Incorporating the self-determination theory into an undergraduate health education course.
Abstract: The purpose of this case study was to determine if the assignments offered in a health education course fulfilled a balance of the three psychological needs of the self-determination theory. Method: Undergraduate female students were asked to identify each assignment with the corresponding psychological need. Each response was analyzed for internal consistency using a cronbach alpha. Results: The results of the psychological need inventory was found to be highly reliable (32 items, [alpha] = .996). Discussion: The results provide a high level of support of including a balance of the three psychological needs in a course.
Subject: Teachers (Research)
Universities and colleges (Research)
Health education (Research)
Medical personnel (Training)
Medical personnel (Research)
Authors: Campbell, Laura C.
Earl, Amber K.
Johns, Judith A.
Pub Date: 06/22/2012
Publication: Name: American Journal of Health Studies Publisher: American Journal of Health Studies Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 American Journal of Health Studies ISSN: 1090-0500
Issue: Date: Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product: Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Accession Number: 308741525
Full Text: Understanding and incorporating motivational research into teacher education programs has the potential to provide essential guidance for the future generation of educators. The development and maintenance of human motivation has been, and continues to be, a prominent area of research in the field of education. It has been hypothesized that motivation results from the intricate interaction between biological, cognitive, and social processes (Deci & Ryan, 1985). These multifaceted components act collaboratively to regulate the direction, intensity, and persistence with which individuals direct their behaviors (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Through the integration of the Self-determination theory (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000) into college-level teaching methods courses, we create a foundation for the future application of validated teaching methods into the next generation of classrooms, as well as the opportunity to guide future educators on a path of self-discovery toward intrinsic motivation.

According to the Self-determination theory, human motivation is regulated by an individual's propensity for assessing their current needs and constructing their actions in a way that addresses those needs (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The foundation for motivated behaviors may originate from an intrinsic, self-determined source, or alternatively, from an extrinsic source that may be self-determined or nonself-determined (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Additionally, humans may experience amotivation, which can be conceptualized as the indifference toward any form of motivated action (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Ideally, teachers and other educators will strive to guide students toward intrinsically motivated behaviors, because they inspire genuine student interest in activities. Intrinsically motivated actions are believed to be personally significant, stimulating, and inherently enjoyable; the satisfaction that results from participation is free of external restraints and rewards (Shen, McCaughtry, Martin, & Fahlman, 2009).

The journey toward the development of intrinsic motivation in future teacher-educators can be fostered through courses that embody elements supporting the fulfillment of three vital psychological needs. According to the Self-determination theory, the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness must be met through supportive social contexts, before self-motivation can be cultivated (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Fulfillment of these needs is thought to promote psychological growth, integrity, and well-being in individuals; this in turn creates the necessary conditions required for the development of goal-directed behaviors, founded in personal interests (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2009).


Learning environments that are supportive of the need for autonomy provide students with the ability to explore choices and opportunities that are based on self-directed passions (Shen, McCaughtry, Martin, & Fahlman, 2009). These environments regularly take student opinions and concerns into consideration, while also intentionally incorporating positive, informational, and consistent feedback on student progress into daily activities (Ryan & Deci, 2000). A teacher who is supportive of the need for autonomy will strive to create an atmosphere that deemphasizes pressured evaluations, imposed goals, and demands. Simultaneously, this teacher will provide students with the essential content-based material, however, in a manner that encourages students to use the new information to solve a problem in a self-directed way (Assor, Kaplan, Kanat-Maymon, & Roth, 2005; Kage & Namiki, 1990).

