We all have a teacher in mind when we think of being inspired. They found a way to connect, encourage, and motivate us to be our very best.
Being intrinsically motivated – rather than driven by fear of punishment or external reward – and doing something because it is fascinating, enjoyable, and piques our curiosity boosts our performance (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
How can educational environments reliably foster intrinsic motivation when, typically, they promote learning and development through either carrot or stick?
This article explores intrinsic motivation in the classroom and highlights the environment needed to motivate students to do their best work.
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This Article Contains:
- Intrinsic Motivation & Learning 101
- 4 Real-Life Examples of Intrinsic Motivation in Education
- Improving Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom: 3 Useful Tips
- 14 Strategies for Teachers
- Relevant Tools for Students
- A Look at Reinforcement Learning
- 3 Questionnaires for Measuring Motivation in Students
- PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
- A Take-Home Message
Intrinsic Motivation & Learning 101
“Human beings can be proactive and engaged or, alternatively, passive and alienated, largely as a function of the social conditions in which they develop and function.”
Ryan & Deci, 2000
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) highlights the need for the right social and contextual conditions to enhance “intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and wellbeing.” In their absence, our development can be slowed or even halted.
For such conditions to exist, social and environmental factors must satisfy our basic human and innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2017). When these needs are met, humans are at their most inspired, energized, and committed to growth across domains as diverse as health, relationships, the workplace, religion, sports, and education (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
However, while children are innately driven to learn and develop, schools can fail to “capitalize on students’ intrinsic motivation and instead emphasize extrinsic motivation” (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Fostering autonomy, rather than emphasizing control, increases student engagement and performance, providing an enhanced experience.
The quality of teacher motivation is one contributory environmental factor. Educational institutions must support their staff to ensure they meet teachers’ basic psychological needs, resulting in feelings of autonomy, competence, and connectedness to the environment (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
The SDT urges education to aim high, beyond academic achievement (grades, class position, and awards), by encouraging students to flourish intellectually and personally on their development journey to their adult identity and role.
4 Real-Life Examples of Intrinsic Motivation in Education
Multiple factors impact the satisfaction of students’ basic psychological needs in education.
The following research highlights four such areas of study:
Relatedness and intrinsic motivation in education
A study of Turkish students found that the psychological need for relatedness was influenced by individuals’ perception of how they related to their fellow students and teachers (Xiang, Ağbuğa, Liu, & McBride, 2017).
The findings support the idea that multiple factors affect intrinsic motivation. To offer the best education environment, we need to consider the social aspect of relationships with other students and their teachers and how it can be further enhanced.
Leadership in higher education
The degree of intrinsic motivation combined with leadership effectiveness is crucial in successful education where growth and innovation are paramount.
A study of higher education engineering campuses found that positive (transformational) leadership and motivation were key drivers for innovation during deeply cognitive tasks (Al-Mansoori & Koç, 2019).
Importance of intrinsic motivation for entering higher education
There are strong links between students’ self-perception of psychological wellbeing (including their degree of intrinsic motivation) and successfully starting higher education to become teachers (González Olivares, Navarro, Sánchez-Verdejo, & Muelas, 2020).
In line with other findings, the research suggests a positive relationship between intrinsic motivation and persistence in educational activities.
Positive effects of outdoor activity on intrinsic motivation
Factors and experiences outside the classroom can enhance intrinsic motivation.
A pilot study engaging students in outdoor adventure activities as part of the science curriculum reported a host of benefits. Positive changes in students included increased engagement, enjoyment, physical activity levels, and intrinsic motivation (Mackenzie, Son, & Eitel, 2018).
The findings support the value of physical activity and challenging outdoor environments in satisfying the needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Improving Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom: 3 Useful Tips
Curricula and material in schools can sometimes fail to be “meaningful or relevant to the student’s daily lives or purposes” (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Schools are often under pressure to deliver results based on very narrow cognitive measures, at a cost to students’ more holistic psychological needs. Grades, tests, and highly restricted behavior (even in relatively young children) may not be best suited to creating environments that meet children’s psychological needs.
Schools are more than learning factories; they are opportunities for child and adolescent development. They must not “discourage, demotivate, or kill the confidence of the students they serve or leave them feeling alienated, reactive, excluded from society, or more antisocial” (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
External factors such as rewards, punishment, and an overly controlling environment can damage intrinsic motivation and the desire to learn (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
So, how do you intrinsically motivate in the classroom?
Schools should promote environments that satisfy the psychological needs of their students.
Research confirms the positive impact of supporting students’ autonomy and self-regulation. Activities such as listening to and considering the student’s viewpoint, giving them control and choice regarding how they approach the task, and providing supportive feedback are all positive aspects of learning (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Creating such open and growth-based environments increases intrinsic motivation, perceptions of competence, and feelings of self-worth.
