8 Ideas for Building Intrinsic Motivation to Learn in Students

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

8 Ideas for Building Intrinsic Motivation to Learn in StudentsI love to travel. Most everything about it excites me—from the packing to the hustle-bustle of the airport to landing in a new location. Prior to my trips, I study where I’m going. I investigate the culture, foods, places to see (especially off-the-beaten-path locations), and the people. I do this research not because someone tells me to, but because I know it will help me enjoy my travel a lot more. I’m motivated by the unexpected rewards of travel. Doing my own research gives me a sense of confidence about what I’m going to experience, autonomy in where I can go, and a connectedness to where I’m going.

Throughout the history of schooling, we’ve approached the idea of “learning” something as mandatory, or an act of compliance. This was because the knowledge flowed from the teacher and the text to the empty vessel of the student’s mind. The structure of education was one of reward and punishment. You were either rewarded with good grades or punished with poor grades. Both the reward and punishment were contingent upon how someone else evaluated your learning—if you met the teacher’s approval, you were compensated with a good grade.

Extrinsic reward and punishment (compliance) may have a benefit when learning and doing routine, unimaginative tasks—such as brushing your teeth, taking out the garbage, or cleaning the bathroom. However, it can have a divesting effect on creative, exploratory tasks—such as learning how to read, doing a science experiment, and learning how numbers work. As Daniel Pink states in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, routine jobs require direction, whereas nonroutine or creative jobs depend upon our ability to be self-directed. He also says that successful people work hard and persist through difficult situations because of their “internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.”¹ Isn’t this what we want from our students—that they work hard, learn about their world, and create for others?

Research suggests we learn more through intrinsic motivators than we do through the reward/punishment model of extrinsic motivators.² Students who are more intrinsically motivated do a better job at deep thinking, perform higher academically, manage their time more efficiently, have more focus, and have lower dropout rates.³

All humans have three basic universal needs: to be competent, to have autonomy, and to feel connected. This is how we build intrinsic desire to learn. To gain competence, students must feel confident about their skills and believe that the skills are worthwhile. Autonomy comes when students can define and set their own goals based on what they believe to be valuable and relevant. When content is valuable and relevant, we’ve found the key to connectedness.

Here are eight ideas for building intrinsic motivation:

  1. Build student confidence by finding and celebrating successes, no matter how small. Students who experience failure on routine tasks often don’t feel confident—they don’t know what it feels like to be successful. Find those little things the student is good at—even if it’s simply getting to school on time—to nurture the child’s feelings of worth and value. Remind them how it feels to be successful. This way they can think back to those feelings when things get tough.
  2. Use descriptive feedback to focus students on what they are good at, what needs improvement, and where to find the resources to make those improvements. Ongoing and timely descriptive feedback during the instructional period can increase a student’s confidence and lead to a greater sense of autonomy.
  3. Treat every child as an individual. Each of us is a sum of our parts—including our personal history, belief systems, values and morals, ethnicity, race, and economic status. Avoid generalizing about a child—get to know each as a unique being with talents worth developing and gifts to offer the world. Boosting a child’s sense of individuality can also boost her or his self-confidence to succeed.
  4. To increase a child’s feeling of autonomy, provide each child with a space he or she can “own.” For elementary teachers, this may be a cubby, desk, or basket for students to store their supplies. For secondary teachers, this might be a preferred seat in the room, a file folder (either real or virtual), or a mailbox (also either real or virtual). Having a space to call their own helps students feel a sense of ownership and place within the classroom community.
  5. Build a classroom community in which learning is the expectation, not the exception. Sometimes bright kids are put down for wanting to learn and be successful—they will then hide and become less motivated. Students who have traditionally not done well are less inclined to take intellectual risks for fear of continual failure. Make learning the central value of the classroom community. Praise effort over achievement. Ensure that mistakes are considered learning experiences. Never use grades to reward or punish compliance. Grades should represent the child’s gains from the beginning of the unit to the final lesson.
  6. Use grades to communicate levels of learning, from the beginning to the end. Significant research informs us that giving a student a poor grade does not make that student work harder next time—in fact, it can do the exact opposite. Teach students about grades—what they mean and what they communicate. Provide students with rubrics, examples of quality work, and the resources they will need to be successful—right at the beginning of learning. Students feel better about learning when they know precisely what is expected of them, how to do it, and where to find the resources.
  7. Build on student interests. Provide opportunities for students to explore and incorporate their interests in the learning process. The number-one way to get learning to “stick” is through interest—when students are interested, they will pay attention.
  8. Finally, to keep students motivated, have them routinely reflect on their learning. Real achievement doesn’t happen overnight—it’s incremental and sometimes takes a while. Have students reflect on such questions as:
    • Did I do my best today?
    • Did I do better today than yesterday?
    • In what ways did I feel successful or challenged today?
    • Was I able to do more today than yesterday?
    • What can I do tomorrow to make it a better day?

Give students the tools they need to be more confident in their learning, self-directed, and connected to others. Let’s remove the “carrot-and-stick” theory in the classroom. Help students take charge of their learning by being more intrinsically driven to succeed.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

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¹Pink, D.H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
²Schunk, D.H., and B.J. Zimmerman (eds.). Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research, and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2008.
³Cash, R.M. Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 2016.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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2 Responses to 8 Ideas for Building Intrinsic Motivation to Learn in Students

  1. David Christensen says:

    Wow! Excellent!

  2. Pingback: Intrinsic Motivation – Incredible Journey of Giftedness

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