The tendency among educators to enforce strict guidelines hinders student ability to self-initiate, regulate, and pursue goal-directed behaviors (Assor, Kaplan, Kanat-Maymon, & Roth, 2005). Oftentimes, educators impose specific criteria in an effort to control student direction and ensure that content is reinforced; in doing so, however, they may unintentionally sacrifice the potential for student autonomous expression (Bozack, Vega, McCaslin, & Good, 2008; Reeve, 2006). This frequently results in a type of "controlled motivation", (Ryan & Powelson, 1991) wherein students learn to behave in a way that satisfies the regulatory requirements imposed by teachers and the overall school environment. This phenomenon, which is in obvious, direct, conflict with genuinely self-directed action, is believed to contribute to the development of a superficial form of autonomous expression. This feigned autonomy, consequently, is believed to contribute to the lack of learning achievement in students (Elliot, Faler, McGregor, Campbell, Sedikides, & Harackiewicz, 2000).


The need for competence among individuals is displayed through the proclivity for challenges that marginally exceed current level of ability (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The pursuit and mastery of challenging tasks leads to important developmental advancements, from which confidence and self-esteem will result (Brophy, 2010). Teachers who incorporate activities and assignments that are proportionate to the current level of student knowledge and skill, have the opportunity to support a learning environment from which students can recognize and appreciate challenges (Bandura, 1982). Most notably, activities that enable students to actively participate and receive immediate feedback, (Bandura, 1982; Harackiewicz, 1989) those that integrate game-like components, and those that include features that have been found effective in business settings, have been associated with fostering student perceived competence and competence valuation (Bandura, 1982).

The creation of learning environments that do not sufficiently support the development of competence valuation among students presumably lack sufficient, timely, or appropriate performance feedback; (Harackiewicz, 1989) consequently, deterring intrinsically motivated actions (Baker, Terry, Bridger, & Winson, 1997; Watson, & Battistich, 2006). The path toward actions that are intrinsically driven result from an individual's confidence in their ability to perform a given task, or from their desire to build the capacity to become capable of completing a particular task (Harackiewicz, 1989). Teachers who are cognizant of competence-supportive tasks provide opportunities for students to use various skills, emphasize the process behind completion of a product from beginning to end, and incorporate activities that enable students to recognize and appreciate the impact it has on the lives of others (Bandura, 1982).


The Self-determination theory maintains that the establishment of a climate that is supportive of cooperative collaboration among peers is an obligatory prerequisite to the successful application of motivational strategies (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). In the context of a classroom setting, this need is oftentimes conceptualized as a learning-positive environment. These environments promote feelings of acceptance and companionship though the formation of caring relationships in classrooms; this in turn, establishes a foundation for peer responsibility and comfort, which can support the exploration of student self-directed interests (Noddings, 2005; Purkey & Novak, 1996; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994). The term "learning community", has been adopted in the field of educational research, to refer to the ideal ambiance and structure of a classroom. Literature has identified two quintessential components of a learning community; the first, that student learning is promoted through an emphasis on the process of learning itself, and the second, that the atmosphere encourages peer accountability, support, and appreciation (Wentzel, 1997; Wentze & Watkins, 2002).

Research studies examining students' beliefs regarding teacher (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996) and peer (Vygotsky, 1978) pedagogical caring; have found that the level of perceived caring is a significant predictor of academic effort and achievement. Fulfillment of the need for relatedness is advocated by teachers who actively incorporate activities that promote student interaction and cooperation, typically in pairs or small groups. Activities such as debates, role-plays, ice-breakers, and simulations, encourage student symbiotic learning and the embracement of peer responsibility (Bandura, 1982). The integral significance of shared experiences in an academic setting cannot be overemphasized; individual development is dependent on social interactions and the apparent significance of those interactions (Black & Deci, 2000; Deci & Ryan 2002).


An important skill for health educators is the ability to maintain the highest level of motivation for continued learning; self-determination. Although self-determination is a skill that should be practiced and encouraged by every teacher, health teachers have the unique opportunity to teach it, by applying each component of the skill in the classroom, and connecting it to their subject area. Health teachers need to access valid, reliable, and current health information on a regular basis to remain current with new discoveries, and to deliver appropriate information and guidance. In an effort to enhance the learning process, and channel future health educators toward a path of intrinsic motivation and continued learning, one university in New York has applied components of the Self-determination theory in a course prior to the student teaching experience.

