Motivation, or “the state or condition of having a strong reason to act or accomplish something” has enabled mankind to accomplish wondrous feats, from harnessing the power of fire to exploring the wonders of the universe. But what are the underlying mechanisms of motivation? What are the hallmarks of intrinsic motivation, and can educators impart conceptual abilities that will provide learners with the motivation to succeed in a course, in an academic career, and in life?
First, let’s distinguish extrinsic from intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation deals with motivations that are outside of (a person’s) passions and personal self-esteem. The “if-then rewards” that define extrinsic motivation appear to have severe limitations. Extrinsic motivation appears to operate under conditions that center upon mechanical skills. When cognitive skills are the goal, extrinsic motivators hinder the outcome. Numerous studies have demonstrated that externally incentivizing students for academic achievement doesn’t work. “There are two main types of incentives: economic, and social or moral. The fine and the stipend backfired because they substituted an economic incentive for a moral incentive.” In short, throwing money at a problem is short-sighted and ineffective in education. On the other hand, the more effective method to engender success in an endeavor involves intrinsic motivation, which is internal. It involves joy in work and learning. It is an internal rather than external force. In fact, according to a study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, once a task called for “even rudimentary cognitive skill, a large reward led to poorer performance.”
So then, how can teachers help students develop intrinsic motivation? Incorporating the following three components, autonomy, mastery, and purpose into lessons can help students learn intrinsic motivation. People want to have some control over their lives; so a teacher can develop lessons that allow learners to make some choices. They also want to feel as if they have achieved mastery. Provide opportunities for students to work on a topic until they have mastered it. Students do not learn at the same rate, so allowing differentiation can assist with mastery. Finally, providing purpose can help learners to relate to a larger world than the classroom. The old model of rewarding factory workers for repetitive tasks simply doesn’t work in our current global environment.