25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

September 4th, 2013 10 Comments Features

Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter @sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

In the context of learning, intrinsic motivation is motivation that stems not from external factors like grades and status, but rather from genuine interest and ambition. Like altruism, it assumes no reward. But – like altruism – it is difficult to corroborate. Even if Sally, your best student, completes the Extra Credit assignment out of pure enjoyment, it doesn’t mean she isn’t expecting external rewards like approval and attention.

Some psychologists go so far as to claim that intrinsic motivation doesn’t exist. Professor Steven Reiss at Ohio State University believes that human motivations can’t be forced into one category or the other and labeled as good or bad.

“We are taking many diverse human needs and motivations, putting them into just two categories, and then saying one type of motivation is better than another,” he says. “But there is no real evidence that intrinsic motivation even exists.”

The argument is that people should do something because they enjoy it, and that rewards only sabotage natural desire.

Reiss disagrees.

“There is no reason that money can’t be an effective motivator, or that grades can’t motivate students in school,” he says. “It’s all a matter of individual differences. Different people are motivated in different ways.”

But is this still true in the 21st century?

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: what’s the most effective persuader?

Dan Pink, business management consultant and former speechwriter for Al Gore, thinks not.

“If you look at the science,” he says in a TED talk from 2009, “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And what’s alarming here is that our business operating system – think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our business, how to motivate people how to apply our human resources – it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks.

“That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks, but for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward and punishment approach doesn’t work.”

The same can be said for operating systems in learning environments. Good grades and test scores may get a student into university, but then what? Where will the ambition and creativity come from when the right answer no longer cuts it? When a graduate must no longer find a job but invent one? True, we are all motivated by different things – mostly external factors, to be fair – but it’s the desire to keep trying when no reward is offered that makes intrinsic motivation such a powerful force, because at that point, shortcuts don’t exist. Quality is the only player.

So how can we cultivate this trait in our students? How can we help the bored students become engaged, and urge the extrinsically motivated to operate independently of rewards?

Ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students:

  1. Rethink Reward. Science has proven that for simple, mechanistic tasks, reward incentivizes students to perform well, but for tasks that require thinking outside the box, reward leads to poor performance.
  2. Atlassian Autonomy. The Australian software company Atlassian holds “FedEx Days” where engineers are expected to work on anything they want for 24 hours, then report back to the group. Many of their most lucrative ideas are born in these “overnight deliveries” of creativity. Try something like this with your students.
  3. Make Mastery Cool. As Ashton Kutcher revealed to us all in a recent Teen Choice Awards speech, “The sexiest thing in the world is being smart.”
  4. A Higher Purpose. Students who feel that they are working towards the greater good, or something larger than themselves, may have an easier time staying motivated.
  5. Make students feel like education is a choice, not a requirement. You know the bunch of non-engaged students. As simple as it sounds, remind them that they are making the right choice by showing up and working hard.
  6. Don’t use fear of punishment as a motivator. Despite what you read in The Prince, fear is not always the best motivator, especially for learners. The fear of failing a subject certainly has its place but should not be used as a substitute for intrinsic motivation.
  7. For learning management, expect self-direction, not compliance. It happens – classes get out of hand. Even online ones. But motivating students to follow the rules by threatening or goading won’t help your students in the long run. Help them become more self-directed, so that they end up complying as a result of their own genuine efforts.
  8. Visualize and Conquer. Have your students visualize a moment in their lives when they felt very proud of themselves for an accomplishment. Then let them loose on a task.
  9. Make every student feel capable. This may be a simple point, but it’s surely one of the most important. Some students feel incapable of completing a task before they even try it. The power of “You can do it” has perhaps been diluted over the years. Try “You’re capable,” which speaks not only to the task at hand but to the student’s sense of self-worth.
  10. Cooperation and Competition: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where students gain satisfaction from helping their peers and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others.
  11. Help students trust themselves to succeed. When students trust themselves to succeed at a task, they are more likely to challenge themselves in other situations. Be sure to recognize student achievement in terms of personal worth and not just success on a particular assignment; this will encourage the student to carry that confidence into other learning situations.
  12. Make the attainment of goals probable but uncertain. Everyone is motivated to complete easy, reward-based tasks. It’s the more difficult ones, often accompanied by delayed gratification, that make us want to give up before we begin. On a day to day basis, aim for goals that are achievable but require just enough work to keep students engaged. It’s a fine line between interest and disengagement, but it’s this tension that keeps us all motivated.
  13. Give accurate and authentic performance feedback. A large part of continued motivation is feedback, but be careful not to make it personal. They should change their behavior, not their self-worth, as a result of constructive criticism.
  14. Relate achievement to students’ self-esteem. One teacher tells her students she “likes how they’re thinking” every time they provide a good response. This not only motivates her students to keep getting the right answer, but also to keep seeking praise for the way they use their heads.
  15. Stimulate sensory curiosity by making abrupt changes that will be perceived by the senses. Change the learning environment around mid-way through the semester. Paint the walls a different color. Students will respond to the new environment and be inspired to think outside the box.
  16. Stimulate cognitive curiosity by presenting a problem or question as a puzzle to be solved. Pose questions not as opportunities for reward or humiliation but as puzzles to be solved. Draw out the “right” answer by asking multiple sub-questions of different students, asking students to respond to each other’s answers, and making the conceptual investigation feel like a game or a riddle.
  17. Make clear the cause-and-effect relationships between what students are doing and things that happen in real life. One way to do this is to always illustrate the concept at hand in another context after the students have fully grasped it in the current context. This is partly what word problems in math are for: How many ounces of cinnamon are in the muffins? But you can also point out that conversions are important for road trips in foreign countries, foreign currency calculations, and figuring out how much you get paid per hour as a freelance photographer!
  18. Enable learners to believe that their work will lead to powerful effects. Students won’t remember everything you teach them – such is the limited capacity of the human brain. But the point is not to memorize every fact and concept. The point of school and homework is to cultivate an academic work ethic of sorts, so that someday, that million-dollar idea won’t be so hard to realize.
  19. Allow learners to freely choose what they want to learn and how they will learn it. Ask students to fill out a survey detailing how they would like to spend the school day, what they would like to learn more about, less about, and what kinds of lessons or projects they enjoy the most. Better yet, hold a discussion on the topic.
  20. Connect games and learning. You’ll agree that learning is fun. That’s why you are a teacher! But how do you expect Marcus to feel that special little thrill you feel when you sit down in front of your morning crossword or watch Jeopardy at night? The truth is, he does feel the thrill – when he gets a new personal best in the 800 meter dash. Try to connect his motivation on the track with his motivation in learning. Acing the test may not make him feel quite as good as winning the championship, but the two drives are related.
  21. Encourage students to compete against themselves. Just as a runner, jumper, or thrower not only competes against others but also tries to achieve a new personal record, intrinsically motivated students are always hoping to better themselves.
  22. Help students navigate the continuum of motivation. Intrinsic motivation isn’t built in a day. Help extrinsically motivated students move from lacking motivation completely to integrating an intrinsic attitude into their work to performing well for the sake of performing well.
  23. Talk about it. Have your students heard of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? Simply making them aware of the difference might spark some useful discussion or thought.
  24. Introduce “soft opening” between peers. In a controlled study, Kitsantas, Zimmerman, and Cleary (2000) found that girls (ages 14 – 16 years) who watched a person throw darts perfectly 15 times in a row were not as motivated as those who watched the person improve their skills over successive trials. The girls who had watched the person improve were more likely to attribute their successful shots to strategy (rather than ability), and this attribution led them to their experiencing greater self-efficacy and intrinsic interest. What is transferred that stimulates intrinsic motivation is not simply behaviors, it is the mental process of engaging with the challenges of an activity.
  25. Model intrinsic behavior yourself. Educators’ demonstration of how they approach work, their expectations, values, and beliefs can be transmitted to students and facilitate their intrinsic motivation.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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10 Responses