The design of the course emphasizes the components of the Self-determination theory by implementing assignments that promote the fulfillment of all three psychological needs. Each assignment is specifically designed to meet the individual needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence; however, many assignments meet a combination of these needs (Table 1).

Incorporating Relatedness. The need for relatedness is consistently reinforced by the implementation of multiple opportunities for interaction and collaboration among peers. Throughout the duration of the course, students offer feedback to one another on each step of the learning process. This component reinforces a sense of community and connectedness among the students. Three cooperative assignments reinforce relatedness. The first cooperative assignment is a group ice breaker activity led by the course instructor. The overarching goal of this activity is to familiarize the students with one another and learn each other's names. It is important to recognize three significant limitations to ice breaker activities:

1) Not valuing an activity (Ryan, 1995)

* Students often resist any activity that re quires them to interact before they are familiar with their surroundings.

* Students do not like to get out of their seat unless they are comfortable with interacting with at least a few other students.

2) Not expecting it to yield a desired outcome (Seligman, 1975)

* If the ice breaker is something they have done many times before, the students tend to feel less motivated to participate.

3) Not feeling competent to do it (Bandura, 1986)

* If the ice breaker will make them feel incompetent or ridiculous, the student will resist.

To control for each limitation and provide additional motivational regulations, the following suggestions are recommended in order:

1. Research unique ice breaker activities and be prepared to deliver many.

2. Have the students list the ice breaker activities they are familiar with and avoid repetition.

3. Start with ice breaker activities that keep the students in their seat and allow them to become familiar with one or two other students.

4. Move into ice breakers that emphasis learning each student's name.

5. Start to require students to use each other's names.

6. Create opportunities for the students to get out of their seats and participate in activities that promote learning more specific information about their peers.

7. Then begin to include a few competitive ice breaker activities. It is important that the competition relies on luck rather than skill. If the competition relies on skill, the professor may lose the opportunity to promote a movement toward an introjected regulation style with students who feel less skilled.

The second cooperative assignment that reinforces relatedness requires the students to organize a trip to the state conference with matching attire, travel arrangements, and a planned social gathering. The third cooperative assignment entails the creation of a website for the class, showcasing each student as an eligible candidate for a school district. Each of these assignments is vital in establishing a sense of personal responsibility within the classroom; simultaneously, they provide every student with an opportunity to feel successful and accepted by the group.

Incorporating Competence. Accommodating for competency needs at the beginning of the class provides a foundation for invested interest. This need can be addressed through projects and assignments that are mindful of the following: specific criteria for completing each component, opportunities for students to use a variety of skills, and a focus on the learning process as well as the outcome. Focusing on the learning process itself can be accomplished through the integration of consistent instructor and peer feedback. Considering the grade on an assignment represents the level of content or skill mastery, it is important for the student to obtain individualized feedback prior to receiving a graded evaluation. The ice breaker assignment in Table 1 is not graded and is designed to provide the student with an opportunity for feedback and improvement. It is important that the criteria for this activity are simple and easy to understand. By requiring only three elements for completion of the assignment (delivery, practice, and assessment) and a time limit (ten minutes), the student has a greater chance of being successful which increases opportunities to demonstrate competence on future assignments.

It is important for the professor to recognize intimidation factors, such as early presenters who deliver a lesson that demonstrates a higher level of preparation and dedication. If the later presenters perceive their lesson idea to be of less quality, the professor may lose opportunities for the remaining students to experience a sense of competency. To adapt to this situation, a suggestion would be to congratulate the student on their extensive preparation and to reinforce that it is also more than acceptable to take a simplistic approach to the assignment.

