Understanding Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

What’s the magic formula?

intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

In today’s fast-paced world, engaging students is a major challenge for teachers. Oftentimes, it’s all about finding the proper motivation. But which type of motivation are we talking about? Intrinsic motivation? Extrinsic motivation? Or perhaps a combination of both? Here, some clarification of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and a few suggestions to help you inspire your students. 

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is doing something for the sake of personal satisfaction. The primary motivator is internal (i.e. you don’t expect to get anything in return). You are intrinsically motivated when you do something simply because it makes you feel good, is personally challenging, and/or leads to a sense of accomplishment. For example, a student may be intrinsically motivated to read because it satisfies their curiosity about the world and brings them a sense of calm. Intrinsic motivation is doing something “just because.”  

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is doing something to earn a reward or to avoid a punishment. The primary motivator is external (i.e. you expect to get something for completing a certain task, or you want to avoid a consequence for not doing something). For example, a student studies for a test because they want to earn a good grade. Or they mind their behavior because they don’t want to lose their recess. Students choose behaviors not because they enjoy them or find them satisfying, but in order to get something in return or avoid an adverse outcome.

Does extrinsic motivation work?

As educators, we have heard a lot about the downside of extrinsic motivation. Studies have shown that extrinsic motivation produces only short-term effects, at best. One study out of Princeton University goes so far as to say, “External incentives are weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run.”  

Does it create dependencies?

Another criticism is that sometimes kids get hooked on the rewards that come with extrinsic motivation. According to Monica Frank, PhD, “The more children are provided rewards for activities that have natural reward, the more they will expect reward and be unable to set or achieve goals without that extrinsic motivation.” We’ve all had students that demand to know “What are we doing this for?” or “What do we get if we complete this task?” If we provide the “why” for our students too frequently, we stand in the way of them becoming independent learners.

Does extrinsic motivation affect a student’s self-esteem?

When children rely too much on external motivation, they learn to compare themselves to others and may give too much weight to other people’s opinions. Do I have as many stickers as Mary? Is my teacher happy with me because I did the assignment the right way? If students are always looking outside of themselves for validation, they will be unhappy and unproductive when that validation is not readily available, and their self-esteem can suffer.   

Is there room for both?

Common sense shows us that extrinsic motivation is not always a bad thing, particularly when it comes to teaching children. In fact, it can sometimes be extremely beneficial, particularly in situations where students need to complete a task that they find unpleasant. In the classroom, just as in real life, there are many things we have to do that, if given the choice, we would not. Sometimes the right incentive serves as the hook that gets students invested in learning. And, we can’t forget: Kids are still developing and building up their bank account of experiences that provide the basis for intrinsic motivation. So if they need a little external motivation to master a new skill or tread into unfamiliar territory, that’s okay.

Bottom line: The key is finding the right balance.

So how can teachers spark their students’ intrinsic motivation?

The word intrinsic means to come from inside, so it seems counterintuitive to imply that we can train a student to be intrinsically motivated. While we cannot change who a student is as an individual, we can can create the optimum environment to encourage students to develop their own motivation muscles. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. 

1. Know your students.

Get to know your kids as individuals and discover what they’re interested in and how they learn best. Then design your instruction around these motivating factors. Change up your instruction to keep kids engaged and interested. Provide a mix of independent, partner, and group work. Use technology. Incorporate art. Keep your finger on the pulse of your students and adjust as necessary.

2. Give them ownership of their environment.

Involve your students in creating the guiding principles of your classroom community. Work together to establish the optimal learning environment for that particular group of individuals. Like all humans, your students are more likely to take care of something they helped to create.

3. Make sure they have a solid foundation.

Explicitly teach basic skills so that students have a solid foundation of knowledge to build upon. Intrinsic motivation will come from being able to tackle complex tasks. Build up students’ confidence and make sure they have the resources they need before they begin.

4. Practice setting goals.

Tap into the power of setting goals with—not for—your students. According to literacy consultant Lindsey Barrett, “Research spanning decades shows that setting student goals improves both motivation and achievement, encourages a growth mindset, and also supports the development of skills students need to be prepared for their future careers.”

5. Give specific feedback.

Give students feedback that focuses on their strengths instead of their weaknesses and be as specific as you possibly can. Instead of saying “great job!” or “you’re so smart,” tie your comments directly to the student’s effort. For example, “Your essay turned out so well because you created an excellent outline to work from,” or “Your conclusion from the science lab was so insightful because you made very keen observations.”

6. Tap into their innate curiosity.

Encourage students to take on assignments simply because they want to know more, instead of feeling required to do so just to receive a grade. Establish a Genius Hour as part of your curriculum to give students the opportunity to direct their own learning. 

7. As much as possible, allow students choice in their work.

In his book The Highly Engaged Classroom, Dr. Robert Marzano touts the importance of student choice. He states that when students are given choices, they perceive classroom activities as more important. This increases their intrinsic motivation for putting in effort and going deeper with their learning. 

8. Make the connection between classroom activities and real-world situations.

Maybe one of your students wants to be an engineer when they grow up. If so, they need to have a solid understanding of math concepts. Knowing that what they’re studying will help them meet their goals in the future will boost your students’ intrinsic motivation.

9. Get out of the way.

Trust your students to find their own way as often as possible. Your work as a teacher is to lay the groundwork and provide a framework for the work to be done. Michael Linsin shares this gentle but powerful way to increase students’ learning, motivation and independence: “Prepare them for success with spot-on instruction, to be sure,” he advises. “But then fade into the background. Independent practice is critical to learning, and offering too much help is often more problematic than not giving enough.”

What are your thoughts on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Come share your ideas on our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE.

And for more tips on motivating your students, check out 24 Ways to Motivate Beginning Readers and Students’ Biggest Motivation Killers.

Understanding Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Posted by Elizabeth Mulvahill

Elizabeth Mulvahill is a passionate teacher, writer and mom who loves learning new things, traveling the globe and everything Zen.

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