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Thursday, 18 April 2019

You are here: Home > Online Articles > Motivation: What Can Physical Education Teach Us?



Motivation: What Can Physical Education Teach Us?

By Gordon Eldridge


The holy grail for many PE teachers is to get their students to enjoy physical activity so much that they actually pursue it outside of school, leading to healthier, more active lifestyles. But, how do we get that to happen? Some PE teachers I have spoken with advocate making the grade for PE largely about participation. That way students who do not yet have the skill set to get high grades in PE won’t get discouraged, or so the thinking goes. But will that really make a difference?

Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis have developed a theory of how at least one pathway towards encouraging students to engage in physical activity outside school might work. They have gathered substantial empirical support for their model, which they believe may work similarly in other subject areas. They call it the “trans-contextual model of autonomous motivation.”

What do we mean by autonomous motivation?

Autonomous motivation is defined as motivation that leads people to engage in an activity for their own reasons. It can be 100 percent intrinsic—that is, purely for enjoyment—but can also include elements of motivation that are slightly less intrinsic if the perceived outcome is something the person truly desires. This is contrasted with controlled motivation, where someone performs an action because of either obligation or reinforcement systems, such as grades.

The driving force behind motivation is the fulfillment of psychological or biological needs. In the educational context, psychological needs are paramount and Deci and Ryan’s (2000) self-determination theory outlines three such needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. So, we are motivated when we feel that the actions we undertake emanate from ourselves, when we feel sufficiently competent to have a good chance of succeeding, and when we feel that the action is supported and valued by significant others in our lives. Deci and Ryan claim that optimal motivation requires the fulfillment of all three of these needs.

How does the model work?

The trans-contextual model of autonomous motivation draws on Deci and Ryan’s theory and is based on a series of connected propositions as follows:

Proposition 1: “Perceived support for autonomous motivation predicts autonomous motivation within educational contexts” (Hagger and Chatzisarantis 2016, p. 363). Basically, this proposition suggests that if students perceive that the educational environment supports autonomous motivation, they actually experience autonomous motivation. Research has already identified some of the teacher behaviors that students perceive as supportive, which all make sense in the context of self-determination theory:

• giving students choice

• providing a meaningful rationale for activities

• avoiding controlling directives

• acknowledging students’ perspectives

• providing feedback that is both encouraging and supports the development of competence

• promoting an exploratory approach towards learning tasks.

Proposition 2: “Autonomous motivation towards activities in an educational context predicts autonomous motivation towards similar activities in an out-of-school context” (ibid., p. 368). While different causal mechanisms can be proposed for this connection, self-determination theory would suggest that the fulfillment of psychological needs through an activity in one context will lead us to seek similar fulfillment in other contexts.

Proposition 3: “Autonomous motivation in an out-of-school context predicts future intention to engage in out-of-school activities and actual behavioral engagement” (ibid., p. 369). The possible causal mechanisms here are drawn from the theory of planned behavior.
In reality, the theory proposes more precise connections and causal mechanisms than can be outlined here, but these three propositions form the core.

So does the theory actually hold true?

Hagger and Chatzisarantis conducted a meta-analysis of 19 studies into the trans-contextual model and found positive, statistically significant results across these studies in support of all three propositions. They caution that most of the studies were correlational in design and so cannot prove cause nor causal direction. However, two intervention studies manipulated autonomy support in educational contexts and both supported the model. They also caution that the majority of studies have taken place in the original context of physical education. However, two similar initiatives in the area of mathematics and homework provide promising hints that the model may also be generalizable beyond PE.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

The model and the theories it draws from suggest we need to thoughtfully consider how we support autonomous motivation in the classroom. Given the tenets of the theory of self-determination, we need to consider how we can provide choice for students, how we can support the development of the competencies that will give them a feeling of self-efficacy, how we can build the relationships with them that will help students feel valued and supported in striving towards mastery, and how we can model the value we feel ourselves for the learning we are trying to encourage. Only by doing all these things can we hope to produce the kind of motivation that may carry over into life beyond school.


Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2000) “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-determination of Behavior.” Psychological Inquiry , Vol. 11, pp. 227–268.

Hagger, M. & Chatzisarantis, N. (2016) “The Trans-Contextual Model of Autonomous Motivation in Education: Conceptual and Empirical Issues and Meta-analysis.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 86. No. 2, pp. 360–407.

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12/09/2018 - Brownie
Interesting commentary-we now provide detailed feedback based in functional roles, key factor analysis as well participation rate to embrace structured observation of observable outcomes.

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