The first assignment was simple and unique enough to help the student build self-efficacy and self-expression; however, the second assignment is designed to motivate students to go beyond their comfort zones. The next assignment requires the students to read and comprehend how to use two guides for understanding teaching standards, and to then compare the two guides in a ten slide PowerPoint presentation. The students are forced out of their comfort zone by receiving little guidance on this assignment. The professor intentionally provides little guidance as to how much information should be included in the PowerPoint and also avoids offering a demonstration of the expectation. Without the demonstration, students are left to interpret how much information would be considered enough. With this assignment, the professor is able to assess work ethic and the extent to which each student will go to demonstrate that they have learned the material. With the results of this assessment, the professor is able to create individual goals and strategies for reaching self-determination in their students and identify the student that may need more guidance.

This preparation course integrates a variety of strategies to support aptitude and skill development. Other than quizzes and exams, additional assignments designed to reinforce competence are completion of presentation summary reports, PowerPoint presentations, unit sketches, lesson plans, developing exams (for future students) and designing rubrics for projects.

Incorporating Autonomy. To account for autonomy needs, project assignments are designed to explore choices and provide students with the freedom to find information that they deem important and appropriate. To deemphasize pressured evaluations, imposed goals, and demands, all project assignments undergo a peer feedback process that allows each student to express themselves and use new information to solve a problem in a self-directed way. However, the only assignment that provides full autonomy is the final exam project. In this assignment, the student is required to take any health topic or personal issue and create a self-expression video that incorporates music. The only additional expectation is a time limit to allow each student the opportunity to share their work on the last day of class. The music video is designed to meet the psychological need for autonomy by providing an outlet for self-directed passion and creating a space for students to fully express themselves and their concerns without influence or limitations. To avoid controlled motivation and unintentionally sacrificing the potential for student autonomous expression, it is necessary to provide an assignment with higher expectations, yet less specific criteria.

The intent is for the students to progressively develop a greater proclivity for autonomy-supportive assignments, as they are continually reinforced by successful completion of previous open-ended assignments. Initially, students may be hesitant to accept and adjust to activities that have nonspecific criteria, however, once they understand the intensions and over arching philosophical goals of the course, students begin to use the opportunity as a platform for intrinsically directed interests.

Research Question

The purpose of this case study was to determine if the assignments offered in a health education course fulfilled a balance of the three psychological needs of the self-determination theory. The study was designed to determine the internal consistency of identifying each assignment in a course to one or more of the three psychological needs; and to determine the percent of assignments offered for each psychological need within an undergraduate health education course.

RQ1: Will the students of the health education course match each assignment to a psychological need with a high rate of reliability?

RQ2: What is the percentage of assignments that are identified for each psychological need?

RQ3: Do students believe their level of self-determination increased from the beginning of the course to the end?



The respondents were 42 female undergraduate health education junior/senior level students who took a health education methods course in central New York.


After administering a teaching methods course using the assignments listed (in Table 1), 42 undergraduate students (all female), were asked to respond to the following question (by circling yes or no): Do you believe that your level of self-determination increased after taking this class? The students received a Power Point lesson describing the three psychological needs of the Self-Determination Theory (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) using the same information provided in the beginning of this article. The students were asked to anonymously and individually identify the corresponding psychological needs with each assignment that they completed for the course. Each item was analyzed for internal consistency using a cronbach alpha.


In response to the question asked about self-determination, 100% of the students reported having an increased level of self-determination from the beginning of the course to the end of the course. The results of the psychological need inventory was found to be highly reliable (32 item, [alpha] =.996) demonstrating a high level of internal consistency in matching psychological needs with assignments from the course (Table 1). Each psychological need was matched with about half of the assignments noting that many assignments fulfilled more than one psychological need (Table 2).


The pilot nature of this study and implications for generalization are limited in regards to the small sample size. Also, the course was limited to female representation, limiting the ability to generalize to the responses of a male population. Additionally, the increase in self-determination was self reported rather than determined by a scale that measures self-determination. The implications of self-reporting an increase in self-determination include varying degrees of self-assessment. Each student may justify their increase in self-determination based on different elements or define self-determination differently.


The results of this study indicate with a high level of reliability from female students that the assignments offered in this course meet the three psychological needs of the self-determination theory for. The results also provide a high level of support of including multiple assignments that fulfill a balance of the three psychological needs in a course.


