Self-determination and motivation

On Monday, three of my colleagues and I presented at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference on designing assignments that motivate students to write. We looked at motivating high school students, analyzing bumper stickers, and using youth culture music. We wanted to provide activities that participants could take and use immediately in their classes, but we also wanted to give the theory with which to evaluate their present assignments and, if necessary, tweak them to make them more engaging.

The theory part fell on me, and I used self-determination theory (which I've talked about before here and here). As noted in these posts, motivation depends upon three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) state,

[T]eachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Controlling includes giving rewards, as well as imposing deadlines and other directives. After students have become accustomed to receiving rewards for doing a particular activity, they lose interest in it if those rewards are removed. Of course, teachers have the responsibility for ensuring that students meet course and institutional expectations. Many of my students have time constraints of work and family to the extent that if there were no imposed deadlines, these other priorities would preclude their doing the necessary study. Still, as much as possible, we need to give students choice and opportunties for directing their learning and determining their own goals if we want them to learn.