Increasing Student Success Through Instruction in Self-Determination

An enormous amount of research shows the importance of self-determination (i.e., autonomy) for students in elementary school through college for enhancing learning and improving important post-school outcomes.


Research by psychologists Richard Ryan, PhD, and Edward Deci, PhD, on Self-Determination Theory indicates that intrinsic motivation (doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable), and thus higher quality learning, flourishes in contexts that satisfy human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Students experience competence when challenged and given prompt feedback. Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems. Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met, students are more intrinsically motivated and actively engaged in their learning.

Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning. Some studies have found that the use of external rewards actually decreased motivation for a task for which the student initially was motivated. In a 1999 examination of 128 studies that investigated the effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivations, Drs. Deci and Ryan, along with psychologist Richard Koestner, PhD, concluded that such rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation by undermining people's taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves.

Self-determination research has also identified flaws in high stakes, test focused school reforms, which despite good intentions, has led teachers and administrators to engage in precisely the types of interventions that result in poor quality learning. Dr. Ryan and colleagues found that high stakes tests tend to constrain teachers' choices about curriculum coverage and curtail teachers' ability to respond to students' interests (Ryan & La Guardia, 1999). Also, psychologists Tim Urdan, PhD, and Scott Paris, PhD, found that such tests can decrease teacher enthusiasm for teaching, which has an adverse effect on students' motivation (Urdan & Paris, 1994).

The processes described in self-determination theory may be particularly important for children with special educational needs. Researcher Michael Wehmeyer found that students with disabilities who are more self-determined are more likely to be employed and living independently in the community after completing high school than students who are less self-determined.

Research also shows that the educational benefits of self-determination principles don't stop with high school graduation. Studies show how the orientation taken by college and medical school instructors (whether it is toward controlling students' behavior or supporting the students' autonomy) affects the students' motivation and learning.


Self-determination theory has identified ways to better motivate students to learn at all educational levels, including those with disabilities.

Practical Application

Schools throughout the country are using self-determination instruction as a way to better motivate students and meet the growing need to teach children and youth ways to more fully accept responsibility for their lives by helping them to identify their needs and develop strategies to meet those needs.

Researchers have developed and evaluated instructional interventions and supports to encourage self-determination for all students, with many of these programs designed for use by students with disabilities. Many parents, researchers and policy makers have voiced concern about high rates of unemployment, under-employment and poverty experienced by students with disabilities after they complete their educational programs. Providing support for student self-determination in school settings is one way to enhance student learning and improve important post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. Schools have particularly emphasized the use of self-determination curricula with students with disabilities to meet federal mandates to actively involve students with disabilities in the Individualized Education Planning process.

Programs to promote self-determination help students acquire knowledge, skills and beliefs that meet their needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness (for example, see Steps to Self-determination by educational researchers Sharon Field and Alan Hoffman). Such programs also provide instruction aimed specifically at helping students play a more active role in educational planning (for example, see The Self-directed Individualized Education Plan by Jim Martin, Laura Huber Marshall, Laurie Maxson, & Patty Jerman).

Drs. Field and Hoffman developed a model designed to guide the development of self-determination instructional interventions. According to the model, instructional activities in areas such as increasing self-awareness; improving decision-making, goal-setting and goal-attainment skills; enhancing communication and relationship skills; and developing the ability to celebrate success and learn from reflecting on experiences lead to increased student self-determination. Self-determination instructional programs help students learn how to participate more actively in educational decision-making by helping them become familiar with the educational planning process, assisting them to identify information they would like to share at educational planning meetings, and supporting students to develop skills to effectively communicate their needs and wants. Examples of activities used in self-determination instructional programs include reflecting on daydreams to help students decide what is important to them; teaching students how to set goals that are important to them and then, with the support of peers, family members and teachers, taking steps to achieve those goals. Providing contextual supports and opportunities for students, such as coaching for problem-solving and offering opportunities for choice, are also critical elements that lead to meeting needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness and thus, increasing student self-determination.

Cited Research

Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 125, No. 6, pp. 627-668.

Deci, E.L., Schwartz, A.J., Sheinman, L., & Ryan, R.M. (1981). An instrument to assess adults' orientations toward control versus autonomy with children: Reflections on intrinsic motivation and perceived competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 73, pp. 642-650.

Field, S. & Hoffman, A. (1994). Development of a model for self-determination. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, Vol. 17(2), pp. 159-169.

Hoffman, A. & Field, S. (1995). Promoting self-determination through effective curriculum development. Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol. 30(3),134-141.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, Vol. 55(1), pp. 68-78.

Ryan, R.M., & La Guardia, J.G. (1999). Achievement motivation within a pressured society: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn and the politics of school reform. In T. urdan (Ed.) Advances in motivation and achievement. (Vol. 11, pp. 45-85). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Urdan, T.C., & Paris, S.G. (1994). Teachers' perceptions of standardized achievement tests. Educational Policy, 8, pp. 137-156.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, Vol. 63, pp. 245-255.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Palmer, S.B. (2003). Adult outcomes for students with cognitive disabilities three years after high school: The impact of self-determination. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 38, pp. 131-144.

Additional Sources

Field, S. & Hoffman, A. (1996). Steps to Self-determination. Austin, TX: ProEd.

Martin, J.E., Marshall, L.H., Maxson, L. & Jerman, P. (1998). The Self-directed IEP. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M. & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A practical guide to teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Self-Determination Theory Web site (University of Rochester)

Self-determination Synthesis Project Web site (University of North Carolina-Charlotte)

American Psychological Association, July 21, 2004