonstrate their learning.

While teachers typically teach to an average student, there is actually no such student in the class. Every student will differ around the average. Autonomy provides for a natural differentiation of learning based on individual differences.

The second element of SDT is belonging. Outside formal education learning is a social activity. Generally it happens in clubs and societies or at the workplace. Classrooms on the other hand are often set up to minimize or constrain social interaction. In addition assessment regimes are often competitive, setting individuals in competition with one another. Competition used in the correct way is a motivating influence, but competition that isolates is not. Gameful learning provides for constructive social interaction to support and motivate students.

The third and final element of self determination theory is competence. There are two key aspects in developing a sense of competence in students. Firstly, instead of marking from 100% down, always start at 0% and build up. In practical terms this means that students should understand that the teacher is giving credit for what they do know rather than looking for what they don’t know.

A good example of this is the way most students approach tests and exams. These are stressful and the students usually assume that the test is something they need to beat. It is there to try to make them look incompetent. Their fear of failure encourages them to approach a test with a performance orientation. A more productive way to approach an assessment is to see it as a way to demonstrate what they have learned.

Providing students with a competence based approach involves giving achievable challenges where everything is seen as progress towards a goal. Gameful learning always provides for recovery from failure so that failure is always progress towards success. In fact if there is no failure then most likely the challenge is too easy.


Self determination theory, when properly developed, is very supportive of intrinsic motivation. When students do not have autonomy, belonging and a sense of competence, then teachers have to resort to a higher level of extrinsic motivation.

In summary I will relate an anecdote. A student of mine explained recently that he had not been allowed to attend the school celebration dinner last year (i.e. ‘prom’ for my USA readers) because he had not completed assignment work. This illustrates clearly the relationship between self determination theory and motivation. That institution was relying on a high level of extrinsic motivation (which obviously didn’t work) and in doing so was actively undermining the autonomy, belonging and sense of competence of students. An approach based on SDT would support more intrinsic motivation to complete assignment work. The school would then be able to rely less on extrinsic motivation and let all their students celebrate their success.

Next topic is “Grit”. I can’t wait.


4 responses

  1. Thanks Grant for sharing your thoughts about SDT, another great post. I really liked the part about students starting with 0% and building up.

    Looking forward to hearing about Grit (is this close to resilience?)

  2. Just covered the content today at lunch time. I think grit as defined in this MOOC is a little more positive than resilience. Resilience to me is about digging in and recovering from setbacks. While this is good, grit is defined as persistence with passion. We draw on resilience in times of difficulty, while grit is always driving us forward.

  3. […] other words the three components of Self Determination Theory are integral to fostering grit in […]

  4. […] Self Determination Theory describes the conditions under which intrinsic motivation is fostered. SDT identifies three key precursors to intrinsic motivation. All of which are the bases for effective game play. […]

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