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Home education and students’ intrinsic motivation to learn

Dr G Riley 2016: The role of self-determination theory and cognitive evaluation theory in home education

This paper by Dr Gina Riley, educational psychologist and Clinical Professor of Adolescent Special Education (at City University of New York—Hunter College), looks at the available research on self-determination theory and home education, and how home education enables the positive outcomes observed by researchers.

One of the most impressive things about home education is that in most cases learning is based on the child’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Extensive research and studies have explored the way in which intrinsically motivated learning is highly beneficial for students. Although intrinsic motivation is innate the highly influential work of Deci and Ryan says that there are three psychological needs which need to be fulfilled for self-motivation to happen. These are feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness to parents and their learning community. Home education naturally fulfils these three elements which is what makes it such an effective educational option. Traditional education does not typically support this style of learning, instead very much focusing on external rewards and disincentives. The realisation of a child’s loss of interest in learning is a factor behind many parents’ choice to home educate.

In brief

  • Within education, curiosity and engagement are important, and essential to academic success (Akey, 2006). Traditional education looks to external rewards and disincentives to drive learning.
  • The benefits of intrinsically motivated learning can be seen in home educated students in terms of academic success which tends to be better than or equal to children who went to traditional schools.(Cai, Reeve, & Robinson, 2002). Research by Cogan (2010) found home educated students tend to score higher on standardised tests and graduate at a higher rate. .
  • For many home educated families grades and tests are not an adequate way to measure success of education. Instead, success is a much deeper, lifelong outcome of understanding the “responsible exercise of freedom – the freedom to learn, to create, to grow, to be” Albert and Chilton Pearce (1999).
  • Research by Rudner (1999), Lines (2000), Blok (2004), and Cogan (2010) all found that home education could indeed be effective.
  • A 2012 study by Dr Riley compared home educated and traditionally schooled children in competence, feelings of autonomy and relatedness. The results showed higher levels of competence and autonomy in home educated students and the same levels of relatedness. Dr Riley highlighted the importance of the relatedness findings in showing that concerns about lack of socialisation were unfounded.


“It is reassuring to note that those who have been home educated have had positive outcomes when it comes to levels of intrinsic motivation and self-determination, as we know that high levels of intrinsic motivation lead to high levels of engagement, achievement, happiness, and success. Stakeholders within the realm of education should take note, as intrinsically motivated, self-directed learning truly seems to be the future of education itself.”

Read it in full

Riley, G. (2016). The role of self-determination theory and cognitive evaluation theory in home education. Cogent Education3(1), 1163651


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