Self-Determination Theory Primer and Classroom Practices

Self-Determination Theory Primer and Classroom Practices

Faculty are centrally concerned with motivation — how to move themselves or others to act. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them. Yet, just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values. These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless, they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, and perhaps more importantly, SDT propositions also focus on how social and cultural factors facilitate or undermine people’s sense of volition and initiative, in addition to their well-being and the quality of their performance. Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high-quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. In addition, SDT proposes that the degree to which any of these three psychological needs is unsupported or thwarted within a social context will have a robust detrimental impact on wellness in that setting. (

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation on “That First Day…” during our September session illustrated the SDT elements of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, argued to foster student engagement for activities. However, we missed the opportunity for you to share practices that you have successfully implemented in your classrooms and we would like to document that.

“If you were putting together a list of 1 to 10 practices to share with colleagues in your field, what would you include?”



One simple way I've tried to engage with students more as individuals is to make a clear concerted effort to learn their names. We take pictures with name cards on the first day, I use these essentially as flash cards, and by the second time we meet I can greet and address most of them by name. By the third class I typically know all of their names. Generally they appear to appreciate the effort and hopefully feel more connection in the classroom.

"Large classes: keeping the energy in 220 relationships at once" It elaborates on David's point, the importance of remembering students' names and how to do it. (fast forward video to 21:30 mins)

Here is the link to the Faculty Focus article:

Last semester in my two Bio 002 sections I scheduled two graded discussion forums late in the semester, where the students were each required to submit three meaningful (rubric provided) comments to a whole class discussion forum. Two of these comments were to be answers to questions posed by other students. One could be a question posed by that student. These were easily graded within CatCourses by the TA's. The caliber of the information generated was very impressive, and provided the students with alternative perspectives on course content. I did monitor these boards to remove redundant, ill formed, or irrelevant questions, and to correct misconceptions. Overall the TA's and myself concluded that the activity was very positive as a learning and revision aid. At the end of the semester the most demanded change to the course requested by those students was to have this rolled out at the beginning of a semester, with a more comprehensive collection of discussions on an ongoing basis. This was included in this semesters roll-out, and it continues to be a very important student generated resource. We are now installing the necessary tools to permit students to make short informative videos for sharing with their peers, in preparation for the final comprehensive exam.

In the past few weeks I have rediscovered ways to assess student learning -- writing reflective letters. In my Writing 1 class, we had a guest speaker come and share about his culture. After his presentation, the students wrote thank you letters expressing their learning as well as their thanks. In the end, the results were a key element in my ability to gauge student interest as well as student learning. In a similar assignment, the students had just finished reading Me Talk Pretty, a novel by David Sedaris. The students wrote a reflective letter to the author discussing their opinion of the book, their learning as well as a few questions they would like to ask the author. While these letters were not sent, they were useful to me to again gauge student learning and interest in the book. The questions listed at the end of the letter for the author also served as discussion points as we concluded the reading of the book. Additionally, they were used in a mock interview where the students did some role playing -- one student as an interviewer and the other as Sedaris. To be sure the discussions were lively and telling as the students revealed their learning, insights, and connections the book brought out.