Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: Teaching Intrinsic For Sustained Educational Interest

Explore the role of intrinsic motivation in education and how Primer's alternative approach nurtures a passion for learning.

May 23, 2024

People can be motivated in two ways: extrinsically or intrinsically. Let’s explore why intrinsic motivation is more sustainable for students.

People can be motivated in many different ways. Some work hard to earn promised rewards; some work hard to impress other people; some work to feel a sense of accomplishment. The list can go on and on. Each motivational tool can be categorized in one of two ways: intrinsic or extrinsic.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to the desire or drive to engage in an activity because it is personally enjoyable, fulfilling, or interesting without looking for external rewards for doing so. It is the satisfaction of completing a task or participating in something simply for personal pleasure.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is a form of motivation referring to external rewards or incentives that come from doing something. If the activity comes with a promised reward, whether it’s a tangible reward or something like avoiding a negative outcome, the motivation to complete the task is extrinsic.

Examples of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation can include pursuing a hobby simply because it is something enjoyable that makes you feel happy or fulfilled. Participating in sports makes many people feel a sense of self-accomplishment, an intrinsic motivator. Even something as simple as solving a puzzle can make one feel a sense of satisfaction by overcoming an obstacle.

Helping others is often intrinsically motivated if you do it to have a sense of purpose. In this example, the task includes helping someone other than yourself, but it’s being completed for a sense of self-fulfillment and personal enjoyment of the task. Exploring new places or building stronger relationships can all come from a place of intrinsic motivation if done for your own sake or to feel better about yourself.

Learning can be intrinsically motivated if the purpose behind the learning is to gain knowledge and better understand something. Intrinsic rewards can even be competitive, as long as the person you’re competing against is yourself and not someone else.

Working harder to do better than your past self is a way to feel a sense of growth and achievement. It can still feel very competitive, although it comes from within.

Essentially, anything done for the sole purpose of bettering yourself or feeling good is something that is motivated intrinsically. That is the key difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation

One of the most prominent examples of extrinsic motivation is working for a paycheck. If you go to work each day and work hard to ensure that your paycheck is large at the end of the month, you are being motivated by external factors.

For kids, extrinsic incentives can be any item as little as a sticker, or something that’s intangible, like completing a task to earn verbal praise from parents or teachers. If a young person is doing something to fit in or be accepted by another person, their motivation is extrinsic as well.

Even studying can be considered extrinsically motivated if the driving reason is to receive a good grade. It’s important to note that extrinsic motivators can lose effectiveness over time if the rewards don’t change or increase.

The Pros and Cons

Both types of motivation come with their own benefits and downfalls — here’s a comparison of internal rewards vs. external ones.

What Are the Pros of Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation, for example, can lead to quicker results. While intrinsic motivation is something that needs to be learned and experienced, it’s human nature from childhood to work for reward. When you need something done right away, extrinsic motivation is often effective.

What Are the Cons of Extrinsic Motivation?

However, while quickly effective, external motivation isn’t very long-lasting. While a student may do something right away to earn a sticker, they’ll likely get bored of the same sticker after a while, and this motivator will likely become less and less effective.

Human beings don’t often like to settle, and when they prove their consistency, they tend to want more. For example, an employee may work very hard for their paycheck, but the longer they work at that workplace and demonstrate their work ethic, they will likely want additional compensation to acknowledge their work.

What Are the Cons of Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, can take a little while to learn and build up. The lack of obvious external rewards can seem discouraging at first. When you’re working to please yourself, there is limited accountability. Of course, no one wants to feel disappointed, but when you are the only one relying on yourself or paying attention to the results, it’s easier to give up.

What Are the Pros of Intrinsic Motivation?

On the flip side, once intrinsically motivated behavior is experienced and sought after, it can be much more self-sustaining. As it doesn’t rely on anything from anyone else, it can feel good to achieve something for the sole reason of achieving it.

The accomplished feeling people get when meeting their own goals is usually enough to keep them pushing forward. The level of personal satisfaction that comes along with intrinsic motivation causes people to be more engaged and focused on what they are passionate about.

Furthermore, intrinsic motivation can lead to more creative results, as the person works to please themselves rather than doing something they think someone else would enjoy. It opens the door to being more risky and creative.

Motivation Theories and Education: What To Know

When considering motivation in education, there is a time and a place for either source of motivation. Educational psychology research has shown that if you want students to engage in their education and have a sustainable interest in their learning, intrinsic motivators are the way to go.

