Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation. | Ecology of Education

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation.


One of the most difficult tasks a teacher faces is motivating students to learn. While some students have a natural love of learning, others arrive at a class under protest and act as if they’re being tortured rather than taught. Teachers must find a way to motivate these challenging students.

A teacher can tap into two basic types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation occurs when the student pursues learning due to their interest in a specific topic. MBA Online states that having the motivation to execute ideas you’re deeply interested in is an important skill to have when starting a business or looking for a job. For example, a student who wants to be an astronaut when they grow up will exert extra effort into their astronomy class just because they’re interested in the topic. Giving positive feedback frequently can instill intrinsic motivation, as can using the students’ interests to teach a subject. Another example would be a student interested in dinosaurs will have a greater interest in learning about types of plants if they are given a chance to set up a dinosaur habitat with plants they’ve chosen to support dinosaur life.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the students. A student who makes an A and gets $10 for it may want to make more A’s to make more money. Because of this, many teachers set up reward systems for reading a certain number of books, for completing homework or for successfully finishing learning tasks. While this may sound like a falsified form of educating children, the end result may be the same; students end up learning the same amount of material regardless of how they are motivated to do so. However, research into the long-term gains, or lack thereof, with such an approach should caution teachers against overuse.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have their benefits and drawbacks. Intrinsic motivation can be difficult to tap into because of its personal nature. In some cases, students may be dealing with difficulties in their personal lives that use up their energy and leaves little room for academic enthusiasm. In those cases, some interest in the subject can often be encouraged by a teacher willing to show concern for the student. One first step is to listen to your students, get to know them, their interests, and their dreams. Use these “data” points to tailor curricula to help hook them into the topic.

Cultivating and maintaining intrinsic motivation is a life-long skill that all students can develop. Although grade school is typically a place for students to learn fundamentals of a wide range of topics, teachers must also help students learn how to learn. Understanding research methods, how to analyze texts, and ways to study for tests are all just as important as learning the Pythagorean theorem. Adults often have tasks at work or home that must be done even though they will receive no outside payment or recognition. Learning to be satisfied with a job well done is an important part of growing up.

Extrinsic motivation is much easier to establish once the teacher knows what the student is willing to work for. Whether it is stickers, a bit of extra free time or some sort of prize, students usually have a reward they value. An extrinsic reward system can teach students to put in hard work in order to get a reward, another life skill. However, in jest, a downside to extrinsic motivation is that it can get expensive for the motivator. The real problem, though, is that extrinsic motivation works in the short term, but it does little to light (and keep lit) the fire of curiosity that leads to life long learning. It may be that the book a teacher bribes a student to read hooks them into reading, however, there is little guarantee of this. Better to find books that link naturally with the student’s interest and provide multiple entry points for that student to engage in the topic in a meaningful and relevant context.

For the teacher balancing the pace of a fast moving curriculum with a desire to make learning fun and engaging, perhaps the best motivation system is one that provides both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. While students may get tangible rewards for their work, they also get positive feedback and chances to explore their own interest within the scope of their subject. For example, a teacher might let students choose their own topic for a research project related to their subject area. Hopefully students get intrinsic motivation from picking a topic they are interested in and having a choice in how they will approach the topic. When students display the final product of their research, they get the extrinsic motivation of a grade and perhaps even the positive attention of their peers.

While motivation is often a challenging task for teachers, the rewards of having students who are interested and eager to learn make the hard work worth the effort. By combining intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, teachers can help students learn the subject at hand as well as valuable life skills.

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61 Responses to “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation.”

  1. Satyapande
    January 18, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    For example, a student who wants to be an astronaut when they grow up
    will exert extra effort into their astrology class just because they’re
    interested in the topic.Astrology ??? why should a student who is interested in becoming an astronaut be even considering reading horoscopes… May be the author possibly means astronomy….

    • Anonymous
      January 18, 2012 at 11:09 am #

      Ha ha. Whoops. Missed that edit. Thanks for pointing it out. I think you are right that Marina meant astronomy. Cheers. 

  2. January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation. #fhuedu610

  3. January 19, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    The Challenge of Motivation. Related: #education

  4. January 19, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    RT @kdwashburn: The Challenge of Motivation. Related:

  5. January 20, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    @PrincipalBerry: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation. <- I use more intrinsic motivation.

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  20. April 5, 2017 at 5:02 am #

    A student who makes an A and gets $10 for it may want to make more A’s to make more money. Because of this, many teachers set up reward systems for reading a certain number of books, for completing homework or for successfully finishing learning tasks.

    >> thats just like my childhood. My mother paid me for good grades, and it worked really good

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  36. June 13, 2017 at 11:27 am #

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