Professors Edward Deici and Richard Ryan are the founders of the Self-Determination Theory, which is a motivation theory based around the human’s natural behavior to act in effective ways.

This theory is well-loved. It’s referenced in training, sports, education, health—you name it. Why? Because it helps us better understand how to motivate people, and motivation is essential to effective training.

What Learners Need: Self-Determination

Motivation comes from three main categories within this theory—all of which work together. They are:

Autonomy: The power to self-direct, explore, and find answers to their own questions.

Competence: A challenge to existing knowledge.

Relatedness: Learners feel connected with others and are working collaboratively, not alone.

When these qualifiers are met, learners become more highly motivated, and that’s vital in an eLearning setting. It’s easy for learners to lose focus and become uninterested in the material, so tailoring eLearning to constantly accommodate these three categories means keeping learners engaged.

Research on Self-Determination in eLearning

In 2010, researchers at the Graduate School of Education, Chung-Yuan University conducted a study to look at self-determination and motivation in online learning.

Through their work, they discovered evidence that the Self-Determination Theory indeed indicated a learner’s need for satisfaction of contextual support and motivation, but that self-determination failed to predict finite learning outcomes.

What that means: Self-Determination is necessary within eLearning, but it can’t be used to predict successful courses—that depends on the learners themselves.

As with any theory, there are limitations. So while it would be nice to say, “Okay, my course covered the three motivators for self-determination—everything should be great!” that’s not always the case. Instead, these improve the course quality—but they are not guarantors for overall success.

An eLearning Exercise with Self-Determination

So what would an eLearning exercise that meets the self-determination requirements look like?

Check out this example from a HIPAA training course we created. Within the simulation, learners were challenged to test their existing and current knowledge, self-directed their learning pace, and saw how their decisions impacted the organization as a whole.

That’s three big checkmarks in the self-determination department.

More Theories, Better eLearning

Now that you understand this theory, want to learn about some others related to psychology and the science behind learning? Explore our archives to see similar content that looks at different theories you can implement within your next eLearning course, too.