Motivation in Education

Dedicated educators are always on the lookout for ways to improve teaching and learning. In recent years, technology driven innovations such as smart boards, iPads, and online courses have greatly facilitated both. But it’s really technology in the service of psychology that gets students to engage with and absorb new material. In other words, most people learn best when they are truly interested in learning, independent of the way they engage with the subject matter.

Think back to your school days. Did you ever procrastinate, or even fail to turn in assignments? Now consider your favorite hobby or pastime. How much time do you spend learning, practicing or thinking about that activity? Chances are you don’t have nearly as much trouble focusing or finding time to do something that interests you.

Motivation is the key. It’s the factor that makes a subject engaging and entices a student to become a willing participant in the learning process.

Motivated students are more likely to pursue education independently. Therefore, understanding the psychology behind motivation is crucial to developing better teaching methods and determining how to use new technologies in the classroom more effectively.

PrintThere are two broad types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from an outside source. Rewards and the threat of punishment are common extrinsic motivations. For example, running a race is extrinsically motivated if the goal is to earn a cash prize, win a trophy, or receive the cheers of the crowd. A child who cleans up his room to avoid punishment or guilt is likewise extrinsically motivated.

PrintIntrinsic motivation is motivation from an inside source. Self-improvement, enjoyment, and excitement are common intrinsic motivations. For instance, running a race is intrinsically motivated if the goal is to relieve stress, become a better runner, or simply have fun.

The grading systems traditionally used to motivate students are extrinsic motivators, and extrinsic motivators are less effective than intrinsic motivators, especially when it comes to education. The problem is that grades are given for completing a task, not necessarily for learning. The student that is primarily driven by the rewards and punishments associated with grades will do what it takes to gain the former and avoid the latter. The intrinsically motivated learner may still value the extrinsic rewards associated with grades,but will likely delve deeper into a given subject because his or her effort is driven by an internal desire to understand the topic.

If the runners on a team only practiced because their coach gave them a dollar every time they showed up, there would have been no real reason for them to run outside of practice. However, if a runner simply wanted to be the best, he or she is more likely to practice independently. In other words, intrinsic motivation encourages you to be better because you want to be better.

Studies have shown that strategies such as providing encouraging feedback and allowing for self-direction and autonomy can enhance intrinsic motivation in a classroom setting when the activities have the appeal of novelty, challenge or aesthetic value for the students. For more information about a motivationally supportive educational environment please refer to the sources provided below.

The private sector has also been busy exploring the value of motivation. A number of corporations have invested huge sums of money to research the psychology of motivation in order to improve marketing and sales. Over the years they have made use of this research in order to find ways to intrinsically motivate consumers to purchase products and shop at stores. The results of this research also have tremendous potential for education.

Gamification, the process of turning tasks into games, is one of the most effective applications of motivation research and modern technology in the corporate world. In our next blog post we will delve into the meaning of gamification and how it could also be used to improve the classroom.

C.R. Smith, Intrinsic Motivation
Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner, and Richard M. Ryan, Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again
Kathleen McKinney, Encouraging Students’ Intrinsic Motivation
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., Motivation: The Why’s of Behavior