Can Self-determination Theory be Used to Increase College Student Retention?


  • Agnieszka D. Zak-Moskal
  • Mark J. Garrison


This paper first introduces self-determination theory (SDT) to retention researchers and higher education professionals. Highlighted are the three basic psychological needs, that when met, are theorized to give rise to intrinsic motivation, which is associated with high levels of human performance. These are the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This theoretical overview is followed by a discussion of how this theory has been applied to understand the role of intrinsic motivation in fostering educational success. An outline of how SDT can be applied to increase college student retention is presented. The second part of the paper applies the understanding of self-determination theory to interpret and better understand the results of a focused literature review of 12 retention research articles. This interpretation suggests that meeting or failing to meet the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness proposed by SDT may explain the results of research reviewed. It is theorized that college environments that meet all three psychological needs postulated by SDT will increase student retention beyond what prior approaches have achieved.






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