Motivating Students: Is Intrinsic Motivation Over-rated?

Motivating Students: Is Intrinsic Motivation Over-Rated?

For years, I have unquestioningly accepted the prevailing wisdom that the holy grail in education is to have intrinsically motivated students who learn for learning’s sake.

And yet, most of us don’t do everything we do for purely intrinsic reasons.  We work at least partially for a paycheck. We drive the speed limit not because we enjoy driving 25 mph when we are in a hurry but because we don’t want to get a ticket and imperil the lives of the other drivers around us. We work weekends in order to meet deadlines and complete paperwork because its our job.  We clean behind the fridge because company is coming over and we endure family dinners with Aunt Midge so we don’t upset our mothers. In fact, very little of what we do is purely intrinsically motivated.

For years I thought the key to student engagement was to make work more interesting and yet studies have found no evidence that the interest value of material is a determinant — as opposed to a consequence — of learning. In fact, the more I read the literature on motivation, the more I am struck by one startling idea: Intrinsic motivation may be over-rated.  Two concepts have changed my mind.

The first is the idea of integrated extrinsic motivation.  The research shows that external motivators, when used correctly, can actually help people develop intrinsic motivation over time.  When students recognize the underlying value of a behavior, identify with it, and integrate it with other aspects of themselves, they will carry out the behavior independently and outside of your control — even if they are not intrinsically motivated to do so.  Although externally motivated, they are more likely to transfer to internal motivation.

In order to achieve integrated extrinsic motivation, three factors must exist. Students must feel a sense of autonomy – that they are not being forced to do the activity; they must feel that they can be successful at the activity (competence); and they must see how the activity helps them function within the classroom and outside culture (relatedness).

The second concept is emergent motivation. This theory asserts that although students may initially find an activity boring, it doesn’t mean that they will always find it so.  When they begin to see relevance in the activity or their skill set with the activity improves, and if they can find in the activity opportunities to be successful, the activity becomes more interesting and finally, enjoyable. In other words, our motivation to do something may be initially low, but we can actually grow our motivation over time.

For too long, we have been trying to get students to care about what we teach and lamenting their lack of intrinsic motivation. Turns out, the problem isn’t that our students are not intrinsically motivated.  They may never love literature the way that we do. They may never get their kicks from solving impossible math problems and spelling may never be as important to them as it is to us.  The real problem is that the way we try to motivate them externally fails and puts the work on us. We have to keep pushing them to get any work out of them at all and we are exhausted.  But what if our external motivators could be, well, more motivating?  Do we really need students to love everything we do in the classroom or is it enough that they engage for externally motivated reasons, and in doing so, learn to build their own motivation over time?

Don’t forget to leave your ideas and comments here

For more information, check out the Handbook of Competence and Motivation. (2005, Elliot, A., and Dweck, C., Eds.)

~Robyn R. Jackson

  • Frederika says:

    Your last paragraph is striking.  I have spent hours trying to get students to like and appreciate the science I teach.  Some do; some don’t.  You are right–it can become exhausting and frustrating for the teacher to keep on keeping on.  I have no fear of trying to find and apply extrinsic motivation that works, but that may be part of the problem.  I may not be using the most effective motivators for some children or for some classes.  I will have to think about this and talk to some colleagues. 

    Back in the 1980’s, I used to pay third graders to master their multiplication facts.  25 cents to demonstrate mastery of all of them through 10 x 10.  It worked wonders.  Those kids were MOTIVATED. 

    What might work similarly today with a rather unique mix of inner-city and suburban 6th graders?    

  • Angela says:

    I totally agree that external motivators help students become more intrinsically motivated.  The real issue is finding the effective external motivators that can be practically implemented.  With class sizes over 35, more teaching assignments, increased expectations around parent communication and less preparation time, some great practices are just not possible any longer.  What worked 5 or 10 years ago no longer works.  What is working with your students?

  • Barbara says:

    I know I have tried for years to get students to be excited intrinsically. I don’t know what works well for an external motivator other than “cookies”. My students eat too much junk food as it is. They sale junk food at my school every day. So cookies is not a treat any more. I must say, however, that I have been implementing best practice activities suggested by Paula Rutherford in her book, Instruction for All  Students. I use the strategies in that book in conjunction with Dinah Zikes’ foldables /  3D graphic organizers that my students simply love. These two wonderful tools are my external motivators. I use them in every teachable moment.   So far so good!

  • Sharmane says:

    I’ve got to share this article with a friend of mine who is preparing to conduct a workshop session for high school teachers here in Nassau.  She’ll be tackling how to motivate reluctant learners and would surely benefit from knowing about those three factors necessary for integrated extrinsic motivation. 

    You’ve hit the nail right on the head regarding intrinsic motivation.  It is indeed over-rated and rather utopic in nautre considering the challenges facing educators nowadays.  I’ve always tried to find the external things that would aid me in motivating my students.  Even our foundational theories in education remind us of moving from the concrete to the abstract.  Shouldn’t we then apply this also to motivation?

  • Frederika says:

    Thank you for the tips, Barbara.  I will check out the Zikes materials and the reference to Instruction for All Students.  I agree with Angela–what seemed to work in the past is not working now.  Motivationall, as well as for classroom management.  At first, I thought it was me,…   

  • John S. says:

    Your paragraph about emergent motivation gets at the heart of the matter.  For years I’ve been trying to help teachers address issues related to student motivation and in August 2009 I finally came to a relization. During a workshop I posed the following question to a group of math teachers: When was the last time you had fun in math class?  As teachers reflected, wrote, and discussed they began to realize that one of the things missing from the classroom was fun. Fun in an educational perspective, where the activities are related to the content taught, engage students in a different manner than the traditional daily routine, and have them leaving class asking the question, When can we do something like that again? I believe this idea connects to the second part of your paragraph because if we can get the students having fun they may “begin to see relevance in the activity or their skill set with the activity improves, and if they can find in the activity opportunities to be successful, the activity becomes more interesting and finally, enjoyable. In other words, our motivation to do something may be initially low, but we can actually grow our motivation over time.”

  • James S. says:

    Bravo!!!! Finally, I don’t feel like an outsider anymore. I thought it was just us geeks in the Science and Math Departments that understood this. Some of you mention that you have increased responsibilities, including increasing communication with parents. That last bit is one of the things you need to generate some positive extrinsic motivation. Use the parent as your extrinsic motivator. Let them know what is going on in the class. In addition, if we all went to create a school, just the 6 of us [Robyn and the 5 of us who have left comments so far], we would all agree to have the same level of rigor throughout the classes, including, if required, presenting the students with instruction in how to take notes and study. I honestly believe that we missed the boat because we thought that somewhere in their past [I teach secondary students], they were learning how to take notes. I don’t think that is the case. Nor are they taught how to study properly. While I don’t believe I should be doing that in Chemistry, I also believe that if it hasn’t been done, I can certainly do it. I do know that if we were all consistent, ensured that homework was given, and then worked to ensuring they knew how to study, and , perhaps, even establish an area where they can study after school, then there should be no issues to management, expectations, etc.  There is a book by Dr. Sylvia Rimm called Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades that really provides some clear information and assistance into how to reverse undermotivated children. We all need to start those programs. Together, we can reverse the trend. I don’t think that only one of us can.

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