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Category: Motivating Students

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: 


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:


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:


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