The importance of self-determination theory for medical education

Geoffrey C. Williams, Ronald B. Saizow, Richard M. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


While some theories of human motivation focus exclusively on levels of motivation, self-determination theory argues that different types of motivators, even when the resulting motivation is high, will lead to very different outcomes. This theory differentiates between two primary kinds of motivation, controlled and autonomous. Controlled motivation depends either on explicit or implicit rewards or punishment or on people's internalized beliefs about what is expected of them. Learning in controlled situations, in which students act under pressure and anxiety, is likely to be rote, short- lived, and poorly integrated into students' long-term values and skills. In contrast, autonomous motivation, as its name implies, is personally endorsed and reflects what people find interesting and important. While controlled motivation involves compliance with pressures, autonomous motivation involves behaving with a sense of volition, agency, and choice. Autonomously motivated learning leads to better educational outcomes. There is evidence that medical students who learn in autonomy-supportive environments act in more autonomy- supportive ways in their interactions with patients. Because the reliable implementation of practice guidelines and physicians' use of an autonomy- supportive style have been associated with more positive health outcomes (particularly in the behavior-related areas of smoking cessation, weight loss, etc.), more autonomy-supportive medical education may result in more effective health care delivery.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)992-995
Number of pages4
JournalAcademic Medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1999


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