Enhancing students’ self-determination: A theory-based approach in tutoring

Photo credit: unsplash, @hudsonhintze, CC0

In this post, Dr Somia Imran, a recent PhD graduate in Clinical Psychology and a postgraduate tutor in the School of Health in Social Science (SHSS), shares how she is enhancing students’ self-determination using a theory-based approach in her tutorial teaching…

Alongside my PhD, I have been involved in tutoring and marking for various undergraduate and postgraduate courses. In particular, I enjoyed my time as a tutor on two courses: Research Methods in Applied Psychology, and Conceptual and Theoretical Psychology in SHSS. As part of my PhD, I examined psychological wellbeing in terms of autonomy, competence and relatedness, which are considered as the universal determinants of wellbeing within the framework of Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000a).

Self-Determination Theory is one of the theories of human motivation, which assumes that personal growth (developing oneself to achieve one’s fullest potential) and vitality are inherent in human nature that are either satisfied or hindered by the immediate environment (Deci & Ryan, 2000b). Mullins (2002) defines motivation as a process, which starts with a physiological or psychological need, and then these needs activate a behaviour or a drive that is aimed at a goal or uphold a value. Self-Determination Theory argues that the satisfaction of three basic needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – promotes intrinsic motivation, which is doing something because it is inherently interesting and/or enjoyable (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Image from https://positivepsychology.com/self-determination-theory/, CC0.

In October 2017, I started my Edinburgh Teaching Associate Fellow Award. While working towards this award, I undertook various teaching training courses and workshops and read some relevant education literature. Scheutz (2008) and Niemiec and Ryan’s (2009) readings gave me an insight that students’ motivation towards learning could be enhanced by employing strategies that help students enhance their self-determination. Nevertheless, the challenge was I was now working with students in a real life situation and I did not have time to develop a systematic methodology! So “where there is will, there is a way” the IAD (Institute for Academic Development) course Teaching Outside the Box: Using Creativity in your Teaching gave me some ideas about how to use creative ways to target the needs of students. Whilst I might have used similar ways previously, I was now thinking like a theorist who was passionate about applying theoretical concepts to teaching practice.

To satisfy the “autonomy” need, the teacher’s task is to make students feel in control of their learning and have input into what goes on in lessons. Therefore, following a student-centred approach (Leach, 2016) in my tutorials, I make it very clear to my students that tutorials are not lectures, but student-directed workshops and it’s up to them how much they want to gain from them. Further, I encourage each group to make two questions for the other groups to let students play an active role in the tutorial activities. In addition, I let students choose between two sub-topics/scenarios (same content but different forms), which further allows them to take control of their learning.

For the “competency” need, the teacher’s task is to find effective strategies for helping students gain the necessary knowledge/skill to do something successfully within their subject. Therefore, I ensure to keep the instructions very clear and usually display questions and/or instructions on slides during tutorial activities. Especially for students on learning adjustments, I provide time breakdowns as well as give printed instructions for long steps. I use a ‘think, pair and share’ approach to give students enough time to think and listen to one another before answering challenging questions, which also makes them respectful and open to different perspectives.

Following students’ formative presentation, I give them detailed feedback and discuss how they should act on it. Hounsell’s (2008) reading has made me think to incorporate strategies to develop students’ capacity to engage with and learn from feedback. Therefore, I show students some previously marked essays to reflect on what a tutor’s written feedback on these assignments might mean, why it might be important, and how it might be followed. It is hoped that these activities enhance students’ academic writing practices for future publications (i.e., how to engage well with the reviewers’ feedback).

For the “relatedness” need, it’s important that students recognise how others listen to and respond to them. I make mixed groups/pairs from time to time to bridge all gender, language and qualification-based gaps between my students to make them feel connected. To ensure inclusive discussion, I respond positively to any questions, and encourage each student to come up with at least one point and/or question. As such, I make an effort to create enough opportunities for each student in my tutorials to share their opinion and contribute to the ongoing discussion. Finally, I appear easily approachable to my students especially close to assessments submission deadlines.

Conceptualisation of the role of self-determination theory nutriments in the development of professional identity. From https://www.mdpi.com/2226-4787/5/2/16, CC0.

To conclude, contextualising my tutoring in line with the Self-Determination Theory to target the basic needs of my tutees for better learning outcomes is a theory-based approach. Overall, this has helped me perform my tutoring responsibility with clear goals and be mindful of my professional boundaries as well as be prepared for the relevant potential challenges. Of note, I have received very positive feedback from my students and been nominated for two EUSA teaching awards (2018-2019) in the same year. For future teaching, I intend to explore the option of using technology-enriched activities.


Deci, E., & R. Ryan. (2000). The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–68.

Hounsell, D. (2008). The trouble with feedback: new challenges, emerging strategies
Interchange 2, pp. 1-10. Available at: http://www.docs.hss.ed.ac.uk/iad/Learning_teaching/Academic_teaching/Resources/Interchange/spring2008.pdf

Leach, L. (2016). Enhancing student engagement in one institution. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 40(1), 23-47.

Mullins, L. J. (2005). Management and Organisational Behaviour. Prentice hall. UK 7th Ed. 88(431), 1052-1058.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education7(2), 133–144.

Ryan, R. M., & Brown, K.W. (2005). Legislating competence: High-stakes testing policies and their relations with psychological theories and research’, in A.J. Elliot and C.S. Dweck (eds), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, pp. 354–72. New York: Guilford Publications.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000a). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000b). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

Scheutz, P. (2008). A theory-driven model of community college student engagement. Community College. Journal of Research and Practice, 32, 305–24.


I would like to extend profound gratitude to the course organisers I have worked with -Prof Jo Williams, Dr Karen Goodall, Dr Helen Sharpe and Dr Melina Nicole Kyranides – for being so responsive, encouraging and supportive, which not only helped me perform my best but also enhance my self-determination as a postgraduate tutor.

Somia Imran

Somia Imran is a recent PhD graduate in Clinical Psychology, and a postgraduate tutor in the School of Health in Social Science (SHSS) at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a part-time Assistant Psychologist at a Mental Health Clinic in Edinburgh. Her research involves the child and adolescent development and mental health across cultures. Somia was one of the former postgraduate representatives at the School of Health in Social Science.

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