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How and Why Intrinsic Motivation Works

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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We are more aware than ever that student motivation and engagement is essential for lasting learning. But there is less discussion of how and why intrinsic motivation works. In fact, when we talk about "motivating students," we lose sight of the fact that they are already motivated -- just often not to do what educators want them to do!

That's why understanding intrinsic motivation is so important. We need to work with students' motivational systems more than impose motivation from the outside (i.e. extrinsically).

Deci and Ryan on Intrinsic Motivation

There is an intrinsic need for personal autonomy, self-determination, and to feel that one is choosing one's behavior, vs. being controlled externally. The work of Edward Deci and William Ryan, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, has been the exemplar in elaborating on the importance of what has come to be called "intrinsic motivation."

Choice is an essential element in feeling a sense of control. But when choices are offered, individuals need to have the information necessary for making a meaningful decision, not simply choosing between unclear options. Children also don't benefit much from choice when there likely are constraints after a choice is made. Notice the difference between #1 and 2, and #3 and 4.

  1. What kind of book would you like to read?
  2. What would you like to do at recess?
  3. Do you want to focus on the Battle of Vicksburg or what happened at Antietam?
  4. Do you want to show what you learned by writing an essay, writing out an interview script, or writing the script for a video documentary?

To generate more visible enthusiasm, as well as compliance under less monitoring, try to give instructions in autonomy-supportive ways, vs. conventional, controlling ways:

  • Example: Cleanup by young children after an art project
  • Controlling: "Keep the materials neat; don't mix up the colors; don't get any paint on the floor; be sure your smocks stay on."
  • Supportive: "I know sometimes it's fun to slop the paint around, but we need to keep the materials and the room nice for the other children who will use them."

This, of course, may seem familiar as Diana Baumrind's empirically supported "authoritative" approach to parents speaking with children. That approach includes a rationale they can understand for why a limit is being set.

Giving Corrective Feedback: It's All in How It's Done

For those who believe that intrinsic motivation is incompatible with negative feedback, and will ignore poor performance, the answer is that it's all in how it is done. The operative concept is constructive feedback.

The basic approach is to respect the child's dignity and competence. First, ask students to reflect on their own performance, what they did in a particular situation, how they approached a test, etc. That authentic conversation, where there is a trusting environment, will often lead to an understanding of the problem that can then be supported or refined as needed.

Next, follow with the open-ended question: What can you/we do next time so that this will not happen the same way again?

Giving students the first pass at corrective action deeply respects dignity and competence, and does not prevent friendly and constructive adult amendment of the student's plans, along with a check-in for accountability.

Keep Experimenting

If the open-ended question does not work, the next approach is to give some choices about what the student thinks might have been going on. That also respects dignity and also the possibility that students are not used to being asked to self-evaluate or do not trust the open-ended approach. Those choices can be followed by the statement, "Or, do you think there is something else going on?"

If neither of these work, feedback can be provided in an electronic message format. Often, I have found it useful to say, "Well, I would like you to think more about what we have discussed, and we will meet to talk more about it later/tomorrow/another time period as appropriate." But if this does not work, then the e-message is, "It looks to me as if x, y, z happened. When that happens, there are a, b, c consequences for you and others. What do you think? Am I understanding this correctly?"

The commitment to preserve the child's dignity and turn negative feedback situations into constructive feedback situations comes from the belief that it is a developmental right and necessity to nurture at least some areas of children's competence and possibility.

This is beyond the task of each individual teacher to accomplish effectively in isolation. Have conversations with your colleagues about each individual student's "day at school," and help each student have an affirming experience in school each day; this is no less important in grade 12 than it is at pre-K, or any time in between.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Erin's picture

Hi Darryl, this is a very difficult issue for many of our schools, Urban and otherwise. Two solutions we tried that seem to have a positive affect was first thinking of school as a place for work-place readiness. This is how we work together to accomplish our goals. For us one of the biggest hurdles was getting the entire school staff on board. Each student was respected and there was a way we dealt with problem behaviors. We created and environment of respect for all. The second thing we did that seemed effective was developing peer leadership with the school. The peer leaders where a mix of youth (not just the best academically or behaviorally) and we gave them a voice. They also served in our behavior labs and worked with younger students to change less than positive behavior patterns. After school programs where offered in a variety of topics and sessions. On session was about career readiness, what do you want to be and what do you did to do to reach that goal. We gave students the skills and tools they needed and then practiced with them applying them in all areas of their lives. Was it 100% successful, No but at the end of five years our graduation rates increased, our suspensions rates decreased significantly and the overall connected-ness to school occurred. Kids cared about their school and their teachers.

We also worked with parents/caregivers. We invited parent/caregiver to participate in active ways with meetings before or after school offering food and child care. We had facilitators who spoke spanish, and as much as we could actively pursued our parents to feel welcomed in the school. Our sessions where also available on TV through the local cable company.

