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The Difference Between Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation (As it Pertains to Learning)

The Difference Between Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation (As it Pertains to Learning)

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Even if you think you already know the answer to this question, there is a need to reexamine the definition here, as it applies directly to the topic at hand. According the article on “Igniting a Love of Learning in All Students” plainly put: “Intrinsic motivation is the natural curiosity and desire to learn that we are all born with. We experience intrinsic motivation when we find ourselves seeking answers to a question that intrigues us or pushing ourselves to work hard to master a skill. Extrinsic motivation is when we work for an external reward or to avoid an external punishment provided by someone else (Gianni 2010)”. The authors continue: “When students are extrinsically motivated, they participate because they expect a desirable outcome like a reward or avoidance of punishment (Gianni 2010)”. However, when an intrinsic mode for learning has been accessed and incorporated into the learning environment, student engagement increases, where profound student learning begins its process of becoming a deep-seated trend in their own personal learning style.

Further quoting the depth of the article as it applies to student learning: “Researchers have found that intrinsic beliefs in our ability to be successful influence our level of motivation”, and “that working on a task for intrinsic reasons rather than extrinsic influences are not only more enjoyable for the participant, but it also facilitates learning and achievement.” “Researchers also have found that people have an innate desire to learn for the sake of learning and that this intrinsic desire is connected to our engagement in learning new concepts or skills (Gianni 2010).” And while, “extrinsic rewards have been shown to be effective when used with students who were not intrinsically motivated…”, this form of incentive was only effective “when rewards were given initially followed by increasingly longer periods of time in which no rewards were given to reinforce effort and persistence.” The authors continue: “Extrinsic rewards must be given immediately following the success, as people in general and middle school students in particular are not motivated by rewards that are too far in the future. Researchers have also found that extrinsic praise or positive reinforcement of behaviors such as effort or persistence rather than fixed traits such as intelligence can increase behaviors associated with motivation. (Gianni 2010)”

Now that we have established the difference between the two types of motivation, and which one is preferred for developing long-term learning patterns that will endure beyond the classroom, the authors further discuss the rationale that addresses the two contrasting forms. In addition to advocating for the lifelong learner in each of us, particularly our students, the authors continue to offer insight into the value of the daily learner’s innate desire to learn and grow, acknowledging that: “Learning and intrinsic motivation are also mutually reinforcing; intrinsic motivation facilitates learning, and when students acquire new skills and observe their own growth, they feel more successful and their intrinsic desire to learn increases.” However, while taking the time to establish an individualized learning environment that accounts for the personal motivation of each and every student certainly sacrifices time better spent working towards proficiency, because “indeed, instilling intrinsic motivation is a longer process that may use some external rewards, but (that time spent building a learning community) really focuses on self-improvement and helps students to shift from doing something for a reward or for a teacher or parent to doing something for themselves. (Gianni 2010)”.

Giani, Matt, and O’Guinn, Christina. “Motivation to Learn: Igniting a Love of Learning in All Students.” John W. Garder Center at Stanford University. 2010. PDF file retrieved from:

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

This is such an important topic, especially as we see more and more schools adopting reading programs that reward students for pleasure reading -- and isn't that an oxymoron? Reading for pleasure is rewarding and pleasurable all by itself, yet schools are disrupting that process by giving stickers, prizes and pizza to kids for reading. I'm curious, ecopine - how do you suggest that teachers help students discover and work from their intrinsic motivators? How do we instill intrinsic motivation?

