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Introduction to Self-Determination Theory: An approach to motivation, development and wellness

University of Rochester via Coursera


Self-determination theory (SDT) is an empirically based theory of motivation and psychological development that is especially focused on the basic psychological needs that promote high quality motivation and wellness, and how they are supported in social contexts. SDT details how the styles and strategies of motivators such as parents, teachers, coaches, managers, and health-care professionals can promote or undermine engagement and the positive consequences that follow from it. In this course, Professor Richard Ryan, co-founder of the theory, will provide an overview of SDT with special emphasis on how autonomy, competence, and relatedness supports and facilitates behavioral persistence, quality of relationships, and healthy developmental processes, among other topics. He will also discuss the convergence of behavioral phenomenological and neuropsychological aspects of autonomy within SDT research. In addition, he will illustrate practical applications of SDT, with emphasis on educational, work, sport, healthcare and psychotherapy settings.


  • Week 1
    • The first module of this course begins with an introduction and overview of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This includes a discussion of the basic and historical principles of SDT as well as definitions of key terms. Module 1 continues with an introduction to one of SDT’s mini-theories, Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) and the core concept of intrinsic motivation. The impact of rewards on intrinsic motivation and the role of intrinsic motivation in video gaming are also discussed.
  • Week 2
    • Week 2 focuses on two additional mini-theories within SDT: Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) and Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT). The first four lectures in this module discuss OIT —describing the different types of motivation, organizing them along the continuum of relative autonomy, discussing what is meant by internalization, and describing the factors that facilitate and undermine autonomous motivation and internalization. Additionally, lectures in this module cover well-being and basic psychological needs theory (BPNT)—delving into what these basic needs are and providing evidence for their importance to well-being across cultures and in explaining day-to-day variations in happiness.
  • Week 3
    • Week 3 delves deeper into people’s well-being and life goals…examining what makes us happier from one day to the next. The second lecture in this module introduces Goal Contents Theory (GTC), or the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic life goals on well-being. These lectures focus on how the pursuit of goals like money, fame, and image is associated with poor well-being even when these goals are achieved. Lectures in this module also center on mindfulness and the role of awareness in cultivating autonomy and on vitality -- or the energy available to the self, a central component of well-being and the role of nature in supporting vitality.
  • Week 4
    • Module 4 focuses on the importance of basic psychological need fulfillment in several areas of life. The first lecture covers research demonstrating that doing good for others and contributing to one’s community are associated with greater well-being. The next lecture centers on one of the most important ingredients to well-being -- meaningful relationships and the fundamental importance of psychological need support to building quality relationships. Next, discussion turns to some of the most formative relations in one’s life -- the relation between parents and children. This lecture covers research demonstrating that need support from parents is associated with optimal growth and development in children. The next lecture focuses on the process of identity formation, or how one comes to understand and develop one’s identities, roles, and interests. Also, in this module, a lecture dedicated to the application of SDT to education. Specifically, this lecture covers the importance of motivation to learning and how teacher styles impact students’ motivation and learning outcomes. Finally, the last lecture examines work and organizations and discusses how need support from managers and the work environment impacts outcomes like retention, job satisfaction, corporate citizenship, and work engagement.
  • Week 5
    • Module 5 focuses on the application of SDT in several different domains. The first lecture covers SDT’s application in the healthcare domain, including motivational predictors of weight loss, medication adherence, smoking cessation, and dental hygiene. The next lecture focuses on mental health and the importance of basic need support in psychotherapy, including examples of how therapists can support their clients’ needs. Next, we turn to the application of SDT to sports again including examples of research supporting the importance of autonomy support and how parents and coaches can facilitate athletes’ intrinsic motivation for sport. The next lecture discusses the ways in which culture influences people’s motivation and wellness and how culture acts as a pervasive influence on our need fulfillment. We continue to examine pervasive social influences in the following lecture by looking at the impacts of political and economic structures on motivation and need satisfactions…asking questions like how wealth disparities impact wellness. This will take us to our concluding lecture with final remarks on the importance of basic psychological need support in predicting quality motivation and positive outcomes. Last but not least, the final lecture provides practical takeaways to satisfy your own psychological needs.

Taught by

Richard Ryan


5.0 rating, based on 1 Class Central review

4.8 rating at Coursera based on 486 ratings

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  • This course elegantly presented the science behind the Self-Determination Theory by no less than one of its pioneers. The contents of this course and its implications have great potential for application in several settings to improve productivity.

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