  1. Michelle says:

    Hi Saga,
    I just wanted to let you know that I loved your article! I am researching to write a series on Learner Motivation, and this is a big help. This will be a great help to me also as a teacher in a College setting when it comes to tutorial classes (where there are up to 25 students, and participation is easily attained). My challenge will be to find a way to tap into intrinsic motivation in a lecture setting where there are 250 students at a time. Any tips would be appreciated!!
    Kind regards,

    • Zack says:

      When I have large classes, I find that having the students collaborate helps to create intrinsic motivation because they don’t want to let their partner or team down.

      “Partner A please tell Partner B how you would complete this problem”

      “Partner A please complete a problem then have Partner B check the work and complete the next problem”

      I also create assignments that have them answer questions like, “Why is it important for you to succeed in this class”? What good things will happen? What bad things will happen if you are unsuccessful?

      None of these require you to talk individually with students and I find that college students are generally much more motivated than a typical high school or elementary school student.

  2. Zack says:

    Thanks for posting this. I generally feel I am exceptional at creating a culture of intrinsic motivation in my classes, but this year I have multiple classes that seem to have no motivation despite my efforts. I was on the verge of going to a more carrot and stick approach typical of the classroom, but your article has inspired me to double down on intrinsic motivation using the techniques in your article. I appreciate you compiling these techniques and and I’m sure my students will benefit in the long run from your work. Thank you!

  3. sethu says:

    Thank you saga, this article was really helpful to me. I am at verge of completing my project on intrinsic motivation and your article helped a lot. looking forward for many more such articles from you.

  4. Dave says:

    Hi Saga,
    I am working on presenting some research on motivation to teachers at my high school. This was a very helpful next step of some more practical ideas in the classroom to build intrinsic motivation. I have also found some excellent ideas in James Sturtevant’s book You’ve gotta connect.

  5. kannamah l says:

    Thank you. trying to find a list of practical things teachers can do. This helps, some I practice and some Im not aware because my specialization is special needs

  6. Rajesh says:

    Iam to conduct a session on intrinsic motivation with my educators, read the article, was useful. need some more concrete ideas,for the educators point of view, how can they be motivated?
    In today’s world education jobs are contractual, it needs a great effort to build a sense of belonging towards the school for the teacher.

  7. Michelle says:

    Hi there. Writing my Master’s Thesis Paper. Any citations for what science has proven?

    “ Rethink Reward. Science has proven that for simple, mechanistic tasks, reward incentivizes students to perform well, but for tasks that require thinking outside the box, reward leads to poor performance.”

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