Research Summary

An empirical test of self-determination theory as a guide to fostering environmental motivation

Course Decreases Students’ Lack of Motivation to Engage in Pro-Environmental Behavior

Environmental Education Research

As researchers work to understand the drivers of human behavior, an important application of their work is in environmental education (EE) settings, where educators work to encourage behaviors that promote sustainability. This paper applies a theory of human motivation to environmental motivation and presents a study designed to test whether an environmental biology course guided by this theory increases students’ determination to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation. This theory has two essential parts: The first part says that the motivation behind human behaviors exists along a continuum, ranging from a lack of motivation to motivation that is self-determined. Researchers refer to a lack of motivation as amotivation. At the other end of the spectrum are integrated regulation, where a behavior has become part of one’s identity, and intrinsic regulation, where performing a behavior brings one pleasure. According to SDT, behaviors that fall under integrated regulation and intrinsic regulation are most likely to be sustained, even when these behaviors are hard to do. These are known as self-determined behaviors.

The second part focuses on self-determination. The claim is that behaviors are most likely to become self-determined when the context in which they are valued meets a person’s three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The need for autonomy is met when one feels they have choices and that any rules are reasonable and well explained. The need for competence is met when a person feels that they are capable of achieving their goal. Relatedness comes about when a person feels that they belong in and are valued by a group. An EE context would fulfill all three of these basic psychological needs if students were able to choose and explain their own pro-environmental behaviors (autonomy), if the curriculum allowed for discussion and authentic problem-solving (competence), and if there were space for diverse perspectives and everyone’s contributions were valued (relatedness).

The author hypothesized that an environmental course designed and taught with the explicit intention of providing students with a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness would foster self-determination toward pro-environmental behaviors more than a course without those specific goals. To test this, the author compared two sections of a community college environmental biology course, one of which was guided by the principles of SDT and the other of which was not. The two course sections covered the same topics and used the same textbooks. However, in the SDT-guided section, students worked collaboratively in small groups, chose local environmental issues to explore in depth, used their everyday knowledge to develop solutions to the problems, and engaged in reflective activities. To measure the degree of students’ self-determination toward pro-environmental behaviors, the author administered a questionnaire to participants at the beginning of the course, immediately after the course, and six months after the course.

Although the author expected students in the SDT-guided section of the course to have higher scores on the items related to self-determined behavior, this was not the case. What the questionnaire did reveal, however, was that students in the SDT-guided section had a larger decrease in their levels of amotivation from the beginning of the course to the end than did the students in the comparison section. This suggests that designing and teaching EE courses with attention to students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness has the potential to decrease students’ environmental amotivation, or lack of motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. The author concedes that further research is needed to determine the specifics of how an SDT-guided course diminishes students’ amotivation.

The Bottom Line

This study suggests that, if properly structured, education programs can reduce students’ amotivation, or lack of motivation, toward pro-environmental behaviors. Specifically, the findings suggest that EE provides students with autonomy, competence, and relatedness and helps encourage pro-environmental behavior. When students are given some measure of choice over the issues studied, allowed to engage in authentic problem-solving, and see that everyone’s contributions and perspectives are valued, they are more likely to become motivated to engage in behaviors that are good for the environment.