It’s not uncommon to use extrinsic motivation to help with immediate human behavior improvements, but intrinsic motivators tend to encourage kids to keep working hard, learn new things, and push through challenges.

When students are motivated by an internal desire for passion and enjoyment of learning, they’re more engaged in the material and more likely to connect to and remember the content they are learning.

Primer Microschools believe that learning is done best when it is student-led. Students who learn to be motivated intrinsically are typically more self-directed, independent learners. They learn to take ownership and personal accountability for their learning.

The curiosity and creativity of an intrinsically motivated student are more powerful than someone extrinsically motivated. In turn, they will likely produce better, more personalized results.

Internal motivation leads to a more positive learning experience, allowing students to learn a sense of pride and satisfaction, leading to more profound confidence, higher self-esteem, and a true love of learning just for learning’s sake.

How Can You Teach Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is something that can be difficult to teach directly and will likely need to be discussed and modeled by the teacher. While this is a challenging task, it’s well worth it, and there are some things you can do:

  • Foster a sense of autonomy: Encourage students to take ownership of their learning process and pursue their own interests or passions.
  • Provide meaningful feedback: Give students specific, constructive feedback that guides them to personal growth and development. While positive feedback itself is an extrinsic reward, the students will learn to feel a sense of mastery and self-pride.
  • Create a challenging environment: By providing the students with a challenge they can overcome, you set them up to stretch themselves beyond their current capabilities. This develops a growth mindset and attitude of resiliency.
  • Positive relationships: Student relationships built on trust, support, and mutual respect can help students feel valued and connected to the learning process.

The general goal of a teacher is to create a sense of sustained educational interest. Building up a student’s intrinsic motivating factors can help them do just that: creating a more engaging and meaningful learning experience.

What Is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to the process of developing new skills related to managing emotions, building relationships, and making responsible decisions. SEL is based on the understanding that social and emotional skills are crucial for academic success, social interactions, and professionalism.

The self-awareness and responsibility taught in SEL lessons can help encourage an intrinsically motivating environment for all learners.

The Connection to Microschooling

The ultimate goal of a microschool is to create a space where students can feel comfortable learning at their own pace, focusing on their passions, and receiving personal support.

When students learn at an independent pace, they need to be able to recognize and feel proud of themselves when they accomplish something and move on to the next step.

While their teacher and peers are there to cheer them on, too, they are working to make themselves proud. Here are some ways that microschools can promote intrinsic motivation:

1. Personalized Learning

Microschools can provide personalized learning experiences tailored to individual interests, strengths, and learning styles. This can help students feel invested in their learning and motivated to pursue their own passions and interests.

2. Flexibility and Autonomy

Microschools can offer greater flexibility and autonomy for students to pursue their own learning goals and interests and to take ownership of the process. This can help students develop a sense of independence and self-direction that can be motivating in and of itself.

3. Collaborative Learning

Microschools can promote collaborative learning environments that encourage students to work together, share ideas, and support one another’s learning. This can help students feel connected to their peers and motivated to learn from one another.

4. Passion-Based Projects

Microschools can provide opportunities for students to engage in passion-based projects that allow them to explore their interests and develop their own unique talents and skills. This can be highly motivating for students who are intrinsically motivated to pursue their own interests.

5. Focus on Mastery

Microschools can prioritize mastery-based learning, which emphasizes the process of learning and growth rather than grades or test scores. This can help students develop a growth mindset and a sense of competence and mastery that can be motivating alone.

In Conclusion

Microschools can be a great environment for fostering intrinsic motivation by providing personalized learning experiences, promoting collaboration and self-accountability, and emphasizing the process of learning and growth.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are effective and useful, but intrinsic motivation is a lifelong, long-term solution. There won’t always be someone in your corner cheering you on and offering rewards, so understanding and practicing intrinsic motivation is necessary for a life’s worth of success.

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force that can drive individuals to pursue their goals and interests with passion and enthusiasm. By engaging in personally meaningful and satisfying activities, people experience more accomplishment, joy, and fulfillment.

Intrinsic motivation fosters a love of learning that can span a lifetime and lead to greater academic achievement, engagement, and well-being.


Intrinsically Motivated | Harvard Graduate School of Education

Using Social and Emotional Learning to Guide Students From Passion to Purpose | Edutopia

What Is Social-Emotional Learning? | Committee for Children

One type of motivation may be key to success | Science | AAAS.

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