An important observation worth mentioning is that high achieving students, who are typically highly motivated by grades, tend to be invariably frustrated with assignments that have non-specific criteria such as the PowerPoint presentation. These students, who focus heavily on the external incentive of the grade itself, most likely have been able to reach their goal through paying close attention to and fulfilling, specific criteria imposed by past instructors. These students typically have many questions, and will aggressively request that the professor gives more specific criteria. It is helpful if professors are able to recognize and be sensitive to the great deal of stress these students feel as they are finding the lack of direction and control unsettling. In the end, these students usually submit an assignment demonstrating a high level of self-determination by going above and beyond the expectations and incorporating a high degree of understanding. On the other hand, the students who did not ask any questions tended to feel less pressure about the assignment, and put forth much less effort. They see the assignment as easy for the reason that it did not have specific criteria and may feel that they have accomplished the task by simply producing the bare minimum.

Interestingly enough, the PowerPoint presentation assignment marks the first in which the process of breaking "controlled motivation" begins, particularly for those students who strive to be in control. When these individuals were not able to find the exact information that the teacher was looking for, they were forced to read and fully understand all aspects of the topic that they chose; this is done in an effort to convince themselves that they did everything they could to get an "A". As for the students who offered the bare minimum, the teacher is able to immediately identify them as members of the target population who require much more direction in guiding them toward their full potential in developing self-determination. Once the teacher has assessed each student through this process, it is important for them to continue to provide opportunities for the students to break their controlled motivational approach to the learning process. At this point, it is critical that professors support the motivational process by providing external, and the opportunity for internal, incentives to their students.


Although this article focuses primarily on the three psychological needs of self-determination theory in relation to the assignments and expectations of this course, the authors recognize the need for further research examining the regulatory styles of the self-determination continuum in relation to the assignments in this course. The potential to assess student progression along the continuum toward intrinsic motivation can be examined through surveys or interviews from past or present students who participated in this course. Additional research that includes responses from male students is also recognized.


The Self-determination continuum is a multidimensional model for assessing and interpreting the degree to which a behavior has been valued and internalized by an individual (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). All forms of motivation: intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation, coincide with a level of self-determination; the more self-determined the behavior, the greater the degree to which that behavior is motivated by intrinsic factors. Behaviors that are driven by internal motives display a greater level of self-regulation, resulting from sincere interest in the activity itself and its ability to satisfy internal wants and needs (Maslow, 1943; Shen, McCaughtry, Martin, & Fahlman, 2009). Individuals may display a variety of motivational approaches, dependent upon the context in which they are functioning (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000).


The various types of motivation, with their regulatory styles, loci of causality, and corresponding processes, are illustrated below in Figure 1 (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Amotivation resides at the far left of the continuum, representing a state in which behaviors are either not performed, or are performed without an intention to accomplish a goal (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The center portion of the continuum encompasses forms of extrinsic motivation, with the following four subcategories: external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, and integrated regulation. These types of extrinsic motivation differ in the extent to which the perceived locus of causality is internalized, as well as the underlying regulatory processes involved (Deci & Ryan, 2000).Through identifying components of a learning environment that support the fulfillments of psychological needs, educators have the opportunity to support intrinsically motivated behaviors in students (Ryan, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Once teachers have established a course conducive to intrinsic pursuits, they may then identify where individual students are functioning on the continuum, and how best to provoke personal creativity and exploration in those students (Ryan, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The overarching goal of this process, simply put, is a contribution on the part of the educator, to the personal and academic growth of their students.

Translation to Health Education Practice

The Self-determination theory asserts that humans instinctively seek, master, and integrate new experiences and challenges into their everyday lives (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This implies that motivation itself will consequently result from the synergistic fulfillment of basic psychological needs, in conjunction with an environment that supports and integrates opportunities for the pursuit of self-directed activities (Maslow, 1943; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Health educators hold a distinct and critical role in the advancement or hindrance of student motivation. Health teachers who strive to include activities, assignments, and evaluations that are conducive to personal exploration, establish the indispensable components, necessary for fostering student motivation. Through the creation and implementation of courses and classrooms that both meet the requirements for content covered, while also enabling students to explore their own ambitions, a platform for intrinsically directed motivation can be established. By modeling the use of the self-determination theory in undergraduate courses, students may recognize the value and continue the practice in their future classrooms.


