What is the Self-Determination Theory?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation. It is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. The theory was initially developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, and has been elaborated and refined by scholars from many countries.

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. SDT concerns the interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature.

SDT begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with evolved tendencies toward growing, mastering ambient challenges, and integrating new experiences into a coherent sense of self. These natural developmental tendencies do not, however, operate automatically, but depend on how social and cultural factors facilitate or undermine people’s sense of volition, initiative, well-being, and the quality of their performance.

Conditions in the social environment that support the individual’s need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities. To the extent that these needs are ongoingly satisfied, people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning. The darker sides of human behavior and experience - such as certain types of psychopathology, prejudice, and aggression - are understood in terms of reactions to basic needs having been thwarted, either developmentally or proximally.

Research has applied SDT in many domains including education, organizations, sport and physical activity, religion, health and medicine, parenting, virtual environments and media, close relationships, and psychotherapy. On this page, we summarise research findings in the literature and translate them into practical suggestions for educators in various settings.

Adapted from http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/

Practical Tips for Nurturing Motivation

For Teachers in Class


For Teachers in Physical Education


For Parents