School Satisfaction: The Roles of Self-Determination and Achievement Goal Theory

Growing up, I attended three middle schools and three high schools.  I struggled to find a school where I felt I could express my honest thoughts in class (I loved to debate), and had some say regarding my schedule and the interests I wanted to pursue.  I entered each new school with hope: maybe here, I thought, I could make my own decisions about who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to learn.  Each time, however, I was disappointed, as I found each school to be similar in this regard than the last.  Despite toting values such as “independence” and “freedom of expression,” I found the schools I attended in middle and high school to function more like monarchies.  I had little say in my educational experience.  To my parents’ credit, they continued to try to help me find the right fit, but the collective efforts were not effective.  To me, I had not yet found a school where I could make my own choices about my education, which left me unmotivated to attend.

This changed, however, when I got to college.  I found college presented an environment where I was motivated to learn and appreciated the freedom given to do so in my own way.  Due to this, I pursued all of my assignments intently and was invested in my work and studies.  This shift from my experiences in high school to college is likely attributable to the self-determination theory.  Self-determination theory states that intrinsic motivation, driven by forces such as autonomy, a feeling of belonging, and the ability to make choices without undue external pressure, leads to increased academic performance (Gruman, Schneuder, & Coutts, 2016).  In other words, such autonomy and intrinsic motivation lead to intrinsic empowerment, followed by academic accomplishment.  I found this to be true when I started attending college, as I was finally able to have the autonomy I craved, and the opportunity to learn without the pressure to do so in a particular way, as I had in high school.  Specifically, rather than having a set schedule, as I did in high school, in college I have been able to create my own study schedule, and take ownership of my work, rather than having a class schedule I only minimally contributed to making.  Thus, self-determination theory explains one of the reasons why I feel much happier in college than I did in high school.

Further, another reason I have enjoyed college much more than high school has to do with my mastery goal style.  As we learned, achievement goal theory is the motivation behind academic achievement (Gruman, Schneuder, & Coutts, 2016).  This achievement can be mastery-oriented of performance-oriented, with the former being motivated by learning the material (intrinsic), and the latter motivated by success in relation to others (extrinsic).  While I hold some of each of these motivations–as both having mastery over the material and concretely performing well are important to me–I would say I am more mastery-oriented.  I felt I was not able to utilize this style in high school, however, which led to my feeling out of place and unhappy with my school situation.  I felt it was rarely encouraged to debate and ask questions, and I, therefore, was not able to engage with the material in the way I needed to in order to learn.  In college, however, I have found professors to be open to questions, and enjoy getting into detail about various subjects.  Thus, I feel I can use my more mastery-oriented achievement style, rather than suppressing it.  This has greatly contributed to enjoying my college academic experience.

Learning about self-determination theory and achievement goal theory has helped me understand my educational experience, and why I was so unhappy in high school.  While I always knew that I needed autonomy in order to do as well as I could, learning about self-determination theory explained this feeling.  The self-determination afforded to me in college–and Penn State’s World Campus, specifically–an ability to finally feel at home in my educational experience–a feeling I had never had before.  Further, understanding achievement goal theory put my academic goals in perspective–as I was not aware that my mastery-orientation was contributing to my lack of satisfaction in high school.  Thus, these two theories have helped me understand not only why my experience has been so different in high school than in college, but also the factors I will need (e.g. autonomy in pursuing my work, the willingness of professors to answer questions and be open to discussion as a way to engage with the material) in future academic pursuits to be happy in my educational experience.





Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (2017). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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