Intrinsic motivation in your students – have they got it?


What makes the difference between the students in the UK and those in other countries? This week, whilst the PISA results were published I saw a tweet which said some along the lines of “essentially the difference between the countries comes down to intrinsic motivation”. This got me thinking about whether the students I teach are intrinsically motivated and if not, is there anything I can do about it? Finally, does it actually matter?

Is intrinsic motivation important?

The most successful students in a recent exam were those that had emailed me questions and clarifications before the test. They did this independently. They were worried about the exam. They were bothered. They cared. But was that intrinsic motivation? Unless I speak with them about it I detail I cannot be sure. I need to find out why they did this.

Intrinsic motivation is about the learning process that a student goes through, it isn’t about being motivated to succeed to do well because of a possible reward. It is about enjoyment of learning and what it has to offer. It is separate from being academically successful in that a ‘failing’ student can have high intrinsic motivation.

I watched a fascinating clip on the BBC about students in South Korea. They showed some children who essentially were learning form 8am-11pm every day. They were shattered. They went to normal school and then to private school every day. Why? Because they feel it is the only way that they will be able to get a job when they’re older. Therefore this isn’t intrinsic motivation. It’s extrinsic. It is goal driven motivation. They may be hating the process of learning (and why wouldn’t you if you were doing it for over 12 hours a day!). Yet, has this been interpreted as intrinsic?

Could students from around the world be surveyed on intrinsic motivation, to see which countries have got this right? I assume the PISA data doesn’t record this. But it does raise a question……

Is enjoying learning more important than good results?

I did some small research into what has been already researched in this area and found some fascinating results on what develops intrinsic motivation in children.

Here is a summary of what I have interpreted from the data, and the research findings and references are below.

Implications for practice in schools

  • Consider the rewards system. Don’t reward for the ‘expected’
  • Use verbal praise & sharing of learning to reward
  • Don’t compare students with other students as a method of motivation
  • Be enthusiastic……
  • Don’t tell them you’re doing it for the money!
  • Use progression of ‘grades’ through feedback than just a ‘grade’ itself
  • Relate learning to children’s interests
  • Set high goals and measure students against their own goal
  • Give students autonomy

The research……

‘Reward students to motivate them…but not how you think’
Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001) conclude that tangible rewards do not contribute to intrinsic motivation and in fact they undermine it, especially in school aged children.The problem is that when rewards aren’t present any longer, the reason to do something, if relying on rewards, have gone.(Covington 1998). The kind of “If someone has to pay me to do this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake” attitude limits a student’s appreciation of the learning itself. It is only the potential reward that motivates.(Covington 2000)

This is supported by Cameron & Pierce (1994) who found that whilst rewards don’t decrease motivation, verbal praise as a reward does motivate. They found that giving a student a reward for doing the ‘expected’ has a negative effect.

In many cases, rewards in school create a system of ‘winning’ or getting more rewards than your peer, so it is a sense of competition that motivates, it isn’t intrinsic.(Covington 2000) Rewards don’t usually reward the process but the achievement. This goes against being motivated to learn over being motivated to achieve.

Covington (2000) however suggests that ‘pay-offs’ should be more things like the chance to share work or explain to others why their work is important. This kind of ‘reward’ is intrinsically linked to the learning, not the result itself or how they’ve done compared to others.

‘An enthusiastic teacher will motivate students’

Patrick, Hisley & Kempler (2000) found that in a small scale (93 students – 80 women & 13 men!) study that enthusiastic teachers did actually intrinsically motivate students. Other studies have shown that an enthusiastic teacher links with effective teaching.

Patrick et al (2000) even posit that the power of an enthusiastic teacher can awaken the ‘dormant’ intrinsic motivation in a student. This of course then assumes that every student has a dormant motivation, which if true, would mean that if we know how to withdraw it, we can make all students intrinsically motivated.

‘Good grades motivate’

Covington (1999) found that even if grades weren’t high it is possible for students to value learning. Covington (2000) also claims that if a student aims to get high grades just because they want to impress or avoid failure then their value of learning will not be intrinisc. However if a student is improving their grades through having feedback and then implementing it, then they appreciate the learning process itself rather than just a grade.

In contrast Covington (2000) highlights that ‘doing well’ can motivate but so can ‘not doing well’ however this again relates to achievement rather than appreciation of the process to get there.

‘Don’t tell them it’s your job’

Some research (Wild et al 1992) has found that students have more intrinsic motivation if they perceive their teacher to also have it. In one study it found that if a student believed a teacher was volunteering it was more motivating than knowing they were paid to do it. This links with enthusiasm. Unless you’re a great actor, an enthusiastic teacher will be seen to be enjoying themselves and thus be intrinsically motivated.

Deci & Ryan (1991) describe a ‘self determination’ theory which says any social context that promotes an individual’s

“Make it relevant/enjoyable for the student”

Covington (2000) says that if you make the learning relevant and enjoyable for the student they will be more interested in it and this has the potential to combat any negative grades achieved. In fact, it is better in terms of motivation for a student to be personally interested and fail than to succeed but have no interest in it.

Covington (2000) actually suggests running a school around children’s personal interests.

“Make them proud of what they do”

Covington (2000) says that a good grade makes a student feel proud and in turn increases their motivation to learn.

