George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation in Students

Enabling students to experience accomplishments and improvement builds their feeling of competence—a powerful intrinsic motivator.

January 5, 2018
Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action (CC BY-NC.4.0)

As children come to feel effective in accomplishing something, they are more likely to try to replicate that feeling by trying to accomplish more challenging tasks. Feeling competent can be addictive. Those accomplishments are more meaningful when they are authentic, and feeling competent is itself a meaningful reward—better than a collection of stickers or small trinkets or much too scarcely distributed recognitions like “student of the month,” which can lead the majority of students to become resigned to failure despite effort.

As adults, we know there is no question that extrinsic outcomes such as bonuses or promotions have instrumental value. But if they are the only definition individuals use to define their competence, those individuals are subject to a great deal of disappointment. These forms of recognition are few and far between, and relying on them, as we know from research, likely lead to declines in performance.

This is parallel to students being graded on a curve, where their own effort and competence cannot be counted on to get to a desired recognition (an A), and to being designated as student of the month in a school year in which only 10 children to receive that recognition. In both cases, the bar is set too high for encouragement and instead is more likely to breed unhealthy competition, cheating, jealousy, and, most often, giving up.

Recognizing Improvement as a Form of Competence

Competence is not an absolute term. When we improve, we’re becoming more competent. That’s what needs to be recognized in order to encourage more improvement. One can only attain a lofty status by moving up through various levels. It’s the forward movement that we must nurture.

Students intrinsically value understanding how to do more things, helping others, and feeling a sense of accomplishment at mastering new knowledge. Extrinsic reward systems often erode the latter. Think of the impact when students bring work they’re proud of to their teachers only to get a disappointing grade, or little recognition for that C+ on a test. We must nurture children’s sense of accomplishment in authentic ways, and provide clear feedback about how they can further improve their performance. We have to be mindful not to douse a small flame just because it’s not a bonfire.

The key to preserving (not creating) intrinsic motivation is to nurture students to move to the next level. This also means that in the course of the school day, children must have a chance to do things that enable them to experience accomplishment and competence instead of feeling inadequate. Many believe that children have been constructed with a lot of resilience, so that a good day does not have to mean 90 percent performance, or even 50 percent. It’s not clear what the percentage is, and it may vary across children, but what is clear is that having some positive accomplishment every day will keep kids motivated.

Intrinsic Motivation and Service Learning

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve”—a thought that recognizes the impact and power of doing things for others. Yet service learning is underemphasized by many schools. Students derive strong intrinsic satisfaction from helping others. Students who are struggling readers feel more confident in their reading when they help others who can learn from them, perhaps because they are younger or have a particular disability.

We can help students feel more engaged and connected to their schools by giving them roles in making the school a positive environment, such as participating in safety patrols, focusing on recycling, keeping public spaces clean, upstanding in the face of harassment and bullying, being on school committees to solve problems related to gangs or drugs and alcohol, and so on. Being contributors to their school in a positive way brings intrinsic satisfaction to students and increases their sense of competence.

Tapping Into Strengths and Interests

Competence is propelled by curiosity and interest. Teachers need to nurture both. But as we know, education is not a solitary activity; it’s a team sport. So educators must work together to ask questions about where a given child is expressing interest, showing curiosity, and experiencing a sense of accomplishment during every school day. For example, if a middle school student is most captivated by art class and he or she has this for only one or two quarters, the question that must be asked is: Where will the child’s sense of competence be nurtured during those other quarters? Maybe that child needs to participate in an art club or otherwise be given opportunities to develop his or her artistic talents.

A quest for competence in any area can be addictive—and it’s an important component of student improvement. Let’s work to ensure that all students have experiences of feeling competent in school everyday.

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