Self-Determination Theory: The most important theory on motivation - and learning

What is the most important theory of human motivation?

If you ask me, the answer is undoubtedly Self-Determination Theory (SDT) by Deci & Ryan.

Self-Determination Theory is a highly relevant tool for anyone responsible for bringing out the best in people, whether you are a leader, coach, teacher, or otherwise involved in learning and behavior. SDT can be used to explain why individual learning journeys succeed or fail because it provides a hands-on understanding of how to support people's motivation.

In the first half of the article, I explain what Self-Determination Theory generally entails, and in the last half, I focus on what we can learn about learning from Self-Determination Theory.

Fundamentally, SDT states that there are two different forms of motivation; a good one and a less good one, and that there are fundamentally three psychological needs that affect our motivation.

In this article, I will elaborate on what these two forms of motivation are.

I will also provide recommendations on how you can practically work with the three psychological needs to create motivation for development and learning. The recommendations can, for example, be used for coaching, digital learning, and in a classroom.

Here is a table of contents - just so you know what you're getting into:

Part 1: What is Motivation

Part 2. Motivation and Learning



Let's get started.

How does motivation work?

The first thing you need to know about motivation is that there are fundamentally two types of motivation:

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the term for doing something out of desire, because the action itself is interesting, fun, and generally satisfying in itself.

Extrinsic motivation is about doing something with the aim of achieving an external goal such as passing an exam, winning bonus points in a customer club, badges in an app, or the like.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist at each end of a scale that spans from full self-determination (intrinsic) to no self-determination (extrinsic). Between these two extremes, you find different degrees of self-determination. This could be the case in situations where you don't really want to perform an action, but still recognize that the action is important for you in the long run, for example, "I really don't like math, but I understand that it is important for me to learn".


In short: Is the action tempting to perform in itself, or am I only performing the action to achieve a reward or avoid a consequence?


One of the main points of self-determination theory is that intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than extrinsic motivation; the closer we can get towards intrinsic motivation, the more willing we become to perform the action in question. You are naturally more motivated to perform actions that are enjoyable or pleasant in themselves - watch a movie, play music, eat cake, be with good friends - than to do things for external reasons, such as cramming for an exam that doesn't interest you, doing the dishes, or waiting in a telephone queue.

An important thing to note is that extrinsic motivation, such as rewards and punishment, often has a negative impact on both performance and intrinsic motivation.

This may surprise some. It certainly surprised me when I first read about it.

But it is indeed true.

The phenomenon is called the over justification effect. An example: A group of researchers rewarded children for drawing. The children already liked to draw and therefore voluntarily drew before the experiment. When the reward was removed, the children drew less. The reward had thus diminished their intrinsic desire to draw. The over justification effect not only affects children but has been demonstrated in a wide range of cases, including in relation to salary and bonuses. A further elaboration on the topic goes far beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to read more about it, you can read this article where I have written about Gamification. Some of the techniques most frequently used in gamification can actually have a negative effect on motivation and learning.


What are the most essential psychological needs for motivation??

Now we know that motivation is important, and that there are two different ways to motivate a person to perform an action. But what buttons can we turn to create motivating frameworks?

As I wrote in the introduction, according to self-determination theory, there are three psychological needs that matter to how motivated we humans are:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery (Competence)
  3. Sense of belonging (Purpose)



Autonomy describes the opportunity to voluntarily decide over oneself and one's actions. Autonomy does not mean complete independence from others, or that an individual necessarily has to decide to do something different from everyone else. The essential thing in relation to motivation is that the individual has the experience that what happens is in accordance with what they themselves want.


It is motivating in itself to become good at something. That's why some people practice for hours to master playing the guitar, or dribbling a ball, just because it's "fun". Similarly, most people have probably experienced how children (of all ages) quickly become frustrated about having to practice if they do not have the experience of progress.

Relatedness/Sense of belonging/Purpose

People have a universal need to interact with, be connected to, and experience care from and for others. Most of the choices we make can basically be explained from these needs - we are motivated to perform actions that strengthen our social relations, give us social status or in some other way confirm our affiliation with those around us.

The three psychological needs in practice

All three psychological needs do not need to be present at the same time or to the same degree. For example, it can feel very motivating to go door-to-door to collect for a cause you think is meaningful, even though there is typically not much autonomy or competence involved. Similarly, one can also experience that people who do routine work become much more motivated if they are given influence over how they solve the task.

