Motivation = “Self-Determination” + Common Sense

Self-Determination Theory, one of the most important theories of motivation, tends to operate behind the scenes.

That is: researchers often use self-determination theory to explain why something else works.

The theory itself argues that humans are motivated by a desire for three basic things.




Unlike many terms in psychology, those three mean exactly what you think they mean. So, “competence” means, basically, the feeling that I’m skillful at whatever I’m doing. “Relatedness” means, basically, “connected with others.” And so forth.

When giving teachers advice, researchers often turn to self-determination theory to explain why a particular set of suggestions might help students learn.

Goals and Feedback

Common sense tells teachers that we should make goals clear to our students. And, we should offer them specific feedback.

But, why might those two things help? Specifically, why might they promote motivation?

Researchers in Belgium and The Netherlands hypothesized that clear goals and specific feedback might encourage self-determination.


If I, as a student, know what the goals are, I can work more independently to achieve them. That will make me feel autonomous, and competent.

Likewise, specific feedback will allow me to work effectively–that is, competently.

And, of course, goals and (especially) feedback will increase my sense of relatedness with my teacher.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers worked with 500+ high school students taking PE classes. They surveyed them 6 times about their classes, asking about clarity of goals and feedback, and measuring their feelings of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

What did they find?

(Too Much Of) A Good Thing

Sure enough, they found that clear goals and precise feedback helped students feel “in charge of their learning processes”: that is, autonomous.

They also felt more competent, and more connected and cared for.

In brief: goals and feedback can help students in a number of ways. In the world of motivation theory, they boost the three key components of self-determination theory.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this research puts an asterisk on that finding. While feedback helps, lots and lots of feedback reduces feelings of both competence and relatedness.

In fact, these findings make sense. If my teacher has to give me lots of feedback, the implication is that I’m not very good at what I’m doing–that is, not very competent.

And, that hovering might well feel irritating–reducing rather than increasing relatedness.

In other words, as is so often true, teachers have to apply research-based advice skillfully. We want to have clear goals and helpful feedback. And, we want to ensure that “helpful feedback” doesn’t tip over into excessive feedback.

Paradoxically, too much of a good thing can convert motivation into demotivation.

tags: category: L&B Blog

2 Responses to Motivation = “Self-Determination” + Common Sense

  1. Robert Irby says:

    This research requires quite a stretch. Belgium and Norway students significantly dissimilar to US students and even more dissimilar to the diverse populations of US urban schools. It would also be beneficial to my understanding of this research to see the actual survey questions.

    • Andrew Watson says:

      Hello, Robert — thanks for the feedback. You can find the survey questions in the linked study, and in the supplementary data.

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