What is the Self-Determination Theory?

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Self-Determination Theory SDT is the wonderful brainchild of psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. It’s a theory of motivation and self-determination. They identified the key ingredients needed for intrinsic human motivation. It’s the secret sauce that helps people enjoy exercise, motivates them to complete a video game in record time and even fall in love with learning!

When we love our learning, when we’re engaged and passionate about it, the way we experience it is entirely different. When you love learning you want to feel that way all the time. You can get obsessed with a topic and hungry to learn everything about it. It’s at the back of your mind even when you’re not actively learning about it. You start to wonder how it affects other things and you begin to notice its wider impact.

But how can we cultivate this sense of curiosity in the workplace? The good news is that research has given us a few pointers. Ryan & Deci’s model of self-determination will help you grow an army of intrinsically motivated learners. In fact, it’s been cited over 37,000 times, making it one of the greatest psychological theories ever.


This theory tells us there are three psychological needs that you can tap into:

1. Competence

Competence is when you’re confident you can do something and that your actions will be effective. This is why your online training programme needs to highlight the progress made by learners in their quest for mastery.

The traditional approach to eLearning would have learners slog through a 45-minute bore-a-thon every few months. Even if they manage to stay awake until the end, that knowledge will fade over time, leaving them with a vague memory of clicking through a slideshow. If you want learners to stay focused you need to shrink down your training and make it bite-sized.

In a microlearning campaign, your learners receive a short burst of learning goodness every day. Drip-feeding knowledge like this will reinforce your training and have learners brimming with competence in no time.

If you plan your microlearning campaign as a mobile-first exercise you’ll get even better results. This delivery method suits the short-and-snappy nature of the content and it lets you reach learners wherever they are.

Mobile devices are great tools for pushing assessments, quizzes and surveys to learners. This is good news, as it provides ample opportunities for learners to prove their competency over a subject.

2. Relatedness

Relatedness is the human need to feel connected to our peers. We want to be listened to, valued and for our opinions to carry weight. Traditional methods of learning make this an impossibility… unless you’re the kind of person who can strike up a meaningful connection with a textbook.

Social learning is a collaborative process. The famous 70-20-10 theory suggests that 70% of what people learn is from experience, 20% is learnt from others and 10% is from formal training. Social learning focuses on the 20%.

Fear not, non-romancer of textbooks! Gone are the days when learning was a solitary quest! Embrace the power of social learning and cultivate an environment where learners can share knowledge and learn together. Having the chance to bounce ideas around and discuss a subject shows learners the impact of their knowledge gathering and breeds relatedness.

With mobile chat groups such as WhatsApp (or ‘Clubs’ on our Knowledge Arcade), learners can easily relate to one another by sharing content. This can be done via discussion forums (like the Clubs on our Academy LMS), expert advice, social streams and other features on the platform.

3. Autonomy

Set your learners free and fulfil their need for autonomy. This is the psychological desire for independence and to be in charge of your own life. People will only stand for being dragged along on someone else’s learning journey for so long, before becoming unengaged. It’s time to make your learners the master of their own destiny. Give them the autonomy they crave!

Allow learners to follow their passion when journeying through your online training programme. A ‘choose your own adventure’ style levels system can provide learners with the autonomy they desire. In practice, this means that once learners complete essential content, they are free to pursue training content that interests them before they advance to the next level. This forces the learner to be independent, helping satisfy their need for autonomy.

Mobiles are a tool for independence, giving the user ultimate control over the content they view and when they view it.

In other words, autonomy also plays a huge part in mobile learning. Overall, Self Determination Theory is perfectly suited to the mobile generation.

Final Word

Harness these three psychological needs and you’re well on your way to ‘Motivationville!’ If you can ensure your learning technology drives competence whilst providing space for relatedness and autonomy, you’re sure to create an army of engaged learning superheroes.

Motivational theory continues to support the idea that competence, relatedness and autonomy are the secret sauce which can help motivate even the least motivated of staff. Modern approaches like gamified training, mobile learning and social learning can help these three motivational requirements to flourish.

At Growth Engineering, we’ve seen first hand how self-determination can revolutionise an online training program! Forcing your learners to do something is a battle you’ll never win. If you want to unleash the potential of your team, why not check out our free whitepaper on the science of behaviour change? Click here to download your copy!


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