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Laura C. Campbell Ed.D

Amber K. Earl

Judith A. Johns PhD

Laura C. Campbell Ed.D, is affiliated with SUNY Corland. Amber K. Earl, is affiliated with SUNY Cortland. Judith A. Johns PhD, is affiliated with SUNY Cortland. Corresponding author: Laura C. Campbell, SUNY Cortland, 101 Moffet, Cortland NY, 13045, Fax: (607) 753-4226, E-mail:
Table 1. Frequency of psychological need responses identified for
each assignment

Activity/Assignments                         Psychological     % of
                                                 Need        Students

Quiz on the syllabus                          Competence        98
(unknown to students for bonus points)
Professor delivers ice breaker activities     Relatedness       98
Create a 10 min                                Autonomy         98
ice breaker Lesson
First Cooperative Assignment:                Relatedness      100
Deliver ice breaker lesson with peer
participation (not graded)                    Relatedness       90
Professor/peer feedback on the lesson         Competence
Quiz on students names (graded)               Relatedness       95
Create a 10 slide                             Competence        88
PowerPoint from assigned readings              Autonomy
Present PowerPoint                            Relatedness       95
Peer assessments of Presentation              Relatedness       95
  (feedback)                                  Competence
Second Cooperative Assignment: Plan a         Relatedness      100
  trip to the state conference, travel
  arrangements, matching attire, and a
  social gathering
Complete 1-2 page summary on 5 sessions at    Competence       100
  the conference.
Alternative assignment: Complete 1-2 page
  summaries on 10 campus presentations
Create a final exam for the assigned           Autonomy         93
  content topic                               Competence
10 multiple choice
5 matching
5 true/false
5 fill in the blank (with a word bank)
5 fill in the blank
(no word bank)
1 for feedback
1 for a grade
Peer assess exam                              Relatedness       93
(feedback)                                     Autonomy
Create a 10 day sketch on an assigned          Autonomy         95
  content topic (grade)                       Competence
Peer assess 2 days (feedback)                 Relatedness       93
Create 2 or more projects with rubrics to      Autonomy         93
  evaluate the skill process (subskills)      Competence
1 for feedback
1 for a grade

Peer assess rubrics (feedback)                Relatedness       93
Create a 10 day sketch for an assigned         Autonomy         90
  skill (graded)                              Competence
Peer assess full sketch prior (feedback)       Relatedness       93
Fill in 2 lesson plans                         Autonomy         93
1 for content                                 Competence
1 for skill
Peer assess 2 lesson plans (feedback)         Relatedness       90
Complete all 20 lesson plans                   Autonomy         98
(10 content - 10 skill)                       Competence
Third Cooperative Assignment: Complete a      Relatedness      100
  website showcasing each student in the
  class as an eligible candidate for a
  teaching position
Teach a lesson (feedback)                      Autonomy         88
Peer assess teaching (feedback)               Relatedness       88
Submit Portfolio of work to assess skill       Autonomy         93
  level (graded)                              Competence
Final Exam to assess knowledge of content     Competency       100
  for the course (graded)
Lesson on philosophies/theories               Competency        98
Lesson on Self-Determination Theory           Competency        98
Final Project: Self expression music video     Autonomy        100
Criteria: Create an emotional response by
 the viewers, reflect a personal issue,
  length 3-5 mins
Watching and presenting peer music videos     Relatedness      100
Closure Activity                              Relatedness       93

Table 2. Percentage of assignments
matched with each psychological
need (n = 32)

Psychological   Percentage of
Need             Assignments

Autonomy             53
Competency           56
Relatedness          53
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