Wayne’s world: engaging slackers

Wayne is disappointed in his students’ lack of deep engagement with the work in his class.  He has observed two broad groups of students in his classes.  The first of these shows classic signs of disaffection or the opposite of engagement (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).  They don’t want to be in his class, may be withdrawn and/or openly rebellious and feel depressed or anxious about having to be there (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).  The second group of students is superficially engaged, only wanting to know the “correct answers.”  Their primary concern is obtaining a good mark in his class and scoring well on end of school exams to aid entry to the nearby university. Their motivation for learning has an “external perceived locus of causality” (Ryan & Deci, 2000a, p. 59), i.e. their motivation for learning has not been internalized or assimilated with their own personal values and interests.

Self-determination theory, or SDT, originated as an empirical model of motivation (Ryan & Deci, 1985).  It postulates that there are three primary psychological needs that, when satisfied, tend to facilitate higher levels of motivation.  These needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness.  Competence refers to a students’ perceived ability to understand and achieve a goal.  Autonomy is the opportunity for self-direction and self-determination.  Relatedness refers to feelings of personal social connection in relation to the internalization of values and regulations (Ryan & Deci, 2000b).

Beyond a simple dichotomy of amotivation vs. motivation or even a trichotomy of amotivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, SDT proposes that there is an effective continuum of extrinsic motivation, along a scale of autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2000b).  Higher levels of motivation and engagement are associated with a higher degree of internalization of the reasons, values and importance of a topic.  At one extreme, extrinsic motivation shares many of the characteristics of intrinsic motivation, namely volition and value, but remains extrinsic because the motivation is seen to come from a separable outcome (not from simple enjoyment of a task as with intrinsic motivation) (Deci & Ryan, 2000b).  At the other end of the spectrum, motivation is a result of external demands or rewards and is controlling.

Higher degrees of internalization of motivation and values have been associated with a myriad of beneficial outcomes, not least of which (and perhaps the most important for Wayne’s students) is a lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse (Knee & Neighbours, 2002).  Other outcomes include greater engagement (Reeve et. al., 2004), higher performance at school (Miserandino, 1996) and on standardized tests (Skinner, Wellborn & Connell, 1990).

As an educator, the most important point for Wayne is to discover practical tools and ideas as to how to facilitate motivation in his students.  Wayne can support autonomy by providing choice to his students, encouraging self-starting, minimizing controlling behaviours and by clarifying the relevance of learning outcomes for his students (Assor, Kaplan & Roth, 2002).  Assor, Kaplan and Roth (2002) found that the best teaching behaviour for predicting student engagement is fostering relevance.  That is to say, the single most important thing Wayne can attempt to do is to help students understand the contribution that their schoolwork has to the realisation of their personal goals and interests.  Helping students understand the relevance of his classwork is intertwined with nurturing relatedness.  To be able to effectively promote relevance, Wayne needs to get to know his students personally to understand what they value and are interested in (Reeve, 2002).  If he is able to demonstrate that he cares about his students, they will be more likely to value his input and give his enthusiasm for the subject more weight.  Finally, Wayne can support competence by providing structure for his class (not to be confused with attempting to control them and take away their autonomy).  He can do this by making his expectations for the class and their learning outcomes clear, providing learning tasks that challenge his students but for which success is attainable, and by providing relevant and timely feedback on assessment (Reeve, 2002).


Assor, A; Kaplan, H & Roth, G (2002) “Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72:261-278

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

Deci, E & Ryan, R (2000a) “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25: 54-67

Deci, E & Ryan, R (2000b) “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being,” American Psychologist, 55(1): 68-78

Knee, C & Neighbors, C (2002) “Self-determination, perception of peer pressure, and drinking among college students,” Journal of applied social psychology, 32(3):522-543

Miserandino, M (1996) “Children who do well in school: Individual differences in perceived competence and autonomy in above-average children,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 88:203-214.

Reeve, R (2002) “Self-determination theory applied to educational settings,” in Deci, E & Ryan, R (Eds), Handbook of self-determination research, 183-203, Rochester: University of Rochester Press

Reeve, R; Jang, H; Carrell, D; Jeon, S & Barch, J (2004) “Enhancing Students’ Engagement by Increasing Teachers’ Autonomy Support” Motivation and Emotion, 28(2):147-169

Skinner, E & Belmont, M (1993) “Motivation in the classroom: reciprocal effects of teacher behaviour and student engagement across the school year,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4):571-581

Skinner, E; Wellborn, J & Connell, J (1990) “What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: a process model of perceived control and children’s engagement and achievement in school,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1):22-32