George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Standardized Tests

Low standardized test scores are a reflection of being uninspired, not unknowledgeable. Teach your students how to care, lose their fears, and identify and overcome their obstacles.

May 11, 2016
Illustration credit: ©AndSim/

When the scores were revealed, the classroom of middle school literacy teachers was everything but hopeful. "Did they even try?" one teacher wondered about her students. The team was disappointed and defeated. After a year of following the curriculum to fidelity, according to the mock-state test data, our efforts meant nothing.

I sat in the meeting, half-listening, as I began to devise a plan. I had no choice but to help. When I was in school, I was just like my students -- totally unmotivated to take any standardized test, simply because I knew those tests were not going to affect my report cards. Therefore, why should I put any effort into them? I was the kid who fake-read the passages and picked the pattern of C,D,A,B,C,D,A,B to answers the multiple-choice questions. For eight years, I've watched my students attempt to do the same. This year was no different -- until hearing the teachers' displaced frustrations made me speak out. I needed them to recognize how these scores are not true indicators of what our kids can do. They can do better. All we have to do is teach them why they should do better. The why lies in activating their intrinsic motivation.

According to career analyst Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation is driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These same principals lend themselves directly to activating our students' internal drive. Here’s how:


Before we can begin tapping into any student's intrinsic values, we need to have a diagnostic that reveals all students' true feelings. In order to do that, students should be prompted to reflect on their personal feelings about standardized tests. I gave my students a simple reflection form in which I was able to gather the following:

Feelings about state test

  • Really irrelevant
  • Only used so the school can get money
  • To be honest, I don't care
  • We don't need it
  • Makes me nervous and self-conscious

Struggles with state test

  • Totally afraid
  • I don't take my time; I rush to get it over with
  • I zone out
  • I get distracted by the silence
  • I worry about running out of time

Motivation during the test

  • Getting it over with
  • Nothing, really
  • What my parents think
  • Getting my phone back

All of their thoughts, struggles, and motivations revealed to me that my hypothesis was correct. The low scores are a reflection of being uninspired, not unknowledgeable.

Autonomy and Self-Direction

As Daniel Pink put it, "One day of autonomy produces things that have never emerged." First, we have to teach our students how to label the behaviors that keep them from reaching their highest potential on exams. Here are some examples of the labels many of my students named as habits during exams:

  • Daydreaming
  • Sleeping
  • Running out of time
  • Second-guessing myself
  • Forgetting what I just read
  • Anxiety

After the students have shown awareness of their own behaviors by labeling, teachers should follow up by providing tools for self-generating their own solution plans. Here are some examples of many of my students' self-generated strategies that they will put in place in their everyday lives, even after this year's test:

  • Using a personal timer when reading independently to pace myself
  • Challenging myself to non-pleasure read for an extra 15 minutes a day
  • Meditating before I begin an assignment to strengthen my ability to focus
  • Setting personal time goals when reading during the test

The most important aspect of this work is communicating the notion of how individualized this process is for each student. All plans must be personalized to fit each student's struggle.

After creating solution plans, students have to begin actively monitoring their own progress. This can be done by engaging them in ongoing written reflections. These are small social-emotional tools that are a surefire way to increase the habits of scholarship in any unmotivated child.

Mastery and Self-Actualization

We have the responsibility to teach our children to stop waiting for someone else to acknowledge and validate them. Have students explore and answer questions like:

  • How do I recognize my own milestones?
  • How do I celebrate my own milestones?

Then, teach them how to compare themselves to themselves via:

  • Graphs
  • Personal trackers
  • Goal setting and reflecting
  • Self-commitment cards

The more a child feels like she achieving, the closer she'll get to mastering whatever she wants to achieve. Success breeds success!

Purpose and Self-Determination

Generally, our children don’t understand the true concepts of time, goals, and life beyond high school. But with clarity of intention and purpose, nothing can stand in the way of making a desired goal happen.

Like my students, I was never taught the true meaning of standardized tests. All I knew was that the SATs could get me into a "good college." This is the same message that many of our students get: "The state test will get you into a good college." For middle school students who think they have all the time in the world before they need to apply for college, this message means nothing. Teachers have to help students understand the fact that knowing your struggles and having strategies to combat them while taking tests is a life skill that may be applied to many areas outside of the classroom. Two obvious examples are driver's permit exams and jobs that require placement or certification tests (such as police officers and teachers).

Have students explore and answer questions like:

  • What does it mean to have a sense of my transcendent purpose?
  • How will achieving well on this exam impact me a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now?

My students and I created vision boards to remind us of our long-term motivation for doing well. We hung them on our bulletin board in the hallway, along with bar graphs that showed the scores from our first and second practice tests, and a list of strategies for alleviating our struggles.

As educators, it's crucial to remember that we're not preparing our students to be good test takers -- we're preparing them to tackle real-life tests that they'll face once they leave our classrooms. If we don't want them to give up on themselves when things get too tough in the future, we have to build their tenacity now. The foundation of such perseverance lies in intrinsic motivation.

Have your own tips for activating intrinsic motivation? Please leave them in the comments section below.

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