Motivation plays a key role in learning, being motivated supercharges our learning experience, but what is motivation? And how does it relate to teaching?
Edward Deci and Richard Ryan has studied these questions for the better part of their research careers, they formulated their Self determination theory (SDT) as a framework to study human motivation [Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000)] . Self determination theory is a highly recognized work towards understanding what drives human motivation and how it relates to learning. In this article I will give a brief summary of some key points of SDT, and give examples of how these can help us in improving our teaching, and our understanding of how to create optimal learning environments.
Self determination theory – what is motivation?
One of the key points of SDT is that human motivation can be boiled down to three basic psychological needs;
- Autonomy – the desire to feel self directed,
- Competency – the desire to feel competent,
- Relatedness – the desire to feel related to others.
According to self determination theory these three basic psychological needs govern all human motivation, and are a key factor in not only learning but overall well being. High quality motivation comes from conditions that foster autonomy, competency and relatedness resulting in enhanced performance, persistence and creativity [Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000)] .
How does SDT relate to teaching?
If we want our students to have good learning experiences, we want them to feel motivated. If motivation comes down to these three basic psychological needs, we need to design our classes and teach in a way that promote these three needs. But how do we do that? Let’s break it down one psychological need at a time.
Autonomy – the desire to be self directed
Most of the time we like to feel self directed, that we are the ones in control. The most common method of teaching is known as the Deductive method, the teacher tells or shows directly what he/she wants to teach, this is also referred to as direct instruction. However, the deductive method is often criticized because it teaches in an isolated way, little attention is paid to meaning, and practice is often mechanical with very little autonomy for the learner, it is a “do as you are told” approach to learning. One of my favorite quotes about teaching outlines this very well:
“Tell me and I forget”
“Teach me and I remember”
“Involve me and I learn”
— Bob Adamson
Involve me, make me feel autonomous and I learn.
How can we make our students feel more autonomous?
One proven approach to increase motivation is student chosen options and student decision making. Teaching is not only about the teacher having all the answers, spoon feeding the facts to the students. Great teaching is about realizing the existing potential of the students and creating optimal learning environments. Adopting a question based approach to teaching is a great way to facilitate the realization of the existing potential in our students. We want to lead our students on a journey of discovery, posing the right questions at the right time, rather than just providing the answers right away, will help our students develop their problem solving skills and increased autonomy.
Competency – the desire to feel competent
In the process of learning we want to be presented with challenges that are just right, meaning if the challenge is too hard we fail and become frustrated, or if the challenge is too easy we loose interest, if the challenge is just right we learn and develop further skills. This is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD) [Vygotsky, L. S. (1978)]. To create an optimal learning environment it is important to match the challenges to the students zone of proximal development, where with the proper guidance our students can succeed and experience competency.
Relatedness – Being connected to others
There are many theories of learning, the one that is probably most familiar to most people is known as behaviorism. Behaviorism was indeed one of the first theories of learning to be formulated, in the beginning based mainly on animal studies. In behaviorism learning is defined as a change of behavior as an effect of an external stimulus, the most famous example is probably Pavlov’s dogs. Also known as operant conditioning, for example a rat learning to press a lever for food [Pavlov, I.P. (1927)]. However as one can imagine this definition of learning has a few shortcomings, little attention is paid to meaning or cognitive processes. If we are only motivated by a stimulus like getting a good grade, we often forget most of the subject once the exam is passed. More recent theories of learning goes as far as defining learning as a social process that cannot be separated from the social context in which it occurs. Indeed once we finish school much of the learning we experience happens in some social context, a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems [Wenger, E. 1998]. Us humans have a great desire to be connected to others, to feel related. Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly [Wenger, E. 1998]. Thus to create optimal learning environments we want to foster conditions where learners interact with each other in communities of practice, learning in a social context and feeling related to the other learners.
High quality motivation comes from conditions that foster autonomy, competency and relatedness resulting in enhanced performance, persistence and creativity. One proven approach to increase motivation is student chosen options and student decision making.
Adopting a question based approach to teaching is a great way to facilitate an optimal learning environment and realizing the potential in our students. Posing the right questions at the right time, rather than just providing the answers right away, will help our students develop their problem solving skills and increase their autonomy.
To create an optimal learning environment it is important to match the challenges to the students zone of proximal development, where with the proper guidance, our students can succeed and experience competency. We want to foster conditions where learners interact with each other in communities of practice, learning in a social context and feeling related to the other learners.
- Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. University of Rochester
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Pavlov, I.P. (1927) Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.
- Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education. 6. 185-194. 10.1023/A:1023947624004.
About the author
Master of Science in Sports, Martin Kvist.
Highly educated in the field of sport science, neuroscience, and motor learning. Martin’s ability to provide injury prevention support, inspire healthy movement, and passion for acrobatics is essential for students who want to delve deep into their bodies for maximum strength and healing.