A glance towards our instincts: Why does the brain work as it does?

In the book "Dr. Zukaroff's Testament" the neuroscientist Peter Lund Madsen explains that the brain is constantly trying to answer two questions:

"Where am I?", and "what should I do?"

In other words, the brain is constantly orienting itself.

This orientation process works well with the three psychological needs of self-determination theory:

  1. If you learn skills, practice them, and thereby master different things, you become better equipped to answer the question "What should I do?".
  2. By confirming and strengthening a sense of belonging in the social network you are in, it becomes easier to answer the question "Where am I?".
  3. The individual needs autonomy to freely act in accordance with the two questions - therefore self-determination is a kind of guarantee that the brain can 'answer' freely.

If we look at the three psychological needs in self-determination theory from an evolutionary perspecitive, it also makes sense, as all three psychological needs provide an advantage in terms of survival.

If we learn to master a given technique, such as fishing, it will increase our chances of survival. So, we are coded to learn and master new things, as they increase our chances of survival.

At the same time, we are coded to be social, to do something for or with others. Functioning in a group is also something that increases our chances of survival.

Finally, it makes a lot of sense that we lose motivation to do something if our autonomy to master skills or find meaning in social interaction is restricted. Lack of autonomy will, in the long run, harm our survival ability, as it reduces our flexibility to act in accordance with our own interests. Therefore, we have evolved through evolution to seek and remain in situations where there is an appropriate mix of these three parameters.

Now we no longer live on the savanna, but the same instincts are always present in us, even though we live a modern life.

In practice, this means that the brain resists situations that do not meet these three needs. This resistance has been described within psychology with a concept called reactance. The term describes the reluctance one can experience when one's self-determination is threatened either by others or by oneself. It is seen, for example, in people if you tell them to stop smoking, start exercising, or eat healthier. You can also experience reactance as a response to your past 'self' deciding that "I should go for a run on Sunday morning." When you wake up on Sunday morning, your current self may feel reluctant to do something you don't feel like doing at the moment. The brain would much rather do something nice. Cake now, exercise tomorrow.

What role does motivation play in relation to learning?

Let's delve deeper into the connection between motivation and learning.

One of the biggest names in research on motivation and behavior is BJ Fogg from Stanford University. Fogg has created a model that illustrates the perhaps obvious truth about the correlation between motivation and behavior; if one is sufficiently motivated, one can perform even very demanding actions. Similarly, the less motivated you are, the easier the task must be before you can motivate yourself to lift a finger.

In short: Motivation is the only thing that leads to voluntary deliberate action.

The same applies to learning:

Motivation is rocket fuel for learning. If you are really motivated to learn something, you can learn very difficult things from even poor materials, and vice versa; it can be impossible to learn anything at all from the best materials in the world if you are not sufficiently motivated to do so.

Motivation is not in itself enough to ensure learning, but without motivation, it doesn't work. If you have a handle on SBT, you can start to design targeted learning that increases your course participants' motivation to perform and learn.

How can self-determination theory be used to create good learning?

Most people who work to create learning are familiar with the many good tips that, at one level or another, are about motivating the audience: "Make e-learning interactive", "Ask questions to the audience", "Make it social" etc. Sometimes the tips unfortunately become a goal in themselves, and then you can, for example, end up with interactivity for the sake of interactivity, as I have described in the article Flick 2 Learn. Why interactive e-learning is not always engaging e-learning'. To summarize the problem here: It is not sufficient to incorporate elements that in themselves seem to work in accordance with the three psychological needs, the focus should be on using them meaningfully in the context they are part of.

Danish researcher Louise Klinge has examined how the three psychological needs of self-determination theory affect student motivation in classroom teaching. An important point she makes is that when a teacher talks too much, they effectively restrict students' autonomy, thereby reducing students' motivation to learn.

Here are her recommendations:

  • Respond to students' initiatives, suggestions, and questions (Autonomy, Mastery)
  • Involve students and let them contribute to the teaching (Autonomy, Mastery, Sense of Belonging)
  • Don't talk for too long at a time (Autonomy)
  • Let students help each other (Sense of Belonging)
  • Make sure that students get along well (Sense of Belonging)

These are just a few examples of the different needs in practice.

One thing I really like about self-determination theory is that it is just as applicable in public education as it is in what you might call corporate learning.

