Motivating EFL learners using Self-Determination Theory

  • Janine Berger


This paper discusses the relevance of self-determination theory in motivating adult learners of English as a foreign language in Ecuador.

EFL class provides a unique and fascinating opportunity to test out 21st century ways of learning because English is not so much a content subject (as grammar teachers would have us believe) as a medium in itself.  Students should be playing, experimenting and creating…and that will be the answer to every teacher’s burning question: “How do I get my students motivated?”

Self-Determination Theory seeks to discover which elements are necessary for intrinsic motivation, and without which, intrinsic motivation is rendered difficult to achieve.  Researchers Deci and Ryan (1985) have discovered that the three key elements are autonomy, competence and relatedness.

In this paper I will show how it can be possible, within the basic framework of the traditional classroom paradigm, to enable EFL learners to feel these three emotions.  This does not, of course, guarantee that students will feel intrinsically motivated to learn English, but I submit that redesigning teaching methodologies to reflect these concepts will go a long way toward helping students feel better about learning English as a foreign language.

Many educators, in an attempt to understand intrinsic motivation are turning to the psychology of gaming because people play games out of pure intrinsic motivation.  That is, there are “rewards” and “punishments” within the world of the game, but since these have no meaning in the “real” world, the question becomes what makes people want to do things?  And of course, how can we harness that to use in the classroom, ie: how can we make students want to learn?

Self-Determination Theory is not a panacea.  Applying its principles will not magically create intrinsic motivation where none exists.  However, what has been discovered is that autonomy, competence and relatedness are three elements without which intrinsic motivation cannot exist.  That is, we as teachers cannot make our students feel intrinsically motivated to learn English, but we can remove obstacles that impede their feeling that way.

I will show how to provide students with greater autonomy over their learning, and how doing so will enable them to work more productively.  I will show how the feeling of competence can be enhanced by subtle changes to our grading techniques.  Finally, I will show how the sense of relatedness is the key to mastering English and being able to use it as a truly global language.

Jul 5, 2017
How to Cite
BERGER, Janine. Motivating EFL learners using Self-Determination Theory. Colloquia, Academic Journal of Culture and Thought, [S.l.], v. 1, p. 46 - 62, july 2017. ISSN 1390-8731. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 18 nov. 2017.