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the one (big) problem with this popular motivation theory


With student motivation being an essential ingredient of learning and achievement, it is no surprise that this area has been extensively studied in the field of education for the last decade.

Self-Determination Theory may be the most popular theoretical framework of motivation. While it provides valuable guidance on boosting student motivation in practice, it can be a recipe for chaos if not carefully applied to classrooms. Here’s what you need to know to avoid common pitfalls…

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A refresher on Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory argues that students need to have the following three components fulfilled in order to be motivated to learn:

  • Autonomy – Feeling in control of their behaviours and goals.
  • Competence – Believing that their actions will be impactful in shaping their academic success.
  • Relatedness – Feeling a sense of belonging in class.

It is often assumed that motivation is at its peak when all three components are maximised in students. But this may not actually be true – especially when it comes to one of these components…

Why might too much student autonomy be a problem?

While it is likely that more competence and relatedness will benefit student for their learning and motivation, too much autonomy can actually do more harm than good. Here are some reasons why…

Cramming revision

When students are given complete freedom for their studying, they are more likely to leave their revision to the last minute. This is due to the Planning Fallacy, which is the phenomenon where students underestimate the time it takes to complete a task.

Unfortunately, research consistently suggests that cramming is not an effective way to study for long-term memory. A study found that those who spaced out their revision scored higher on their exams (74%) than students who crammed their revision (49%).

Listening to music when studying

Even if they get the timing, students with freedom in their studying may often choose to do their homework and revision while listening to music. They will swear that listening to their favourite songs helps them study.

However, research has found that students who revise in quiet environments performed up to 60% better in an exam than their peers who revised listening to music that had lyrics.

Using the least effective strategies

Students who study independently tend to opt for learning strategies that require less effort. The path of least resistance leads them to settle for ineffective revision strategies.

Recent research reported that 55% of students use re-reading their notes as their number one revision technique, despite countless studies proving that it does not aid learning.

How to ensure autonomy is set at the right level

As a teacher, this leaves you with the tricky challenge of giving students enough autonomy to keep them motivated but not so much that it hinders their learning. Here are some tips you can use to make sure autonomy is set at the optimal level in your classroom…

Set regular deadlines

To ensure students don’t end up leaving their work and revision to the last minute, you can set regular short deadlines to break a task down. For example, you can give them a monthly schedule of when everything is due so that they can stay on track.

Frequent but small deadlines have been found to help students manage their time and energy over the course of the academic year, as well as improve overall grades. This is because a big deadline further away has less impact on students’ attention, which subsequently reduces how well they spread out their efforts.

Be explicit about what helps your students’ learning

One reason students use ineffective study strategies is that it requires less effort. Another is that they are unaware of the most effective ways to study. For example, research has found that students overestimate the effectiveness of re-reading and underestimate the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice for long-term learning.

It is therefore important for you to educate your students on what study strategies are the most effective. You can start by introducing the three strategies consistently shown to have the greatest impact on enhancing learning: Retrieval Practice, Spacing, and Elaborative Interrogation. It is also essential that you teach them how to actually integrate these strategies to their studies. Our guide to effective study skills here can help.

At the end of the day, students will always have autonomy on how they approach their studies. But keeping them well-informed can enable them to make better decisions for their learning.

Decide on your non-negotiables

One last way to ensure that your students maintain a good level of autonomy is by making your non-negotiables specific and clear, so that there is more leeway on other things. This clarity will help reduce ambiguity and confusion.

Final thoughts

Self-Determination Theory states that it is essential for students to experience competence, relatedness, and autonomy in order for them to become motivated to learn. However, giving your students too much autonomy can prevent them from reaching their academic potential, as they make bad decisions about their learning when left to their own devices. We hope that the above suggestions can help you strike a balance between providing autonomy and support in the classroom.

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