A 2012 study introduced gardening into the school curriculum and found that it led to a significant decrease in disruptive behavior at school and reduced absenteeism (Skinner, Chi, & The Learning-Gardens Educational Assessment Group, 2012).
Meaningful activity in one area carries positive feelings to others. A novel environment may offer additional benefits, including feelings of self-confidence and self-worth, to those performing less well in traditional subjects.
Other studies have reported success in bringing in volunteers, typically older adults, to offer supportive, child-centered play sessions (Pink, 2018).
Children paired with one-on-one volunteers showed increased positive attitudes and enthusiasm, as rated by themselves and their teachers.
Even small amounts of positive interaction promote relatedness and autonomy, improving overall intrinsic motivation. Volunteers could be older children within the school or members of local supportive sports teams.
Any factor or social context leading to more support for relatedness, autonomy, or competence is likely to result in better learning and associated behaviors in the class.
14 Strategies for Teachers
While many factors promote learning in classrooms, one of the most important is the style of engagement between teacher and student.
In an environment where interaction is easy and there is mutual respect, students remain engaged and teachers are more responsive to their needs.
Teachers must find appropriate ways to meet the three basic psychological needs of their students. Most importantly, the classroom should become an autonomy-supportive environment.
According to the SDT and the research that backs it up, teachers should begin by understanding and relating to student perspectives to understand and support their needs. The teacher should not expect students to see things from their perspective nor punish them when they don’t.
Once students’ needs are identified, the teacher can provide each student with opportunities to gain a degree of control over their learning, encouraging them to take the initiative and seek relevant information. Students benefit from being given choices and taking responsibility for their learning (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Autonomy-supportive teachers believe we develop education from within, whereas “controlling teachers act under the belief in education as formation from without” (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
When teachers offer more choice, understand students’ perspectives, and consider their interests, students perceive more autonomy and greater value in the subject (Patall, Dent, Oyer, & Wynn, 2013). Teachers who offer more support for autonomy also typically provide an environment that satisfies the needs of competence and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
What strategies promote autonomous rather than controlled motivation?
Teachers benefit their students by meeting their basic psychological needs and creating an environment that fosters autonomy while avoiding factors that encourage control.
Promoting autonomous motivation
Strategies that promote autonomous motivation include (modified from Reeve and Jang, 2006):
- Listening to students
- Making time for students to work independently
- Providing students with an opportunity to talk
- Acknowledging improvement and mastery
- Encouraging students’ effort
- Offering hints when students are stuck in order to enable progress
- Responding to students’ comments and questions
- Acknowledging the experiences and perspectives of students
Avoiding controlled motivation
Strategies that seek to control motivation include (modified from Reeve and Jang, 2006):
- Monopolizing learning materials
- Providing too little time for students to work and solve problems independently
- Giving answers without sufficient time for students to formulate them
- Being demanding and controlling
- Using controlling words such as “must,” “should,” and “have to”
- Using questions to direct, control, and limit the flow of conversation
Relevant Tools for Students
In environments that fail to foster autonomy, students can still regain a sense of control and bolster their intrinsic motivation through their own actions.
Even work set for completion in a specific way (and with a particular deadline) allows for some degree of autonomy.
Encourage the student to find their own way to plan and deliver the work by asking themselves:
- How should I approach the work? (e.g., reading other sample questions, reviewing the textbook, joining a study group)
- What steps will I take? (e.g., writing a rough draft first, making a list of bullet points, reviewing the first draft with another student)
- How do I consider the feedback I have received for previous assignments?
Changing the perception from it is being done to me to I am in control leads to increased feelings of autonomy and therefore intrinsic motivation.
Athletes have known for a long time the positive value of visualization (Kremer, Moran, & Kearney, 2019). But it is equally valuable in other areas of life, including education.
Students can benefit from spending time “seeing” and “feeling” how things could be.
Ask the student to spend time some quiet time when they cannot be distracted positively imagining:
- How things could be
- Where they would like to see themselves
- Who they would like to be
- Acing tests
- Doing the job they have always wanted
- Being content, confident, and successful in what they choose to do
Goal setting is a useful tool for motivating someone to achieve something valuable or important (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2015).
- Focusing attention on goal-directed behaviors
- Setting challenging goals that are energizing
- Encouraging commitment (individual and as part of a group)
- Engaging cognitive strategies to cope with and overcome difficulties
Ensure the goals are clear, realistic, and achievable; this SMART goal template can help.
Break larger goals down into manageable chunks of work.
A Look at Reinforcement Learning
Motivation in nonbiological systems (artificial intelligence) is not a given; it must be built in.
In his book Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control, Stuart Russell (2020) describes one such approach called reinforcement learning that involves learning from direct experience and feedback.
“Much as a baby learns to stand up from the positive reward of being upright and the negative reward of falling over” (Russell, 2020).
