Self-Determination Theory


The role of psychological needs in self-motivation and self-definition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … integrated functioning
  • Learner is … an inertial object (requiring motivation)
  • Learning is … moving toward
  • Teaching is … supporting




Included among Motivation Theories, Self-Determination Theory is founded on the assumption that people have psychological needs which serve as the basis for both self-motivation and self-integration. The theory asserts that optimal development is inherent – but not automatic – for all humans. Three universal, innate motivating needs are identified: competence (mastery-oriented), relatedness (other-oriented), and autonomy (determination-oriented). The necessity for social support is acknowledged.


Self-Determination Theory might be characterized as a “transitional theory” – a perspective that was articulated as Behaviorisms were waning. Self-Determination Theory avoided their externalist foci, but it was still caught in the wake of motivation-focused theories. One thus sees very different emphases, but an almost-identical logic – resulting in a compromise that, to all appearances, was missed by its authors.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edward Deci; Richard Ryan

Status as a Theory of Learning

Self-Determination Theory is theory of motivation and identity, both of which figure into what and how one learns.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Self-Determination Theory is not a theory of teaching – and offers little advice, apart from flagging the obligation of the teacher to support the learner’s development toward self-determination.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Self-Determination Theory has a very limited evidence base and is inattentive to some of it key assumptions.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Self-Determination Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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