Enhancing Students’ Motivation and Wellness (Part 2)

Innovation; Research
Christopher P. Niemiec, Ph.D.Tips on providing support for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom

Christopher P. Niemiec, Ph.D., University of Rochester

As discussed in last month’s Bastow e-newsletter article, at the core of self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2008) is the postulate that all individuals—regardless of their gender, age, culture, social class or any other delimiting factor—require support for satisfaction of autonomy, competence and relatedness to function in a healthy, integrated way. The need for autonomy refers to the experience of behaviour as owned and self-endorsed. The need for competence refers to the experience of effectance and mastery. The need for relatedness refers to the experience of mutual care and concern for important others. And much research from SDT has shown that need support is beneficial for motivation and wellness across life’s domains, including in educational settings.

In Part 1 of this e-newsletter article, I described results from an on-going cross-national study that has used mixed methods to examine naturally emerging themes of need support in written narratives in the education domain. My colleagues and I found that themes associated with support for autonomy, competence and relatedness were most likely to occur in narratives written about motivating teachers, relative to narratives written about demotivating teachers and relative to narratives written about teachers of the last course in a student’s major. This finding has been replicated using samples of students in 19 countries—from Canada to Peru to South Africa to Australia; in Europe, in the Middle East and in Asia—thereby suggesting that students associate their most motivating teachers with support for satisfaction of the basic psychological needs. We also found that students associate their most demotivating teachers with an emphasis on grades and other incentives. Therefore, herein I will describe practical tips that teachers can use to provide support for their students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness in classroom settings, as such need support was found to distinguish motivating and demotivating teachers.

Providing support for satisfaction of students’ autonomy, competence and relatedness in the classroom involves an interpersonal style in which an authority figure (a teacher) adopts the perspective of another individual (a student or a group of students) for whom the authority figure has responsibility (see Niemiec, Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2014). For illustration, consider the case of Miss Villone—a hypothetical teacher—and Peter, a student in Miss Villone’s class who recently has been having difficulties at school. Upon her becoming aware of Peter’s difficulties, Miss Villone elicits and acknowledges Peter’s thoughts and feelings around his experiences at school. For instance, Miss Villone may begin a conversation with Peter in the following way: “Peter, there seems to be some difficulty with your schoolwork. How do you understand the situation?” Indeed, it is critical that a need-supportive teacher relate to the student from the student’s perspective and do so in a way that is direct, genuine and respectful. At the same time, it is important that a need-supportive teacher remain open to the student’s feelings and do so in a way that is non-judgmental and accepting. With a clear understanding of Peter’s perspective on the situation, Miss Villone encourages self-initiation around how Peter may address the situation and provides a desired amount of choice to Peter. Here, the goal is for Peter to work through his difficulties at school with an experience of self-direction and experimentation, so as to encourage active problem solving. Of course, it is important that Miss Villone provide Peter (and all of her students) with structure, and she is sure to provide a meaningful rationale for those limits and for other relevant requests in the classroom. Finally, Miss Villone refrains from use of language that can be perceived as controlling (for example, “have to”, “should”, “ought” and “must”), as such language tends to undermine students’ taking responsibility for their learning. In summary, then, providing support for autonomy in the classroom involves 1) relating to students from their own perspective; 2) encouraging self-initiation, self-direction, and choice; 3) providing a genuine and meaningful rationale for limits and for requested behaviour; and 4) minimising use of controlling language.

Having helped Peter to clarify his thoughts and feelings around his difficulties at school, Miss Villone remains positive that Peter can overcome his challenges and achieve success. Miss Villone conveys her positive attitude to Peter and begins a conversation to identify the specific barriers to his success in the classroom. Miss Villone develops optimal challenges for Peter—tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult, and match personal skills to the demands of the task. Indeed, optimal challenges serve to stretch and expand students’ cognitive capacities, skills and abilities. Finally, Miss Villone assists Peter with skills building and problem solving through giving him personalised feedback that is immediate, accurate and constructive. In summary, then, providing support for competence in the classroom involves 1) remaining positive that the student can succeed, 2) creating optimal challenges that match personal skills to the demands of a task, and 3) giving accurate, effectance-relevant feedback.

In addition to providing support for autonomy and competence, Miss Villone relates to Peter in a warm, empathic and non-judgmental way during their interactions in school. Here, the idea is for Miss Villone to accept Peter’s educational experiences—including any of his setbacks and difficulties—with a sense of unconditional positive regard. That is, rather than relating to Peter in a warm way only if he is successful at school, Miss Villone communicates genuine care, interest and support to Peter regardless of his difficulties at school. In summary, then, providing support for relatedness in the classroom involves 1) assuming an empathic and non-judgmental stance toward the student and 2) providing a sense of unconditional positive regard.

The importance of teachers’ providing support for their students’ autonomy, competence and relatedness in the classroom is highlighted by substantial research from SDT in the education domain (see Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). For instance, teachers’ provision of need support has been associated with students’ intrinsic motivation—an experience of inherent interest, excitement and enjoyment—in the classroom. As well, teachers’ provision of need support has been linked to students’ internalisation of academic motivation. Finally, teachers’ provision of need support has been shown to predict academic engagement and better learning outcomes among students.

On Monday, 23 June 2014 at 5:30pm, I will present an application of SDT to educational practice for the Bastow’s Twilight Series - Enhancing Students’ Motivation and Wellness. Topics that will be discussed include intrinsic motivation, internalisation of extrinsic motivation, and how teachers can create classroom climates that are supportive of their students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. As well, I will present findings from on-going cross-national research on students’ perceptions of their most motivating and demotivating teachers. All are welcome!


Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14-23.

Niemiec, C. P. & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7, 133-144.

Niemiec, C. P. Soenens, B. & Vansteenkiste, M. (2014). Is relatedness enough? On the importance of need support in different types of social experiences. In N. Weinstein (Ed.), Human motivation and interpersonal relationships: Theory, research and applications (pp. 77-96). Dordrecht: Springer.