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Improving Motivation in eLearning

By Matt Guyan / October 2013

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Motivation has been and continues to be a widely studied area across many of life's domains. Motivation is said to be the energizing force that initiates and sustains behavior and ultimately produces results. Many motivation theories focus on the amount of motivation, with a larger quantity said to result in improved outcomes. However, as educators we should not focus on generating more motivation from our learners but instead focus on creating conditions that facilitate the internalization of motivation from within our learners.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's self-determination theory (SDT) focuses on control versus autonomy as the differentiating factor between various forms of extrinsic motivation (activities that lead to a separable outcome) and intrinsic motivation (engaging in activities because they are enjoyable or interesting).

Organismic integration theory (OIT), a sub-theory of (SDT), states extrinsic motivation is not a single construct; it exists in four distinct forms according to the extent to which the motivation for behavior emanates from one's self. In other words, extrinsic motivation can be viewed by the degree to which it is controlling of behavior (external) or allows the behavior to be more autonomous (internal). OIT places the four types of extrinsic motivation along a continuum of relative autonomy depending on the level of control or autonomy. Progression along the continuum is not necessarily linear and is subject to contextual factors. Furthermore, the greater the satisfaction of a person's basic psychological needs, the greater their internalization and integration of externally regulated activities will be.

The most controlling form of extrinsic motivation is external regulation, which is performing a task to receive an external reward of avoid a punishment. A less controlling form of extrinsic motivation is introjected regulation, which is performing a task to avoid feelings of guilt or to affect one's self-esteem or sense of self-worth.

Identified regulation is a somewhat autonomous form of extrinsic motivation and is where a person identifies with the personal importance of the task. Finally, integrated regulation is the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. In this case, motivation is connected with a person's values or beliefs.

Self-determination Continuum

Figure 1. The Self-determination Continuum. Reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd,

As can be seen in the Figure 1 (from left to right), the types of motivation along the continuum relate to increasing levels of internalization and lower levels of control. Greater internalization "is critical for effective psychological and academic functioning among students at all education levels."

How can we help learners to internalise their motivation?

SDT proposes all humans require the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs, namely:

  • Competence (a sense of being able to do something i.e. being competent)
  • Autonomy (a sense of control and freedom)
  • Relatedness (a sense of being associated or connected to others)

What do these support strategies look like in practice?

There are a number of strategies that can be used to satisfy CAR in online (and classroom) situations:

  • Give learners some level of control as they work through the module or course.v
  • Provide regular, meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience.
  • Incorporate social elements.
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration between learners.
  • Keep the stakes low and allow learners to practice.
  • Allow learners to make meaningful choices and pursue challenging goals.

Motivation plays an important role during educational experiences. Even though a person may be motivated to engage in an activity leading to a separable outcome, they do have a degree of choice and control if they have internalized their motivation. As educators we have an opportunity to assist with this internalization in the way we design and deliver learning experiences.

Contexts that satisfy these basic needs will support people's actions, resulting in more optimal motivation and positive outcomes. So, if we can use strategies to support autonomy, competence and relatedness needs we can assist learners to internalise their motivation.


Deci, E.L., and Ryan, R.M. "The 'What' and 'Why' of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior." Psychological Inquiry 11, 4 (Oct 1, 2000).

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-being Across Life's Domains. Canadian Psychology 49, 1 (2008), 14-23.

Niemiec, C. P and Ryan, R. M. Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness in the Classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education 7, 2 (2009), 133-144.

Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 (2000), 54-67.

About the Author

Matt Guyan has been working in learning and development since 2008. He has experience as a classroom facilitator, workplace assessor, and recently as an instructional designer. Guyan has worked in eLearning, instructor led, and on-the-job learning environments. He is currently working in L&D in local government and completing a master's of education in educational psychology at the University of New South Wales. He also blogs at

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  • Tue, 22 Oct 2013
    Post by Matt Guyan

    Thanks for your feedback and comment, I hope that you found the article useful.

  • Mon, 21 Oct 2013
    Post by Vlearning

    A very nice and well thought post..I loved the way information has been provided..