ecopine's picture

The current state of affairs in the educational process, when it comes to assessment for instance, is essentially a vicious cycle that puts students through the wringer for 38 weeks and culminates in the bestowing of a mere letter that labels the learner. Rather than allowing learners to become proficient in a skill that empowers them to continue their now-useful education, they are subjected to a tired approach to the curriculum that avoids the true application of the material at all costs, encapsulating its integrity in the most simplest of forms. As a widespread industry charged with educating the next generation, we have merely assumed the path of least resistance imparted to us by our teachers who learned only how to preserve the sanctity of the classroom, and the security of their socio-economic positions; all the while contradicting the natural capacity of the human individual's innate desire to learn, and routinely doing harm to our students' intrinsic motivation for acquiring knowledge.
After centuries of academic institutions formalizing education in a way that allowed only for the cream of the crop to rise to the top; the waste that we cast aside just happens to be the majority of the student population. How can we continue to deny each and every student an education, when we expect more from them than we are prepared to deliver ourselves? We have rejected performance-based pay at every turn, yet put students directly in a competitive position every day where they must rise to impractical expectations of learning. Compensating them with grade points that label their performance in comparison to their peers, ultimately demonstrates only how well they conform to our expectations as teachers. In studies, competition has been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation and dampen creativity in the traditional classroom setting; whereas cooperative learning settings on the other hand are far more inspirational to the self-motivated learner. Every time we place these unreasonable expectations on students, we destroy the love of learning in children by encouraging and compelling them to work for trivial rewards, such as petty letters grades to represent an entire year's effort; though these assessments merely demonstrate rising to the teachers' approval. While holding students accountable on test day for they should have learned, without assessing a teacher's ability, is a highly-contemptible; and the arrogance of passing or failing a youth based upon the results of adhering to a teacher's expectations is despicable.
Deci and Ryan (1985) pointed out that "competition has been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation and dampen creativity', and that "competitive learning settings are interpreted as less intrinsically motivating", while "cooperative learning settings as more intrinsically motivating (p.257-8)." Deci and Ryan (1985) also showed in their work, "that whenever rewards are experienced... they will adversely affect children's intrinsic motivation for learning (p.248)". The author also adds that "we destroy the... love of learning... in children by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards" (as cited in Deci & Ryan, 1985, p.247), such as petty letters grades to represent an entire year's effort and teacher approval. While holding students accountable on test day for they should have learned without assessing a teacher's ability is a highly-contemptible; the arrogance of passing or failing a youth based upon the results of adhering to a teacher's expectations is despicable. Clearly stated in its label, assessments are for assessing students' learning, when all the while they should also be utilized for assessing how well a teacher teaches. However, educators are simply unwilling to embrace the most effective method for augmenting learning; and by utilizing assessments for this alternative purpose, they may end up being graded themselves. Herein lies the challenge to the traditional formula for formal education, and the beginnings of a change in philosophy that must take place in today's educational process, relieving students of their role as the laborers in the industry and focusing on what they are capable of learning as a solution to the one-sided assessment method, and focuses the purpose of the ordeal squarely on the shoulders of those parties who are being paid for performance.
On the contrary, "teachers can enhance the intrinsic motivation of their students by allowing the students to feel that they are in control of their own learning" (Dev 1997). The "classroom must be structured so that the students become ultimately, and as quickly as possible, capable of making good... decisions on their own" (Kohn 1993). Kohn (1993) also states: "deprive children of self-determination and you deprive them of motivation." Mere letters on a report card that fade away as soon as the next semester begins, are completely useless in the high school afterlife, and is hardly comparable to actually using algebra to save some money at the home improvement store on Saturday afternoon, and meeting someone special because of your proficiency in a second language later that evening. "A student is said to be [intrinsically] motivated when he or she chooses to spend time on an activity until it is completed, selects an activity purely for the sake of learning more about the related concepts, and experiences a rise in self-esteem on completion of that activity or mastery of a skill" (Dev 1997). Meanwhile in the current approach to education to teaching scarcely considers proficiency-based learning other than the teaching objectives set by the dictatorial presentation model for instruction, which wholeheartedly ignores the perspective of the learner and what he or she can learn despite the teachers' best intentions to accommodate everyone at once.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Dev, P.C. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and academic achievement: What does their relationship imply for the classroom teacher? Remedial and Special Education, 18. p.12-19.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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