While even artificial motivation can generate highly complex behavior, it lacks the nuance of persistent intrinsic motivation, which has evolved over millions of years and is linked to the satisfaction of a set of needs.
We recommend reading Positive Reinforcement in Psychology for more insight into the possibilities of reinforcement learning.
3 Questionnaires for Measuring Motivation in Students
Several questionnaires are available for testing intrinsic motivation and related concepts.
The following three measures are all taken from studies measuring student age groups, as other instruments are more appropriate for adults.
Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI)
There are multiple versions of the IMI ranging from 22 items to 45 items, available at the Center for SDT. The 25-item version takes approximately 10 minutes to complete and has been used to measure students’ subjective score of motivation (González Olivares et al., 2020).
Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale (RPWS)
González Olivares et al. (2020) also used the RPWS measure to study psychological wellbeing. This 64-item questionnaire takes less than 10 minutes to complete.
While not a direct score of intrinsic motivation, there are strong links between wellbeing and an individual’s satisfaction of psychological needs (González Olivares et al., 2020).
Short Flow State Scale (SFSS)
Mackenzie et al. (2018) used the IMI and the SFSS to understand the impact of outdoor activity on students’ intrinsic motivation.
While the 10-item SFSS measures flow, the measures are compatible with the psychological need for competence as part of the SDT and considered insightful in understanding intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
We have several tools available to help students understand their motivation and recognize when it is in line with their goals in life or causing unhelpful behavior.
- The Motivational Vision Board is a valuable method for creating a pictorial view of possible futures to increase motivation.
- Specifically aimed at students, Internalized Motivation in the Classroom helps assess and reflect on the quality of motivation taken to class.
- The Daily Motivational Awareness encourages students to gain greater awareness of their motivation in daily life.
- The Costs and Benefits of Unhelpful Behavior assessment (with some minor modification) can be used to resolve a conflict between short-term and long-term outcomes of activities.
- The Self-Directed Speech Worksheet can be used to capture the behavior individuals wish to change and create a set of sentences for their inner voice when things become difficult.
- Use the Inside and Outside Worksheet with children to better understand their feelings when dealing with an emotion.
A Take-Home Message
Our students’ future can be much brighter if we change our approach to positive education and how students are motivated. Clearly, intrinsic motivation boosts performance in schools. Children are born ready to engage and develop; their enthusiasm only dampens in response to inadequate social conditions.
Self-Development Theory highlights the need for environments that enhance intrinsic motivation and wellbeing in education. Learning environments must foster autonomy rather than control, increasing student engagement and benefiting performance.
Teacher engagement is crucial, as is their degree of intrinsic motivation. They must receive the support to satisfy their own basic psychological needs to gain the mindset necessary to help their students.
Ultimately, the goal of SDT is to encourage students to flourish personally and intellectually and provide a firm foundation and sense of identity for entering adulthood.
Activities that help students share their viewpoint and gain control over their task, along with supportive feedback, lead to the satisfaction of relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
Otherwise, if thwarted, development and growth may be delayed or even halted.
As an educator or a professional working with teaching staff, challenge the degree to which children’s basic psychological needs are satisfied. Where failings are apparent, identify how schools can provide more autonomy to students to shape their educational journey positively.
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- Al-Mansoori, R. S., & Koç, M. (2019). Transformational leadership, systems, and intrinsic motivation impacts on innovation in higher education institutes: Faculty perspectives in engineering colleges. Sustainability, 11(15), 4072.
- Clough, P., & Strycharczyk, D. (2015). Developing mental toughness: Coaching strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing. Kogan Page.
- González Olivares, Á. L., Navarro, Ó., Sánchez-Verdejo, F. J., & Muelas, Á. (2020). Psychological well-being and intrinsic motivation: Relationship in students who begin university studies at the School of Education in Ciudad Real. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.
- Kremer, J., Moran, A. P., & Kearney, C. J. (2019). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. Routledge.
- Mackenzie, S. H., Son, J. S., & Eitel, K. (2018). Using outdoor adventure to enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement in science and physical activity: An exploratory study. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 21, 76–86.
- Patall, E. A., Dent, A. L., Oyer, M., & Wynn, S. R. (2013). Student autonomy and course value: The unique and cumulative roles of various teacher practices. Motivation and Emotion, 37(1), 14–32.
- Pink, D. H. (2018). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books.
- Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 209–218.
- Russell, S. (2020). Human compatible: AI and the problem of control. Penguin Books.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
- Skinner, E. A., Chi, U., & The Learning-Gardens Educational Assessment Group. (2012). Intrinsic motivation and engagement as “active ingredients” in garden-based education: Examining models and measures derived from self-determination theory. The Journal of Environmental Education, 43(1), 16–36.
- Xiang, P., Ağbuğa, B., Liu, J., & McBride, R. E. (2017). Relatedness need satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, and engagement in secondary school physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 36(3), 340–352.