Extrinsic Motivation Works (Until It Doesn’t): How to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

Motivating students to perform can be a challenge. In times of struggle, tutors and parents will often choose the path of least resistance to help bring a child’s focus to the task at hand. It can be easy to settle for any port in a storm.

Nevertheless, when these strategies rely on extrinsic rewards, they may be doing more harm than good. Praise, punishment, and bribery may be easy, low-hanging motivational fruit, but they aren’t the ideal choices.

Shifting away from this type of superficial reward model isn’t always easy, but it provides enough short-term and long-term benefit to make the effort worthwhile.

Extrinsic rewards work (until they don’t)

There’s a reason extrinsic motivators have been used by teachers, tutors, and parents for generations: they work. That is, they work in the short-term.

Sticker charts, prize boxes, snacks, token economies, grades, approval, and threats are all examples of extrinsic “if-then” reward structures that adults use to get children to engage with tasks that they otherwise wouldn’t choose to do.

Whether it’s test prep or learning a language, when students are baited into working based on these types of rewards, the larger aspirations of personal accountability and fostering a growth mindset are hamstrung. As education and parenting author Alfie Kohn explains:

Extrinsic motivators do not alter the emotional or cognitive commitments that underlie behavior–at least not in a desirable direction. A child promised a treat for learning or acting responsibly has been given every reason to stop doing so when there is no longer a reward to be gained.

To achieve meaningful and long-lasting growth, motivation must come from within rather than without.

Making the switch to intrinsic motivation

Education is as much about promoting learning as it is teaching content. Once dismissal bells ring and tutoring sessions end, students still need to have the drive to live as active learners. With all that has been made about promoting grit and confidence in children, how do we, as adults, help them to get there? Extrinsic motivations clearly aren’t the ticket.

The challenge in shifting away from extrinsic motivation models is something needs to fill the resulting vacuum. The natural choice is the converse of extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation.

However, cultivating intrinsic motivation is hard. It is a highly personalized process that will play out differently for each learner. To promote it effectively requires relationship building and purposeful formative assessment on the part of those tasked with guiding young minds.

To begin with, tutors, teachers, and parents need to solicit student input and examine students’ learning needs to cultivate authentic reasons for engagement. From there, stakeholders can tap into a student’s felt need for learning with some practical strategies:

  • Frame content in relatable ways – Getting students to buy into learning intrinsically is much easier when they have a felt need for doing so. Tie students’ practice to content that matters to them. Open-ended, problem-based objectives tend to work especially well since students are working towards creating actionable solutions rather than just completing rote exercises.
  • Let the student drive the goal-setting process – For intrinsic motivation to take root, students need to have as much ownership over their learning process as possible. Starting with student-created goals is essential. Rather than reinventing the wheel, consider using pre-existing frameworks like SMART goals (an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound) that help shepherd students through the goal setting process without removing personal relevance or authenticity.
  • Provide opportunities for student choice – If students are to be the ones in charge of their own learning, they can’t be restricted into in lanes of rigid curricula and teaching methods. Giving students both voice and choice in their learning process is a game-changer!
  • Pair tasks with students’ larger goals – Help students see the hard work in the moment as the stepping-stones towards their greater aspirations. For tasks like test prep, connect the dots between a student’s success on the SAT or ACT to the opportunity to write their own ticket to the college of their dreams. From there, they can open up a life path full of even more possibilities!
  • Formalize student commitment – When students are prompted to lay out their personal objectives in a concrete or demonstrable way, they are more likely to persuade themselves to commit to them. Let student choice guide the goal-setting process, but then find ways to remind them regularly of their aims.

Intrinsic motivation is the gold standard when it comes to engaged, resilient, and purpose-driven lives. While everyone has their own preferences and inspirations, sometimes it takes a little targeted effort for the uninitiated to tap into them. Trade the unreliability of extrinsic motivation for the important work of helping students to find this self-guided enthusiasm for learning.