Motivating students is one of the most challenging tasks a teacher has.

Students sometimes go to school and don’t feel engaged, meaning they learn less from each lesson. By understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, you benefit from inspiring your students more and improving the standard of their work. Learn more about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as how to use each form of motivation and the best forms of motivation for each student.

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What is motivation in the classroom?

Before discussing what intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the classroom is, knowing more about what motivation in the classroom means is ideal. Classroom motivation refers to students’ more significant interest in active learning and engaging in their lessons. A higher level of motivation in the classroom means that students listen to their teachers more, complete more activities and learn more from each lesson.

The main benefit of having a greater level of motivation in the classroom is a higher standard of learning throughout the class. People with more motivation focus on their tasks more, performing to a higher standard than they would otherwise. This ultimately leads to better results in exams, students having higher qualifications, and a more positive approach to learning becoming an ingrained part of how the student works. There are several signs of a motivated classroom to look for and foster.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to when people do something purely for their satisfaction. This is the case whenever someone completes a task purely because it feels good or they get a sense of personal achievement and satisfaction from completing it. For example, suppose you are reading this article out of curiosity about motivation and how teachers use it to inspire better educational results. In that case, the satisfaction you get from gaining this knowledge is intrinsic motivation.

This form of motivation works through how a student’s brain chemistry operates. Serotonin is the chemical in the brain that balances mood and promotes feelings of well-being and satisfaction, with completing specific tasks leading to a greater chemical level in the brain. A similar situation happens with dopamine, a chemical that acts as a reward. An example of a student focusing on intrinsic motivation is someone with ADHD, as a reliance on the ‘dopamine reward pathway’ makes intrinsic factors more potent than in neurotypical students.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation refers to doing something to earn a reward or avoid punishment for failing to complete an action. In extrinsic motivation, the leading cause of the inspiration is outside the person’s head and imposed by someone else. This includes teachers, parents, or an even more comprehensive society. An extrinsic motivator works most effectively when someone is aware of the extrinsic motivation being there, although conditioning means that extrinsic motivators can exist without being tangible.

An example of extrinsic motivation is if you are reading this article as part of an assignment, researching for a project, or planning your student’s education for the next semester. If there is any form of punishment for failing to read this article or a reward for doing so (such as a higher grade in an essay), then the motivation is extrinsic to you. Other examples include an elementary school teacher offering candy to children as a reward for performing to a high standard in class or the justice system affecting behavior in broader society.

Benefits of intrinsic motivation

There are a few benefits of students using intrinsic motivation in a classroom. The first is that intrinsic motivation sets positive student habits in the workplace. People are more persistent when their drive comes from intrinsic motivation and approach problems in their way, as they do so in the spare time of their own free will. Research shows that intrinsic rewards also lead to a better standard of work, with people understanding that the standard of their work affects the reward level they receive.

Another benefit of intrinsic motivation is the greater chance of students persisting in their free will. People receive benefits from completing tasks without any guidance from external factors such as teachers or parents and understand that completing them has a clear benefit. This sets positive habits in young people, such as a strong work ethic and an attitude tailored towards working on projects they may not enjoy but know to require completion. These are excellent traits to have in a future career.

Drawbacks of intrinsic motivation

One of the drawbacks of intrinsic motivation includes the fact that intrinsic rewards are not always reliable. Someone completing tasks because it is a passion means that issues such as mental health difficulties affect how people feel after completing these tasks, with the positive feelings associated with their completion potentially lessening over time. Intrinsic rewards sometimes have an effect early in the project, with people losing the incentive to complete their task once it is mostly complete. This means that, despite making a lot of progress, the tangible benefits of completing the task are less than they could be after completion.

Benefits of extrinsic motivation

One of the main benefits of extrinsic motivation is that it conditions people to behave a certain way. The average person doesn’t take part in crimes as they understand that if they do, there are extrinsic punishments in the future. In the same way, people work for their scheduled hours and to a high enough standard as they know that their pay is a reward for what they produce. This is a highly effective means of motivating somebody as it provides a tangible reward that people work towards, understanding the benefits of their hard work from the start of the process.

Another benefit of extrinsic motivation in a school is that it increases your chances of positive outcomes with younger age groups. Elementary school children have very little understanding of consequences and the idea that the benefits of completing a task can come in weeks, or even months, time. Informing young people of the benefits of completing tasks that are intrinsic to them while supporting them with extrinsic rewards means that they understand the benefits of intrinsic rewards while having that extrinsic motivation available to them and providing an incentive at the moment.

Drawbacks of extrinsic motivation

There are some drawbacks to extrinsic motivation. The first is that a reliance on extrinsic rewards leads to addictive tendencies in young people. As someone becomes increasingly accustomed to receiving a reward for their actions, if a reward is removed and the action still requires completion, the person in question will wonder why the reward isn’t there and their motivation for completing the task. Using extrinsic rewards also leads to a lack of passion for the subject in question, as people do what they need to receive the reward without seeking to engage with the subject matter in their free time. In a school, this means having students that don’t fully engage with subjects.

Tips for using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in schools

See some tips for using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in an educational setting, each of which helps a teacher to create a classroom balance between the two and optimize outcomes:

Create a clear extrinsic reward structure

Evidence shows that schools are creating ‘school-wide positive behavior support‘, and doing so in a clear structure is ideal for student development. Creating a cohesive structure means that students understand the rewards they receive when they complete specific tasks, in addition to knowing the disciplinary system and the step-by-step ramifications that students face when they act a certain way. This stops positive influences from scaling uncontrollably to manage diminishing returns while providing an indisputable list of consequences for use when necessary.

Target an intrinsic culture

From a young age, seek to create a culture of intrinsic rewards in students. This means encouraging students to look at the positive outcomes of their work on their mindset and how a positive mindset creates better outcomes throughout their careers. Doing this at a young age and encouraging a passion for exciting subjects means that students use intrinsic motivation from the earliest possible age. They set work and study habits that stay with them as they evolve through the education sector and into the workplace, ultimately leading to better outcomes.

Use parents

Parents are one of the essential parts of the education system, with parents spending hour after hour supporting their children with issues such as homework and social problems. This makes parenting an excellent opportunity for a school to use. Ask parents to discuss a student’s passions and the intrinsic rewards of doing their work outside of school, as this creates a habit that goes between hobbies and school life and leads to higher levels of engagement and better results.