Online Degrees Blog Teaching by Intrinsic Motivation

Teaching by Intrinsic Motivation

20 July

Teaching can be tough. Each class, each day, brings new hurdles. In the last few months alone, protocols have changed so rapidly that it feels hard to keep up.

Even on a good day, it’s a challenge to keep students motivated. How much harder is it to do so through remote learning, when the classroom cocoon has been replaced by Zoom meetings?

Experts tell us that intrinsic motivation can be a big help. Read on to explore what that is and how it works, in classrooms and online.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation involves 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.1

By contrast, extrinsic motivation is reward-driven behavior spurred by external factors.2 It involves doing something not for its inherent enjoyment, but for a separable outcome, such as receiving rewards or avoiding punishment.3

Intrinsic motivation chart

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: Is one better than the other?­­­­­

There are multiple rationales in favor of motivating children extrinsically. Educator and writer Elizabeth Mulvahill notes that life often requires us to do things we’d prefer not to, and learning to accept and complete unappealing tasks can be a valuable use of school time. Further, “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.”1

Too much external motivation, however, has its drawbacks. In her 2019 Hechinger Report article, How to Unlock Students’ Internal Drive for Learning, Tara García Mathewson says, “Offering students rewards for learning creates reliance on the reward. If [rewards] become less interesting to the student or disappear entirely, the motivation does, too.”4 Clinical psychologist Monica Frank cautions, “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.” 1

In addition, Mulvahill notes, over-reliance on external motivation leads children to compare themselves to others and place too much value on others’ opinions. She advises against always letting students look outside of themselves for validation. If that validation isn’t available, students can become unhappy and unproductive, with wounded self-esteem.1

Writing in favor of internal motivators, Mathewson cites a report from the U.S. Department of Education: “Inspiring students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is a more effective strategy to get and keep students interested. And it’s more than that. Students actually learn better when motivated this way. They put forth more effort, tackle more challenging tasks, and end up gaining a more profound understanding of the concepts they study.4

Deborah Stipek, author of the book Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice, is pragmatic about the role of extrinsic motivation: “I think most realistic people in the field say that you’ve got to have both. You can rely entirely on intrinsic motivation if you don’t care what children learn, but if you’ve got a curriculum and a set of standards, then you can’t just go with what they’re interested in.”4

The challenge of striking the right balance

Mathewson states it clearly. “The problem is that the balance, in most schools, is way off. While some schools around the country are trying to personalize learning and, in doing so, to tap into students’ interests … most teaching minimizes students’ internal desire to learn.

In traditional schools, it’s easier to offer a steady stream of rewards and punishments to keep students in line. And preparing students to succeed on state tests tends to discourage the lessons that let them explore their own interests. Educators who want to inspire intrinsic motivation have to swim against the current.”4

Tools to support teaching by intrinsic motivation

A quick internet search will yield many sites suggesting methods for motivating students intrinsically. The Davidson Institute published a list of 21 strategies5, a selection of which—applicable for classroom and distance learning—follow here.

Challenge Your Students Offer them opportunities to undertake real challenges. Encourage them to take intellectual risks. If students don’t see the need to make an effort, they may not bother to make one. Most children are excited by a challenge if they have the strategies they need to succeed.

Build on Strengths First Give students an opportunity to use their talents to achieve success by developing their strengths. Failure is unmotivating. Success is motivating when students understand why they are succeeding and are able to develop their confidence and competence.

Offer Choices That Are Equally Acceptable to You Children who make decisions are more likely to accept ownership and control of the results, which fosters responsibility. Given chances to make decisions, they learn a great deal about the consequences of their choices, and they learn to value themselves and their own decision-making ability. Wherever appropriate, take advantage of students’ talents and interests to motivate them.

Let Students Fail Without Penalty Learning how to deal with failure is critical for developing motivation and successful learning. Students should learn that they can and must learn from their mistakes. When afraid of failure, they may sabotage their own efforts deliberately, seeing deliberate failure as easier to accept than the failures to which they fall victim.

Offer Open-Ended Activities to Develop Creativity Students perform with higher motivation when their creativity is engaged. Challenge them to construct original and creative products.

Teach Self-Evaluation Self-evaluation needs to address the questions, "What was done well?" and, "How can it be improved?" It’s far more powerful for students to recognize the answers to these questions than it is for them to be told the answers.

Use Your Skills to Inspire Others

The University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences offers online master’s degrees, graduate certificates and licensure endorsement programs to prepare educators for successful careers. Learn to engage students of all ages in our Department of Curriculum and Teaching, share your gifts with students with disabilities in our Department of Special Education, or keep motivation strong in instructional teams in our Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.


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