In the context of learning, intrinsic motivation is the motivation that stems not from external factors like grades and status, but rather from genuine interest and ambition. Like altruism, it assumes no reward. But – like altruism – it is difficult to corroborate. Even if Sally, your best student, completes the Extra Credit assignment out of pure enjoyment, it doesn’t mean she isn’t expecting external rewards like approval and attention.
Some psychologists go so far as to claim that intrinsic motivation doesn’t exist. Professor Steven Reiss at Ohio State University believes that human motivations can’t be forced into one category or the other and labeled as good or bad.
“We are taking many diverse human needs and motivations, putting them into just two categories, and then saying one type of motivation is better than another,” he says. “But there is no real evidence that intrinsic motivation even exists.”
The argument is that people should do something because they enjoy it, and that rewards only sabotage natural desire.
“There is no reason that money can’t be an effective motivator, or that grades can’t motivate students in school,” he says. “It’s all a matter of individual differences. Different people are motivated in different ways.”
But is this still true in the 21st century?
“That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th-century tasks, but for 21st-century tasks, that mechanistic, reward and punishment approach doesn’t work.”
The same can be said for operating systems in learning environments. Good grades and test scores may get a student into university, but then what? Where will the ambition and creativity come from when the right answer no longer cuts it? When must a graduate no longer find a job but invent one? True, we are all motivated by different things – mostly external factors, to be fair – but it’s the desire to keep trying when no reward is offered that makes intrinsic motivation such a powerful force, because at that point, shortcuts don’t exist. Quality is the only player.
So how can we cultivate this trait in our students? How can we help the bored students become engaged, and urge the extrinsically motivated to operate independently of rewards?
- Rethink Reward. Science has proven that for simple, mechanistic tasks, reward incentivizes students to perform well, but for tasks that require thinking outside the box, reward leads to poor performance.
- Atlassian Autonomy. The Australian software company Atlassian holds “FedEx Days” where engineers are expected to work on anything they want for 24 hours, then report back to the group. Many of their most lucrative ideas are born in these “overnight deliveries” of creativity. Try something like this with your students.
- Make Mastery Cool. As Ashton Kutcher revealed to us all in a recent Teen Choice Awards speech, “The sexiest thing in the world is being smart.”
- A Higher Purpose. Students who feel that they are working towards the greater good, or something larger than themselves, may have an easier time staying motivated.
- Make students feel like education is a choice, not a requirement. You know the bunch of non-engaged students. As simple as it sounds, reminds them that they are making the right choice by showing up and working hard.
- Don’t use fear of punishment as a motivator. Despite what you read in The Prince, fear is not always the best motivator, especially for learners. The fear of failing a subject certainly has its place but should not be used as a substitute for intrinsic motivation.
- For learning management, expect self-direction, not compliance. It happens – classes get out of hand. Even online ones. But motivating students to follow the rules by threatening or goading won’t help your students in the long run. Help them become more self-directed so that they end up complying as a result of their own genuine efforts.
- Visualize and Conquer. Have your students visualize a moment in their lives when they felt very proud of themselves for an accomplishment. Then let them loose on a task.
- Make every student feel capable. This may be a simple point, but it’s surely one of the most important. Some students feel incapable of completing a task before they even try it. The power of “You can do it” has perhaps been diluted over the years. Try “You’re capable,” which speaks not only to the task at hand but to the student’s sense of self-worth.
- Cooperation and Competition: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where students gain satisfaction from helping their peers and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others.
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Post by Saga Briggs
Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels and has researched and written extensively about cognitive models of writing pedagogy. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, OR.