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Explaining motivation with self-determination theory

At We Know Training, much of our approach to instructional design—whether consciously or unconsciously—is informed by self-determination theory. In fact, it’s so central to what we do that we thought we’d provide a brief overview of the theory here.  Self-determination theory is a theory of motivation and behaviour that can be applied to many contexts, including sport, exercise, work, and learning (Deci & Ryan, 1985). According to this theory, it’s not just the quantity of motivation that matters; the quality or type of motivation can influence our persistence in a behaviour and even our general well-being. 

Maybe you’ve read about how if the same instructional design and learning methods are used in a classroom versus online learning, eLearning comes out on top, but are still unsure as to whether students will be engaged and self-directed to learn if the course is taught onlineBy using the self-determination theory, we can develop our courses with the awareness of different motivational factors and how they apply to learning and retention. Since much of online learning is self-directed, it’s important to understand how and why people get motivated in general to ensure success.  

What is self-determination theory? 

 Self-determination theory explains different types of motivation and how they influence people’s self-directed behaviour. The theory maps out seven types of motivation on a continuum, with intrinsic motivation typically being the most desirable type. Intrinsic motivation is the name for the type of motivation people get when they enjoy carrying out a behaviour and do so willingly (this is the one we are going for with online courses). At the opposite end of the continuum is Amotivation, which is a complete lack of desire to engage in a behaviour.  

In the middle of these two types we have Extrinsic motivation, divided into four different types. The key with Extrinsic motivation is to identify which of these four types someone’s motivation fits into, and then use that information to move them towards Intrinsic motivation as much as possible. 

Here is a scale that describes the three types of motivation present in self-determination theory in a more visual way:

he four different types of Extrinsic motivation are also described in more detail below: 

  • External motivation is what we typically think of as extrinsic motivation—engaging in a behaviour to obtain a tangible reward or to avoid punishment. For example, a professional athlete might train and compete because they are being paid to do so.  
  • Introjected motivation still involves outside influences, but now we’ve internalized them. This might involve engaging in a behaviour to look good in front of other people, or to avoid feelings of guilt. For example, an adolescent athlete may no longer enjoy competing, but they continue because they feel guilty about the time and money that their parents have invested into their sport involvement. 
  • Identified motivation is a positive type of extrinsic motivation that involves doing something because you’ve identified valuable outcomes resulting from that behaviour—outcomes that are meaningful to you. For example, an athlete may not enjoy certain aspects of training, but they recognize that the training will pay off in improved performance—an outcome which they highly value. 
  • Integrated motivation is another positive type of extrinsic motivation—engaging in a behaviour because the behaviour and outcomes are deeply integrated into your sense of self and identity. For example, a swimmer may wake up at 5:15 every morning to go to practice, not because they enjoy getting up early, but because they see themselves as a swimmer, and getting up early to practice is just what a swimmer does.

By understanding the different types of motivation people tend to feel when performing certain behaviours, we can gain insight into developing motivating content for an online course. 

Learning is a journeyand the first step is to get learners’ attentionBut unless we can motivate learners to continue, by making the journey interestingengaging, and important, they will abandon the trip at the earliest opportunity. 

How does motivation affect learning? 

We’ve already learned that different types of motivation cause people to engage in certain behaviours when they are learning. When people engage in a behaviour for external or introjected reasons, they are less likely to continue and may experience more negative emotions when trying to learnHowever, identified or integrated motivation tends to lead to greater persistence in positive learning behaviours, even when they aren’t particularly enjoyable. 

Learning is a journeyand the first step is to get learners’ attentionBut unless we can motivate learners to continue, by making the journey interestingengaging, and important, they will abandon the trip at the earliest opportunity. It’s not enough to have a learning goal or destination. Learners must be convinced the trip itself is worthwhile. That’s what we do. 

Fortunately, even if a person starts out with external or introjected motivation, it’s possible to shift into a more positive, self-determined type of motivation. According to self-determination theory, this occurs through the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 

  • Autonomy is being self-directed, making choices, and having a sense of control over your actions. In a sport context, coaches support athletes’ autonomy by helping them achieve goals that they’ve set for themselves, asking for their input, and explaining the rationale behind training decisions.   
  • Competence is feeling effective in your environment, like you’re good at things. An athlete may judge their competence based on feedback from coaches, objective measures (such as their time or shots on net), or their performance in relation to others.    
  • Relatedness is having a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others, like they care about you. Successful sport teams typically do a good job of fostering community and a sense of team identity. When these needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met, people will engage in behaviours for the right reasons, stick with them longer, and feel better overall.  

The goal with an online course is to fulfill these psychological needs so that the student gains the motivation they need to learn and have a successful outcome with the course. 

Motivation and learning 

 Harnessing the right kind of motivation in your learners can be the key to achieving the best results with an online course. It’s important to understand the different types of motivation and how they lead to specific learning behaviours so that information can be harnessed to create successful learning outcomes for all students. By utilizing the self-determination theory, the instructional designers at We Know Training can create great online courses that encourage the specific learning style you’re looking for. 


Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum. 

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