It took a good five years for us to see the outcomes but when we did we were thrilled. I think of the biggest take away for me was the idea of team (students/staff/teachers/(parents if you can ) ) we have to care about each other, feel safe, provide skills and empathy and always inspire hope.

Darryl McMillon's picture

Erin, I'm interested in reviewing your past work over that 5-year period. Is there a written overview of the efforts both within the school, during afterschool programming and at home with family members of the students? My program I worked for was 180 Degrees as an exchange of background. I've been out of the field for about 3 years but can't walk away from my personal life ambition, namely to head up multi-million dollar fund development efforts to hire, train and engage surrogate mentors to both teach SEL and act as "life coaches" for children from difficult upbringings. Any help as I reenter this field would be most welcomed.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Darryl, I think it's essential to help parents and caregivers build skills in order to support their students. I think mentorship is awesome but must be paired with efforts to help parents feel supported and develop their own social-emotional and decision-making skills. One first step is to look to the community to see if there are people already doing that work with adults (your local mental health nonprofit might be a good place to start) and then form a school partnership with them. Another place might be to look at who from the school is supporting home-school connections - and if the answer is no one, that's a good role to develop, or support teachers to make those connections. Most importantly...ask the parents! What do they need to help support their children?

Christi's picture

What a wonderful and informational article. We must always remember being positive and giving students the tools they need to succeed. Student motivation is so important. We need to build student's self-esteem and support them with constructive feedback.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

We can wait for parents to do what we might like them to do, or we can provide what we know children need developmentally. If parents are unable to read English, we do not wait for them to get up to speed before building their children's reading competencies in school. So it is with social-emotional competencies and character. We are teaching students the skills and dispositions they need for success in school. Regardless of what goes on in their homes and communities-- and we know that the more supportive and congruent with SEL, the better in most cases-- kids need more than just technical skills to succeed in school and life... and in any relational context. That said, the earlier we can begin working with parents, the better. Parents of first-time children in preschool and kindergarten are especially open to input and assistance. I would immodestly mention that this was the impetus for our writing Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, which has been translated in over 10 languages and in fact is most popular in its Spanish language edition, in Kindle and print. Less immodestly (I think I need a grammarian), I would mention the Parent Tool Kit, which is NBC Universal's outstanding internet resource for parents around all aspects of child development, with a special focus on SEL ... and in English and Spanish. (

Elean P's picture

It was in my son's toddler years that I noticed he was not as interested in reading as his other siblings. This has continued throughout his school years and as a junior in high school with Asperger's, although he hasn't as yet failed any class, his grades in English language have been very poor. At some point, thinking there was the possibility of a learning disability, he was tested and found that he did not fall in that category but rather had weak memory processing skills. His middle school teachers talked about using rewards to motivate him and when that worked only briefly, we began looking at intrinsic motivators. The truth is it appears there is nothing in the art of reading that interests him and I am concerned because, he would like to continue his education after high school with college being a strong possibility. Not everybody is an avid reader but a person needs to be motivated enough to pick himself up to research a topic to write a paper or to get information to make some of life's decisions. however, I wonder how he's going to handle that since at this point he has such an aversion to reading that not even getting a good grade on a test (because he was reminded to study) is enough to make him willingly study for the next test or quiz.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Thanks for sharing you very personal story. When I have worked with children in similar circumstances, my successes have come when I have been able to engage them in realizing that they were missing out on something to them by not being able to read. For example, one 16 year old who excelled in music was not motivated to learn to read until he realized that to make music a career and under his control, he would have to learn to read contracts and order supplies, music, etc. A younger boy with great interest in sport did not realize how he could be more informed than his friends if he learned how to read. We started with Sports Illustrated for Kids and baseball cards.
Reading is rarely an ends in itself. It needs to be a means to a goal that a child is intrinsically motivated to reach.

Eliot013's picture

Very interesting read. From reading "Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation" which is highlighted in this article, I took one key quote from it about learning experiences and that was to create learning experiences where "...time seems to collapse and disappear, when intensity in the process takes over and the thrill is so great that one hates seeing it end and can't wait to get back to it" (Deci & Flaste, 1996, pg 47). It highlights the importance of creating those learning opportunities where students get lost in the learning and don't want to stop. A good read!

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

Yes!!!!!!! Please teachers READ MONTESSORI, you will see how children learn. You will see what child-led, individualized, and intrinsic motivated education is!!! This beautiful Montessori philosophy has been around a hundred years! It is a child centered education...not a teacher centered one, makes all the difference. Go see a classroom, read some of her work. So many struggles can be eased by applying the philosophy. I love these quotes Marie Conti!!

Cindy Laurin's picture
Cindy Laurin
Home schooling three children in Ben Lomond Ca.

GO. SEE. A. MONTESSORI CLASSROOM. Pre-primary and elementary..

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