Student Motivation in the Classroom

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: What's the Difference and Why Should You Care?

Instructors want their students motivated to complete coursework, pay attention in class, study for an exam, seek additional help when needed, or more generally, succeed. Here, as in all discussions of motivation, the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation matters. Intrinsic motivation can be defined (with several assumptions that are still up for debate) simply as “a desire to engage in an activity for its own sake – that is, just because of the satisfaction it provides.” Conversely, extrinsic motivation is the desire or necessity to engage in a task because of some externally controlled stimuli (Kohn, 1993).

Figure 1. Extrinsic vs. intrinsic factors that influence motivation. As instructors, we have control over how these factors are leveraged in the classroom.

Figure 1 illustrates typical factors in the classroom that would align with extrinsic motivation (blue), such as achieving a particular letter grade, and intrinsic motivation (red), such as an inherent curiosity for a particular subject.

Extrinsic Motivation: Potential Pitfalls

Extrinsic motivators—especially grades—often drive students to complete coursework and study for exams. But extrinsic motivation can also work at cross-purposes with deep learning. Although some instructors seek to completely remove grading as an extrinsic factor (the ATL’s teaching guide on Ungrading), most instructors will have to compromise with, rather than eliminate, extrinsic motivation. Kohn provides notable tips in his landmark book, Punished by Rewards (1993), on how to “minimize the damage” of extrinsic factors when they must be used:

  • Don't make it a contest. Competing with other students for a fixed number of rewards (i.e. grading on a bell curve) is a recipe for classroom hostility and rivalry.
  • Be respectful and discrete in meting out rewards. Placing too much public emphasis on the value of an extrinsic motivator can undermine intrinsic motivation for the student receiving the reward as well as those who don’t.
  • Remind students that the extrinsic reward is not the focus. A student may rightfully feel proud after earning an A+ on an exam, but if we’ve constructed our learning objectives and assessment methods correctly, that A+ really means they’ve developed a deeper knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Place the emphasis on that knowledge.
Intrinsically Motivated Students: The Benefits

Scholars debate the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but the former is clearly conducive to graduating lifelong learners that will continue the pursuit of knowledge long after they’ve received their last letter grade (McCombs, 1991). More specifically, many studies highlight the positive outcomes associated with intrinsically motivated students in the classroom, such as:

  • Lower levels of student stress (Baker, 2004)
  • Greater student autonomy and goal attainment (Conti, 2000)
  • A higher degree of self-regulation and confidence in achieving academic goals (Alt, 2016)
  • Increased likelihood of taking a deeper approach in learning, i.e. more robust connections between knowledge (Everaert et al., 2017)
  • Placing greater value on tasks being asked of them (Pucher et al., 2003)

Students will exhibit differing levels of baseline intrinsic motivation regarding a particular topic; after all, students narrow the scope of their college education in selecting a degree program, and there are bound to be some areas in which they’re innately less interested in. Intrinsic motivation is not immutable, however, and instructors can the nurture the right forms of motivation and exploit the associated benefits. What’s more, we can do so through fairly straightforward and practical approaches.  

What Can You Do?

As instructors, we have the ability to nurture, or at the very least do no harm to, a student’s sense of intrinsic motivation throughout a course, from the wording used in constructing the syllabus to the way in which we present a topic.

Rethinking Syllabus Language

The syllabus is likely the first thing the students will encounter at the outset of the course and should be viewed as a critical opportunity to make a first impression. What sort of impression should we make? Should we welcome the students to our course and express excitement for our time together, or explicitly detail all rewards they’ll receive if they meet our expectations and the punishments meted out if they don’t? Contrary to viewing the syllabus as a legally binding document in which all contingencies are explicitly accounted for, Mano Singham suggests that we be concise, transparent, and genuinely excited in our syllabi, emphasizing why the journey (the topic we’re teaching) is worth the pursuit (Singham, 2007). Harnish and Bridges showed that the use of warm, friendly language in a syllabus improves a student’s outlook on the course and instructor (Harnish & Bridges, 2011). Stressing the importance of congruency between an instructor’s syllabus language and self-perception Richmann and colleagues demonstrate that the emotional associations of syllabus language can be quantified (Richmann et al., 2020). This can be extended further by shifting to a learning-based syllabus that places the emphasis on how students will develop rather than the traditional content-and-policy approach  (Palmer et al., 2016). In short:

  • Use welcoming language and relaxed language. Consider running your syllabus through the ATL’s syllabus language algorithm to measure this.
  • Show enthusiasm for your topic in your syllabus. Emphasize why the particular subject matter in your course is worth the investment.
  • Be concise. Avoid syllabus creep, that is, expanding the syllabus to account for every contingency. It’s ok to reference other material without including it in the syllabus.
  • Be transparent with your students. You’ve taken great care to outline the structure and path of your course in the syllabus. Don’t be afraid to explain why it is the way it is.

Interacting with Your Students (Respectfully)

An instructor’s general disposition can have notable implications on the student’s experience. Instructors that exhibit a more approachable and friendly persona, through verbal and non-verbal language, can be less intimidating to students and encourage a relationship of trust between the student and instructor (Cotten & Wilson, 2006). Conversely, students are less likely to approach an instructor whose tone is distant or hostile, hurting their motivation to seek help during the course. In short:

  • Be professional, polite, and approachable with your students. If you have doubts regarding your ability to objectively measure this, consider having a colleague observe some of your classes.
  • Avoid appearing too busy or distracted for your students. You may need to rush out of the room right after class (perhaps to teach another class), but make sure your students are able to reach you at other times.
  • Show an interest in your students. Making casual small-talk before and after class can help put students at ease. Send emails when students have missed class, to congratulate them for strong work, or to offer assistance when they are struggling. Remember that you’re a person and so are they.  

Keep Things Interesting

Instructors who are required to teach a broad range of topics are likely to find some subjects inherently more pleasurable to teach, and that’s ok; however, if we don’t show an interest in the topic we’re teaching, it is unreasonable to ask our students to do so, and even more unreasonable to expect them to be intrinsically motivated to learn. Forsyth and McMillan (1991) present practical tips to avoid this and capitalize on intrinsic motivation:

  • Pique your students’ curiosity. Introduce each topic in an informative and challenging way. Consider posing a question or utilizing a “brain dump” (i.e. have all the students take 30 seconds to write down everything they currently know about a topic) to get your students thinking (Miller, 2022).
  • Present the material at a challenging level. Avoid patronizing students. Frequent low-stakes quizzing (see Formative Assessment) can help gauge where your students are at and help craft lessons at the appropriate level.
  • Show enthusiasm in what you’re teaching and what your students are learning. Avoid reading directly from notes and don’t be afraid to vary forms of instruction.
  • Place some of the responsibility for learning back on the students. Offering students a choice in their learning experience, i.e. which topics to explore in more depth and methods of evaluation, allows students a greater degree of autonomy and fosters a greater degree of intrinsic motivation.

Student motivation, whether the motivation to simply attend class or to pursue lifelong learning, is a complex but critical aspect in a student achieving the learning outcomes of any course, and each instructor has the ability to integrate it within their greater teaching philosophy. The level of effort this will involve will inevitably vary across instructors and disciplines, but if the range of literature discussed here is a fair indication, the higher education community at larger stands to benefit from its consideration.


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