Here are some tips that can hopefully serve as inspiration for learning that meets your learners' psychological learning needs - I have divided the different tips under each of the three needs:

Autonomy and learning

Trust your learners' input and willingness to learn. Whether you are developing classroom teaching, e-learning or other digital learning, you should respect your learners' need to influence how they learn and assume that they actually want to learn - if what they are presented with is relevant to them. Few things are as demotivating as being distrusted, underestimated and forced to do something - a checkmark in an LMS or spreadsheet is no guarantee that anyone has learned anything.

Avoid cognitive 'overload'. The learners' need for autonomy should be balanced with the risk of cognitive "overload", which denotes a situation where learners are offered more choices than they can handle. In other words, in any learning situation, one should consider whether the level of autonomy is too high or too low, and how it affects the recipient's motivation.

Dont lock the navigation. If you are designing e-learning - actually any form of digital learning - you can meet the learners' need for autonomy by giving them the opportunity to start, stop, pause, rewind and fast forward in the material. You should also give them the opportunity to skip pages and sections, or jump to sections they are particularly interested in. In order for the learners to feel that they have sufficient knowledge to make good autonomous decisions, they should also know "where they are" in the content and how much is left.

Make sure to set expectations. You should, from the very beginning, make sure that they understand what they are expected to learn. By doing this, you create a clear framework, so the learners avoid doubting the relevance of what they are learning. This also affects their perception of belonging.

Mastery and learning

Not too easy, not too difficult. People have both a need to feel competent and a need to become competent. Ensure that the relationship between the learner's ability and the task's difficulty is appropriate. If the task is too easy, the learner will feel talked down to and bored. If it's too difficult, the learner will feel dumb and get frustrated. Hitting the balance is, of course, easier said than done, but if you know your target audience, this should be high on the priority list. The theory of Predictive Coding provides a good explanatory model for why this is the case. I have written about predictive coding in the article: Your brain is NOT a computer - about Predictive Coding. Your Brain is NOT a Computer - About Predictive Coding.

Let them figure things out for themselves. Rather than telling them everything, give the students the opportunity to find out things for themselves. Again, this should be balanced with the risk of the content becoming too difficult.

Let the students practice, and give them feedback. One of the best ways to help your students to get learning to stick is by letting them practice. Whether it's about fire safety, GDPR compliance, or math, there are few things that can compete with good exercises. You can't expect people to remember something thoroughly just because you've told them something once. Make the exercises even more meaningful by giving constructive feedback - that way, they can get an experience of getting better, and figure out how they can improve even further.

Sense of Belonging and Learning

Make it meaningful. Ensure that students understand why it's important for them - or for other people - to learn what you want them to learn. There can be a big difference in what makes different individuals experience something as meaningful, therefore it might be worth considering whether it's possible to make it meaningful in several different ways simultaneously.

Make it social. People become more motivated to learn when what they're doing is put into a social context. Get people to work together with others. Note that social elements often fall flat if the students don't experience a purpose or a use for the social aspect. When working with digital learning, for example, it's not enough just to provide a discussion forum. If the students are to use it, they must be helped to get started, and it must be clarified what purpose the social elements serve.

Make it lively. Avoid learning material that simply conveys facts that you expect people to remember. Use storytelling. For example, tell stories about how people are affected by what they're learning. Use images or video of individuals (maybe colleagues?) in your content, and possibly have them explain what is to be learned. In this way, the learned becomes at the same time more tangible and interesting, and your students are better equipped to use the new knowledge in practice.


The above does not constitute a definitive list of all the recommendations that can be derived from the self-determination theory - there is simply not enough space in a blog post for that! Hopefully, I have nevertheless illustrated how self-determination theory can be used as a practical tool when designing learning.

I would very much like to hear from you if you have ideas on how to support each of the three psychological needs in learning design.

Do you want to learn more?

Perhaps you might be interested in our Course in (Digital) Didactics - Learn to Design Good Learning.

In the course, you learn to develop learning that captures your recipients' attention and works with their motivation to learn. The course is also for you who teach in a classroom or online and need a professional booster.

Do you want to learn more on your own?

If you want to read more about the brain and learning, these articles may interest you.

If you want to know more about digital learning and e-learning, you can start with our Elearning FAQ.

If you're looking for help with e-learning development, or if you'd like to take a course on Elearning, where you learn to create e-learning yourself - we can also help you.

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