“Set high goals”

Covington (2000) says that a student that has a high goal but doesn’t reach it is more intrinsically motivated to improve than one that is compared to others. This is because competing against others is a ‘personal’ failure in comparison but failing to reach a goal about the goal itself. It’s almost impersonal.

Setting challenging work for students (Csikszentmi- halyi, 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1992)

“Let them take control”

Deci & Ryan, 1987, 1992; Ginsburg & Bronstein, 1993; Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Ryan & Stiller, 1991 all found that allowing students to be autonomous rather than being controlled showed greater instrincic motivation.

“An ‘academic’ home life makes a student more intrinsically motivated”

Gottfried et al (1998) found this to be true in a longitudinal study. In summary:

“Home environment had statistically positive and significant, direct and indirect paths to academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through early adolescence, indicating both short- and long-term effects across these ages. Moreover, home environment was significant above and beyond SES(Socio-Economic Status). The findings revealed that children whose homes had a greater emphasis on learning opportunities and activities were more academically intrinsically motivated” (p1448)

Does it all matter?

Gottfried (1990) summarises  that intrinsic motivation is positively related to achievement, IQ, and perception of competence. Academically gifted children were found to have more intrinsic motivation to learn.

It also links to persistence, enjoyment, involvement and curiosity.
Benware & Deci 1984, Ryan & Grolnick 1986 found that intrinsic motivation has a significant impact on high quality learning.

Covington (2000) summarises

“students are more likely to value what they are learning, and to enjoy the process, (a) when they are achieving their grade goals; (b) when the dominant reasons for learning are task oriented reasons, not self aggrandizing or failure-avoiding reasons; and (c) when what they are studying is of personal interest.” (p24)


Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again

Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard M. Ryan
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 71, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 1-27

“What’s Everybody so Excited about?”: The Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Intrinsic Motivation and Vitality

 Brian C. Patrick, Jennifer Hisley and Toni Kempler
The Journal of Experimental Education , Vol. 68, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 217-236

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation in Schools: A Reconciliation

 Martin V. Covington
Current Directions in Psychological Science , Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 22-25

Role of Cognitively Stimulating Home Environment in Children’s Academic Intrinsic Motivation: A Longitudinal Study

 Adele Eskeles Gottfried, James S. Fleming and Allen W. Gottfried
Child Development , Vol. 69, No. 5 (Oct., 1998), pp. 1448-1460

Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis

 Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 64, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 363-423
Academic intrinsic motivation in young elementary school children.
Gottfried, Adele E.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 82(3), Sep 1990, 525-538
Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study.
Gottfried, Adele Eskeles; Fleming, James S.; Gottfried, Allen W.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 93(1), Mar 2001, 3-13.
What motivates children’s behavior and emotion? Joint effects of perceived control and autonomy in the academic domain.
Patrick, B. C., Skinner, E. A., & Connell, J. P. (1993).
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,65, 781–791.

6 thoughts on “Intrinsic motivation in your students – have they got it?

  1. I think this is a great post.I am continually amazed at how many teacher bloggers are evangelical about “cognitive science”, wishing to reduce the teaching/learning process to an equation. Often these are maths/science teachers, I wonder if there is a link.

    The “yours is an inefficient method” types often expect kids to sit and listen and work because they “ought to”.

    The one thing being a kid taught me is that kids don’t often want to do what they ought to. Rather than consider the fact that these are little developing human beings, they are often seen as little robots who, if they would only behave in a sensible way, would learn so much more (maths and science often).

    One especially, who I will not name (because he/she is anonymous) repeatedly posts that kids should be made to learn, that if a kid doesn’t do what is expected by the teacher they have no right to be in the class. For these teachers it seems that motivation is an issue for the kid, if it exists at all.

    I am finding the primary blogging site to be especially refreshing, as many of the posts recognise the part that motivation plays in learning as described by cognitive scientists but conveniently ignored by the “progressive denialists”.

    Sure it is not acceptable to be rude/aggresive toward anyone in school including staff, but let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater.

    Motivation is key, especially intrinsic motivation as intrinsic motivation will lead to lifelong and independent learning.

    Learning can be engaging, fun and more likely to motivate without deflecting from the core knowledge/skills.

    Great post, thank you

    PS…we should not forget that for some Korean learners, being educated may well be the difference between life and death and this tends to focus the mind. These are also the learners with some of the highest teenage suicide rates anywhere in the world. I personally think it can a bit dangerous to look to places like Korea for ideas about motivation.

  2. The more I stare at the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction, the less I am able to see it. I’ll acknowledge that fight-or-flight is intrinsic, but anything more abstracted than that is inevitably socially moderated, and thus extrinsic to some degree. So the question for me is about the structure of that moderation.

    A couple of years ago, Jesse Schell introduced me to the concept of endogenous values, and the motivation that they can underpin. It was an absolute epiphany. I realised that simply by setting rules for how rewards can be earned, and then embedding them in a social context, I could replace grudging compliance with strong, peer-led motivation.

    Many years ago, I was using some of this with adult learners, under the guidance of a great mentor, but I was doing it unawarely. It was only after discovering this wonderful word ‘endogenous’ that started to understand what I’d been doing. I’m now applying the same ideas in software, with some success, but I think they could be pushed much, much further, to the great benefit of the learners.

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