Using Self-Determination Theory to Improve Online Learner Motivation

According to self-determination theory, a theory developed by Deci and Ryan, three basic psychological needs affect motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Susan Epps, associate professor of Allied Health Sciences, and Alison Barton, associate professor of Teaching and Learning, both at East Tennessee State University, have used this theory to develop ways to improve online learner motivation.


In this context, autonomy does not refer to independence but to the desire to have control over one’s own life and to make choices based on personal preferences. In an online course, this means providing students with opportunities to have some control over the learning experience.

Creating a sense of autonomy helps students make choices that emphasize what they value, which can increase the subjective value of the learning—the sense that the learning is relevant to one’s life, Barton says.

Here are some ways to offer students choices: 

  • Content—Barton has her students, who are preservice teachers, facilitate online discussions about lesson plans that each student develops. Each student gets to decide what the lesson will be, which content from the module to include, and which theories to demonstrate. “That, I hope, makes it more of a motivating experience for them because they’re writing a lesson about something they want to write about,” Barton says.
  • Format—In some instances Epps gives her studentschoices on assignment format such as a paper or a narrated PowerPoint presentation. “When they feel they’re choosing something that is relevant to them, they actually do better work,” Epps says.
  • Grade weighting—In the past, Barton has offered students options on how much various assignments, quizzes, and tests will count toward the final grade. “If they’re not great test takers, you may offer them an option where their assignments or final projects are given more weight,” she says.


Feeling competent and having a sense of self-efficacy can be highly motivating. These are some ways that Epps and Barton instill competence in their students:

  • Selective release—In a poll of online learners that Epps conducted, a complaint was that they feel overwhelmed by all the content of an online course. One way to alleviate this issue is to use the selective-release feature common to many learning management systems. This feature enables the instructor to keep elements of the course hidden from students’ view until they are needed.
  • Checklists—Another way to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed by the course is to provide checklists for them to follow to ensure that they are on schedule and haven’t forgotten anything. “My students are in a bachelor’s completion program for students who already have occupations in allied health. The majority of them work full time and do shift work. They need to plan out their schedule as much as they can in advance. For a lot of them it stresses them out if they don’t know what’s coming later in the semester,” Epps says.
  • Metacognitive reflection—At the beginning of each module, Barton has her students reflect on their performance in the previous module and explain how they plan to improve. “This is a way to have them state some goals for themselves and raise their awareness of their self-regulation skills,” Barton says. “The honesty I get in those is refreshing. And I think the process for a subset of students is eye-opening.”
  • Early success—Early success in a course can help students feel competent. This can be accomplished by having students complete relatively easy, low-stakes assignments at the beginning of the course, followed by higher-stakes tasks as the course progresses.
  • Feedback—Students need prompt feedback on their work. The feedback can come in a variety of forms. For example, Barton uses mid-discussion feedback to let students know how they are doing in a particular discussion and to offer suggestions on how to improve before the discussion has ended.

    Feedback on writing assignments can be in text or audio format. Epps cautions against getting bogged down in correcting every single error in writing assignments. In addition to taking an inordinate amount of time, an overly marked-up assignment can undermine a student’s sense of competence and therefore decrease motivation. Instead, Epps recommends providing overall feedback, remembering to include positive comments.

    When many students make the same errors, Epps will post an announcement or send an email, saying something such as, “Here’s an area that students are consistently getting wrong. Maybe I wasn’t clear in my instructions. Let me go back and revise them to make sure you understand them for the next assignment.”

    Feedback need not be in text form. Whether it’s an announcement to the class or an individual comment on an assignment, a short audio recording can be an effective way to provide feedback. Barton uses SoundCloud (, a service that enables users to record audio and simply embed a link in a document or send a link to the recipient.


Relatedness refers to the social aspects of the learning experience—the sense that students feel they have a connection to the instructor and classmates. Some of the ideas mentioned above contribute to a sense of relatedness, including timely feedback and participation in discussions.

In addition, instructors need to convey a sense of presence and approachability. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  • Video—Barton recommends including video of the instructor throughout a course “so they hear your voice, see your face, feel you’re a real person who didn’t just build the course and walk away—but [is] active in there,” she says. 
  • Participation in discussions—“I don’t see discussion boards as being for the students alone. Some of the most positive feedback on my evaluations is about my participation in the discussion boards,” Epps says. “Students say things like, ‘Wow you’re actually engaged on the discussion board.’ I feel that if I’m not engaged with the students, what’s their incentive to have high-quality discussions or to question each other? When the students see that I’m interacting with them, they will step up their level in the discussion.”

    Students also need to feel a sense of connection with their peers. Barton divides her class into thirds for discussions so that students create connections with a subset of the class, which makes it less likely that they will lurk in the background or be overlooked.

    Epps has each student introduce himself or herself in a PowerPoint presentation, which helps students create connections that build in the discussion board. When students know each other’s backgrounds it’s more likely that they will ask relevant questions and get a real sense of how what they’re learning in the course relates to their lives, “and knowing that other people are expecting them to be there and respond to a question asked of them directly will help with motivation as well,” Epps says.


Deci, Edward L. and Richard M. Ryan. eds. (2006) The Handbook of Self-Determination Research. University of Rochester Press.

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