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. Constructs and emphases associated with Self-Determination Theory include:
  • Motivated Learning – a phrase that can technically be applied across contexts and motivations, but that is most often used to refer to an individual’s interests in actually developing understandings and skills (vs. finish assignments, pass tests, earn credentials, etc.). Constructs associated with Motivated Learning include:
    • Actualizing Tendency – a type of motivation that, drawing on the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is oriented toward “Self-Actualization” – that is, growth, self-fulfilment, autonomy, and the realization of one’s potential
    • Effectance Motivation (Mastery Motivation) – a type of motivation oriented by the desire to engage fully with the environment, often manifesting as a tendency to investigate topics and issues and to master concepts and skills
    • Task Involvement – a state of motivation in which one is focused on the task demands (rather than oneself)
  • Unmotivated Learning – a phrase that, most often, describes the attitude of a student whose efforts are oriented toward finishing assignments, passing tests, earning credentials, etc. (as opposed to actually learning the content), and so any learning that occurs is incidental. Constructs associated with Unmotivated Learning include:
    • Achievement Motivation – a type of motivation that is focused on success at challenging tasks. Subtypes include:
      • Fear of Failure – a state of motivation that is focused on avoiding the imagined negative consequences of failing
      • Hope for Success – a state of motivation that is framed by one’s sense of the likelihood of success
    • Ego-Involvement – a state of motivation that is preoccupied with others’ perceptions and thus focused on looking capable and intelligent (or, at least, avoiding looking incompetent or stupid)


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.


  • Actualizing Tendency
  • Effectance Motivation (Mastery Motivation)
  • Ego Involvement
  • Fear of Failure
  • Hope for Success
  • Motivated Learning
  • Task Involvement
  • Unmotivated Learning

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Self-Determination Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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