Using self determination theory principles to promote engineering students' intrinsic motivation to learn

Kyle F. Trenshaw, Renata A. Revelo, Katherine A. Earl, Geoffrey L. Herman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research based on Self Determination Theory (SDT) posits that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are important psychological needs for fostering intrinsic motivation. Although competence and autonomy are clearly defined in the literature, relatedness and its role in motivation are less clearly defined, as relatedness is often discussed in terms of project work, collaborative learning, and group experiences. This study seeks to describe the salience of students' motivation toward learning in a second-year engineering course (Computer Engineering I) that was redesigned to promote students' intrinsic motivation to learn. After completing the redesigned course, 17 students were interviewed about their experience throughout the semester. During interviews, students were asked to describe their experiences in the course and to discuss how those experiences affected their motivation. Interviews were coded to capture students' situational motivational orientations during the course and the psychological needs they mentioned in relation to their experience. The analysis of students' descriptions overwhelmingly pointed to relatedness as the most salient need in supporting their motivation in the course. Contrary to expectations based on the SDT literature for K-12 students, the analysis revealed a lesser salience of competence and autonomy for the college students in our study. Students' statements were coded least frequently as pertaining to autonomy out of the three psychological needs of SDT, even though the course designer's primary goal was to support students' autonomy. While autonomy support within classroom environments does affect students' motivation within the course context, relatedness, rather than autonomy, was most salient in our context. Engineering educators should explore how the social context of large engineering courses may create a deep need for supporting relatedness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1194-1207
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2016


  • Relatedness
  • Second year
  • Self determination theory
  • Sophomore course
  • Thematic analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Engineering(all)


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