Social and Emotional Learning

How and Why Intrinsic Motivation Works

Discover approaches for helping students feel personal autonomy, choice, and self-determination.
January 14, 2016
Six high school students, all in green shirts, are sitting in a row at individual desks looking towards the front of the class. One of them has their hand raised.
Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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).

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

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.