Putting Theory into Practice: How Cognitive Evaluation Theory Can Help Us Motivate Children in Physical Activity Environments

Article excerpt

Hearing such comments would warm the heart of any physical educator. According to Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), a humanistic theory of intrinsic motivation, it is possible to have students who respond in such a positive manner to our physical education lessons. The basic premise of CET is that children will be intrinsically motivated to participate in an activity if (1) they believe they have some control over it, (2) feel a sense of relatedness to it, and (3) feel good about themselves while engaging in it (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Individuals are said to be intrinsically motivated when they participate in an activity for its own sake (Deci & Ryan, 1985). The potential benefit of intrinsic motivation is that children will be more likely to become actively involved in their own physical education. Sounds easy enough, but how do we make it work?

The purpose of this article is to illustrate how CET can; be put into practice. More specifically, Deci and Ryan's (1985) CET will be used to help us better understand how we can create environments that intrinsically motivate children to be physically active both during and outside of their classes. A brief summary of the theory will be presented, followed by practical suggestions for how to intrinsically motivate participants in the hope of creating children who are more active.

What Is Cognitive Evaluation Theory?

CET has four main propositions, which help to explain and predict a person's level of intrinsic motivation (table 1). Proposition I states that intrinsically motivating activities are autonomous or self-determined (Frederick & Ryan, 1995). When individuals participate in an activity in which they feel they have some control over how they achieve personal goals, their intrinsic motivation will be enhanced. Conversely, when individuals participate in an activity in which they feel controlled by external factors, intrinsic motivation is likely to decrease. Goudas, Biddle, Fox, and Underwood (1995) tested this hypothesis with the use of different teaching styles in a physical education class. The students reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation when their track-and-field instructor offered them a number of choices throughout the lesson rather than controlling every class decision. Other studies have demonstrated similar results (Deci & Olson, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Proposition II states that feelings of competence and optimal challenge enhance intrinsic motivation. Competence refers to how children feel about themselves with respect to certain domains of their life (e.g., physical abilities), while optimal challenge refers to situations where the challenge of an activity is balanced with children's abilities (Weiss & Bressan, 1985). Deci (1975) first outlined the importance of optimal challenge by suggesting that people tend to seek out optimally challenging situations because they are motivated to be self-determined and competent. Previous research has demonstrated that when children are optimally challenged by an activity, they are more likely to enjoy it and spend longer amounts of time engaging in it (Danner & Lonky, 1981; Harter, 1974; Harter, 1978). When individuals take part in activities that challenge them in a positive way (i.e., the activity is neither too hard nor too easy relative to their skill level) and make them feel self-determined in the process, th eir competence is enhanced. This enhanced competence in turn increases intrinsic motivation.

Proposition III describes the functional significance of extrinsic and intrinsic factors that can be viewed along a continuum as to their impact on intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1994). Extrinsic factors that provide positive and constructive feedback with respect to one's perceived competence promote intrinsic motivation, whereas extrinsic factors that are controlling or amotivational (i.e., that convey a sense of incompetence and helplessness) undermine intrinsic motivation. …