Self Determination Effect

Self-determination is the ability for learners to choose aspects of learning activities based upon their prior knowledge, personal interest and personal relevance. The self-determination effect occurs when enabling students to self-determine some aspects of their learning activities results in greater learning than not having enabled self-determination.

Enabling learners to choose some aspects of their learning activities provides them the opportunity to pursue studies and activities that more likely fall within their areas of interest, knowledge and motivation.

Self-determination most often occurs in the context of selecting assignments. Learners may be able to choose various arguments to promote in an essay, various topics for a report, various applications for a program to develop, various bridges to design and so on.

While all learners will need to learn a specified body of information, they may be able to choose how they pursue and demonstrate this.

Learners should seek out aspects of the new information that they currently hold knowledge in and will thus find relatively easy to access and apply. This will release cognitive resources that can then be utilised in “pursuing and demonstrating” the specified body of information.

Enabling learners to self-determine some aspects of their learning activities also means that learners have the opportunity to work in areas that they desire to pursue for personal interest or professional advancement, thus motivating learners to apply themselves to the activities.


Where it is practical, enable learners to self-determine aspects of their learning activities and assignments. This may range from selecting from a specified list of alternatives to learners suggesting their own.

Instructional Design: 

In areas of well-defined transformation problems such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, there will likely be limited scope for self-determination because of the high emphasis placed upon problem solving.

Some technical areas such as engineering and computer programming will offer partial scope for self-determination in areas of design.

Less-defined areas such as art, drama and creative writing offer high levels of self-determination with the capacity of creating new works.

When it is practical to enable learners to choose among different streams of information, let them do so.

When it is practical to enable learners to self-determine some aspects of activities and assignments, let them do so.

Example 1: Essay Question

Learners may be presented with a list of alternative essay questions and asked to choose one.

Example 2: Report Topic

Learners may be asked to suggest their own report topic. If it is determined to be unacceptable by instructor then, through discussion, it may be refocussed to an option that is acceptable.

Example 3: Design a Bridge

Learners may be presented with the technical specifications for a bridge and asked to design it and to develop a set of technical drawings for it.

Example 4: Flute Solo

Learners may be tasked to write a flute solo in G, in 4 x 4 time.

Example 5: Short Documentary Video

Learners may be tasked to produce a 2 minute documentary video about a native animal in their local area and how it may be impacted upon by climate change.