Self Determination Theory

Many health and physical education programs aim to promote lifelong physical activity, participating and engagement as outcomes of their curriculum.  They state that they do so by developing positive physical education experiences that develop positive attitudes, motivation to be active, learn about physical activity and learn how to engage with others.

The purpose of this week’s Tip of the Week HPE (TOTW) is to provide teachers with some understanding of how they may consider promoting positive and affective experiences that can sit alongside the work they do in developing students’ physical, social, and cognitive dimensions. 


What is self-determination theory?

Self-determination theory was developed by Deci and Ryan in 1985.  In the field of PE much of this work has focused on the role SDT plays, and its relationship in participation in physical activity.  SDT differentiates different types of motivation along a continuum from amotivation (lack of motivation) to development or possession of positive intrinsic motivation. 

Research has demonstrated that intrinsic motivation is positively related to academic achievement, school engagement, self-esteem, confidence, wellbeing and satisfaction with school – so an important characteristic that teachers should consider some focus on.  Research has also demonstrated that intrinsic motivation can be developed when a range of teacher behaviours, classroom environment and student needs are considered in class.  Conversely when PE teachers focus on extrinsic awards (e.g. posting student results) it leads to negative outcomes, including boredom and negative affect.


Considerations while teaching

The components of SDT come from psychological needs theory, this asserts that humans have three basic psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – the need to self-regulate one’s own experiences and actions.
  2. Competence – the basic need to feel you can influence your development and mastery.
  3. Relatedness – feelings of being socially connected and an integral member of a group.

Most of the skill learning that physical education teachers have taught to students is an example of the development of competence, however there is a fine balance between growing or undermining students’ feelings of competence with physical education.  One approach that teachers may consider is the SAAFE teaching principles.




SAAFE teaching principles and how teachers might apply them in their classes.



Principles & Strategies:

Examples from the classroom:



  • Teachers need to facilitate learning.
  • Display care, empathy, and friendliness
  • Praise student effort and improvement
  • Provide feedback privately not publicly.
  • Use feedback on FMS and movement concepts to improve their competency and understanding.



  • Use lots of small-sided games to maximise activity and time on task.
  • Maximise equipment 1:1 or 1:2 or 1:3
  • Reduce management time (instructions and transitions)
  • Consider using circuits and rotations
  • Circuit or Station cards
  • 3v3 small sided games
  • Flipped learning – provide instructions videos for students to check as homework


  • Provide opportunities for student choice.
  • Engage students in development of tasks and activities and assessment criteria.
  • Provide some free time or student directed learning time.
  • Try not to dominate and control.
  • Consider a range of instructional styles moving towards guided discovery practices.
  • Provide options for students to choose from within tasks.
  • Give students opportunities for leadership.
  • Student designed games and activities
  • Consider a range of teaching approaches: teacher led, peer led, self-directed.



  • Use differentiated teaching.
  • Ask students to set individual objectives/targets.
  • Set challenges appropriate to student level.
  • Consider content, process, product and learning environment.
  • Group students appropriately
  • Adapt and modify activities and tasks to engage.



  • Plan lessons which are varied in activity type and structure.
  • Use music for motivation.
  • Never use exercise as a punishment
  • Link activities to learning opportunities as opposed to boring sedentary activities.


We encourage you to access the following Open Access article that provides further expansion of the SDT and the SAAFE teaching principles.  Access the article Here >>

Questions or Comments


If you would like to discuss how SDT can help you in the classroom, head on over to our HPE Community and post your comments for more ideas and conversation.


AITSL Standards addressed in this TOTW:

  • Focus Area 1 – Know students and how they learn.
  • Focus Area 3 – Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning.



Bailey, R., Armour, K., Kirk, D., Jess, M., Pickup, I., Sandford, R., & Education, B. P. (2009). The educational benefits claimed for physical education and school sport: an academic review. Research papers in education, 24(1), 1-27. 

Lubans, D. R., Lonsdale, C., Cohen, K., Eather, N., Beauchamp, M. R., Morgan, P. J., ... & Smith, J. J. (2017). Framework for the design and delivery of organized physical activity sessions for children and adolescents: Rationale and description of the ‘SAAFE’ teaching principles. International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity14(1), 1-11. 

White, R. L., Bennie, A., Vasconcellos, D., Cinelli, R., Hilland, T., Owen, K. B., & Lonsdale, C. (2021). Self- determination theory in physical education: A systematic review of qualitative studies. Teaching and Teacher Education, 103247. 


















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