In a perfect world, students would possess strong internal, or intrinsic, motivation to achieve their best futures. They would sit in rapt attention during class, excitedly completing reading and homework out of a pure desire to learn.
A student’s level and source of motivation is unique to him or her
In the real world, students aren’t Stepford-like in their diligence. Their personal desires and motivations are as unique as they are. While a handful of students might have strong internal motivation to achieve academically, it is likely that their peers lack the motivation they need to excel.
Teachers and parents want students to possess an intrinsic desire to master skills and knowledge. However, for many students, it is necessary to develop intrinsic motivation by first experiencing external, or extrinsic, motivation.
Extrinsic motivation defined
Extrinsic motivation is characterized by factors that are external to the self. The student is motivated to learn or achieve not by personal interest or desire for growth, but from a desire to please others by meeting expectations set by parents, teachers, or factors like a desired GPA.
External motivation can also involve punishment and reward. Students might fear the punishment associated with getting a poor grade (whether it is the grade itself or discipline by parents) or desire the reward that comes alongside a high GPA. Either way, a students’ desire to learn doesn’t motivate him or her; instead, the incentive is the fear of failure or glow of success.
The pros and cons of external motivation for students
Using extrinsic motivation to push students toward wanting to achieve can be effective, but it is also quite fickle. They can quickly lose interest in both promised rewards and punishment, forcing the stakes to be raised. If the reward system is removed, student motivation often declines as a result.
Studies from the Mathematical Association of America and others show that providing students with extrinsic motivation can be problematic because the reward is the sole reason for participation. Once the reward is removed, interest diminishes entirely.
Intrinsic motivation defined
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is characterized by a deep-seated interest in a topic and an understanding of its relevance. Students desire to learn not just to achieve a grade or earn a reward, but because they want to expand their knowledge. Students who are intrinsically motivated read for assignments, but also do so because they enjoy it and want to gain mastery of a subject.
Strategies to foster internal motivation
Intrinsic motivation can be difficult to foster in students since it stems from individual desires that vary from person to person. However, many teachers and parents use extrinsic motivation initially in the hopes that it will turn into intrinsic motivation.
Teachers and parents can use these techniques to foster intrinsic motivation:
- Model enthusiasm and interest in subjects in order to get students excited to learn
- Create projects and assignments that students can tailor to their interests to increase investment in the education process
- Use tests to assess knowledge and avoid grading on a curve in order to give students an equal chance for success
- Praise students frequently (and fairly) and provide constructive criticism as needed
Combine internal and external motivation for an optimal outcome
Research has found that optimal outcomes are achieved by establishing a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation helps students become driven and competitive, while intrinsic motivation supports seeking knowledge for its own sake. Ultimately, fostering both types of motivation helps students develop good study habits and an investment in learning.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.