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Self-determination theory in elearning

Friday 14th May, 2021

What motivates people to act?

It’s an ever-present question in elearning - where the goal is to deliver online environments that support learners as they discover, engage, continue and complete a course or an app.

It’s also the question behind Self-Determination Theory (SDT) – a theory of motivation from the field of psychology that has provided insight and strategies for education for over 30 years.

Motivation sign

What is this self-determination stuff?

At its simplest, being motivated is about being moved to do something (Ryan & Deci, 2000). To be self-determined in one’s motivation means you are able to make your own choices - in life and in learning.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci first presented their theory of self-determination in 1985 and it has been refined and added to by thousands of studies in the years since (Ryan & Deci, 2020). Previously, motivation was seen in terms of extrinsic motivation (you are moved by an external reward or punishment) or intrinsic motivation (you are moved by your own interest or enjoyment in the task).

But if you think of your own motivation to do something (such as doing a course), it’s not so clear-cut.

A question of control

You may have no desire whatsoever to do a course (also known as amotivation). You may be legally required to do the course. The course may be a requirement of your job or enable you to receive a pay increase. The course may help you develop skills that will help you in your current or future work – or it may make you look more competent to a supervisor. You may be doing the course because you are interested in the topic it covers or you simply enjoy learning new things.

Your motivation to do a course is determined by how much control you feel you have in choosing do it – which sits on a continuum of autonomy-control that extends from external to internal – and also whether the values of the goals and behaviours align with your own.

Research has borne out what we intuitively know from our own experiences – if you feel you have little or no control, you are less motivated to act.

And, people are most motivated when the task is something they enjoy, are interested in, or find inherently satisfying, or when the values of the goals and the tasks of the activity are aligned with their own (or if they aren’t their own, they see the value of it for themselves).

How do we motivate learners in elearning?

Not all learning will be enjoyable or interesting – so how do we use what we know from SDT to make it engaging and effective? How do we help learners internalise the “responsibility and sense of value of external goals”?

Having motivated, self-determined learners is about creating the environments that support them in internalising the values and goals of learning. SDT research has found three needs essential for optimal motivation: Autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy: “I Choose This”
Autonomy is the need to self-regulate (choose) one’s experiences and actions. You are able to make choices that are in alignment with your values. (Deci & Ryan, 2017)

Competence: “I Can Do This”
Competence is the need to feel effective and have mastery. You feel you have the skills necessary to complete the tasks.

Relatedness: “I Belong”
Relatedness (or Connectedness) is the need to feel socially connected. You feel cared for, valued in the community, a sense of belonging.

How to create supportive environments for elearning

Optimising motivation in elearning involves creating the environments that support a learner’s psychological needs. Research in the field of education and psychology, as well as the experiences of educators and learning designers, give us ample examples of how to create these environments.

High autonomy support involves:

  • giving learners freedom to pursue their own agendas
  • provide flexible learning options - own time, own pace, from a distance, fits in with jobs
  • emphasise choice and flexibility in goals and tasks – choose your own adventure
  • use language that emphasises choice
  • make learning meaningful – easy for learners to connect to own values, allow learners to post relevant links, share their real-life experiences
  • make learning realistic, and based on real life examples
  • assist rather than proscribe
  • validate negative feelings associated with arduous tasks

High competence support involves:

  • provide clear and consistent expectations – in the context of choices
  • be respectful of current ability/skill level and encouraging of capacity to develop skills
  • activities are aligned with learner’s ability/skills
  • scaffold material/activities into achievable challenges
  • challenges are appropriate to ability/skill level – with timely and informative feedback
  • allow space for learners voice to emerge and for them to work things out for themselves
  • allow judgement-free space for learners to speak, question, experiment

 High relatedness support involves:

  • create an environment where learners feel valued and a sense of belonging – where they want to ask questions, share experiences and engage
  • be available - dedicate time and resources to providing support when required
  • build relationships with warmth and positive regard
  • provide timely and informative feedback
  • enable collaborative learning that fosters peer interactions
  • encourage interaction with other learners through problem-posing (not just problem-solving)

Self-determination in practice in elearning

Once you begin developing your online learning with self-determination in mind, opportunities abound to address learner choice, competence and connectedness.

Choice in progress testing

In our work developing progress tests for general practitioner training, learners are given choice in the sequence of questions, as well as being able to save their answers for completion at a later time or date. Instructions are clearly labelled with tabs that visually guide learners through the assessment and indicate progress toward completion. The language used is collegiate (in keeping with the values of the learners and their organisation). Comprehensive feedback (including external references to further build their knowledge and competence) is provided on each answer, and a summary of feedback (including confidence ratings) is provided upon completion.

Using feedback in effective elearning

Choice in learner goals and experience

In the online course we’ve developed for family violence prevention, learners are able to choose the modules they complete based on their own learning needs. Within the modules, they can also choose a character that most-closely matches their real-life experience (or different if that’s their learning goal) working in domestic violence prevention or response. In addition to the extensive feedback and references for this evidence-informed course, learners are provided with a comprehensive bank of community resources to develop their bespoke peer support network.

Choose-Your-Own-Profession approach Learners draw from or apply to their own work contexts

The efficacy of grades and other external motivators

And finally, one of the more controversial findings of the research into SDT is the role that external motivators (rewards or punishments) play in undermining motivation (Naxer, 2020). So if you are serious about motivating your learners, it’s time to ditch grades, deadlines, competition, rewards and demerits.

Think values-based carrot. Not stick.

Self-determination theory provides us with a framework to understand learners’ psychological needs and create supportive environments that foster not only motivation and performance in elearning but wellness and thriving in life.


Man working on laptop


Naxer, M. (2020) Self-determination theory and online education: Thinking about grades. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2020/02/03/self-determination-theory-and-online-education-thinking-about-grades/

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Publishing.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, Article 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860

Learn more about self-determination theory at The Center For Self-Determination Theory http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/