Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts Honours


School of Psychology and Social Sciences


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Dr Ken Robinson


Self-Determination Theory (SDT, Deci & Ryan, 2000) is a macro-theory of motivation that has received much support from empirical research in the last twenty years. One of its main tenets is that the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs-autonomy, competence and relatedness-is universally required for the attainment of optimal psychological well-being, health, growth and self-determined behaviour. Higher education in Australia, through its outcomes-based approach to academic success, is not typically designed to promote student autonomy. Self-Determination Theory posits that promoting students' autonomy should lead to better quality of learning, higher intrinsic motivation to study, lower attrition and enhanced subjective well-being. A number of journal articles testing these hypotheses within the context of higher education are reviewed, overall showing strong support despite common methodological issues. Teacher autonomy support emerges as an important behavioural determinant of students' basic need satisfaction and its associated academic benefits. Several studies, including a few experimental designs, outline specific teacher behaviours that tend to be perceived as autonomy-supportive by students, and lead to these associated benefits. The need to focus on students' perceptions rather than on teacher behaviour is highlighted. Subjective vitality, a salient and accessible measure of subjective well-being, is proposed as an important and measurable aspect of students' perceptions. Research in the field of sport shows support for SDT's postulate that subjective vitality is enhanced when autonomy, competence and relatedness are supported, and suggests that this relationship should also hold true in the higher education context. Deci and Ryan's (2000) self-determination theory (SDT) is a testable, empirical framework for exploring the underlying processes involved in healthy psychological development that naturally develops from self-determined, autonomous behaviour. SDT posits that the consistent satisfaction of three innate and universal psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) leads to self-determined behaviour, and to higher subjective well-being and vitality in all domains of life, including higher education. Despite the abundant research on SDT in the last two decades, no study has specifically tested the effects of psychological need satisfaction on subjective vitality in a higher education context. The present research tested this postulate of SDT by collecting self-report measures of perceived autonomy, competence, relatedness and subjective vitality from 179 students enrolled in an undergraduate psychology course at a Western Australian university. The Basic Psychological Needs Scale was simplified and improved following difficulties in establishing a coherent factor structure. Using Structural Equation Modelling, the SDT-based model provided a good fit for the data, even after paths and variances were constrained to match the findings of another study in a different context. Contrary to expectations, only competence was a significant predictor of subjective vitality. Additionally, students under 21 years of age reported feeling significantly less competent than their older peers. These results suggest that the SDT model is valid for Higher Education, and that students' psychological needs and subjective vitality are worth measuring alongside traditional outcome-based measures of academic success.