Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/Classroom Management/Motivation

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Motivating Students in the Classroom[edit]

by Christine Stanton

Learning Targets:

After reading this article, students should be able to:

• Define, understand and give examples of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

• Understand opposing theories on motivation

• Describe Self Determinaton Theory and provide examples of how to meet students' needs

Defining Motivation: What makes you move?[edit]

mo•ti•va•tion: the act or process of motivating b: the condition of being motivated: a motivating force, stimulus, or influence : INCENTIVE , DRIVE ( Merriam Webster, 2008)

The subject of motivation has been researched and analyzed by countless scholars in various fields such as psychology, philosophy and education. What makes people behave in certain ways? What makes them “move”? In the 1940's, a pioneer of motivation theory, Abraham Maslow, described his own theory on human motivation. He proposed that people have a heirarchy of needs that motivate them to do all things (Maslow, 1946). These basic needs must be met in order of precedence, meaning that the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before the needs at the top of the list can be (Maslow, 1946).

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.png

In this model, certain needs must be met in order for a person to be motivated to learn. Later research expands on this idea, as noted in the following sections. In Educational Psychology, it is a common belief that teachers can “motivate” their students by providing an environment or situation that may enhance learning. Researchers have been studying motivation for several decades, attempting to understand how to use motivation to specifically benefit the learning process. Motivation has been classified into two generally accepted forms:

Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within the student (e.g. contentment, enjoyment, pride, sense of accomplishment, responsibility)

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from an external source (e.g. tangible rewards, trophies, stickers, gifts, applause, praise)

Instrinsic versus Extrinsic?[edit]

So, which is better for use in the classroom? Is one more effective than the other? Or can both be used?

On one hand, some could say that extrinsic rewards are more effective and reflective of the "real world" - people aren't motivated to work without paychecks. So does extrinsic motivation prepare students for the "real world"? Or are we just bribing them?

Because intrinsic motivation comes from within, it is considered by many to be the more effective of the two when it comes to learning. Intrinsic motivation can foster life long excitement for learning, resulting in students who are eager to learn new things. Their experience is more meaningful and they go deeper in their learning to fully understand it. It helps develop a student’s attitude towards education and ensures more lasting success. Of course, we all want our children to want to go to school and learn because they enjoy learning. But what about subjects that just don't interest them or that are difficult for them to master? Is it possibly to be intrinsically motivated for all things?

We're back at our question.....which works better? Intrinsic or Extrinsic Rewards? Let's look a little closer at each...

Extrinsic Motivation[edit]

Extrinsic motivation can take the form of anything that doesn't come from within a person. Examples range from a smiley face on a paper or a "great job" sticker to a hefty pay raise or bonus for an adult. It can be getting the approval of a teacher or being accepted by peers. Extrinsic motivation can also be negative in the form of punishment or taking rewards away.

Extrinsic motivation may be more effective when a student has a less-desirable task ahead of them. For example, the student who dislikes math, might be more motivated to do well on the math test to get a good grade. Many argue, however, that once the reward is gone, the student will not continue to be motivated (Vockell, 2008). The predominance of researchers seem to agree that intrinsic motivation is more desirable, encouraging a more lasting desire to learn; however, extrinsic motivation is sometimes more popular when the task is not as appealing or if the technique seems to be more effective for the task at hand and for certain types of learners. For example, if Susan hates her math homework and is simply not interested in doing it, it might give her incentive to do her homework if she knows she will get a good grade, a reward or praise from her teacher.

Intrinsic Rewards & Self Determination Theory[edit]

Many believe that motivation is the most powerful when it comes from within, rather than from outside forces. Some go farther to describe one or more factors that can promote intrinsic motivation. Some of these factors are challenge, curiosity, control, fantasy, competition, cooperation, or recognition (Vockell, 2008).

Self Determination Theory (SDT) started evolving over 30 years ago with the research of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. The basis of their theory is that people have three basic needs: the need for a sense of autonomy, the need for relatedness (or belonging), and the need for competence (Deci & Ryan. 1991). Many theories on teaching motivation have centered on meeting these three needs:

1. Sense of Autonomy - Students need to feel a sense of control and self-determination

2. Sense of Belonging – Students need to feel accepted by peers and teachers

3. Sense of Competence – Students need to feel capable of succeeding

SDT proposes that all individuals have a “seed” for learning and with the right nutrients or environment, they can be encouraged to be self motivated (or intrinsically motivated) (Deci & Ryan, 1991). This implies that if all these basic needs are met for our students, then their natural curiosity and thirst for learning can shine through.

To be self determined is to endorse one's actions at the highest level of reflection. When self determined people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important, and vitalizing. - Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan

Deci & Ryan went even further to claim that extrinsic motivation can undermine intrinsic motivation (Deci et al. 2001). In 1994, Cameron & Pierce challenged this theory saying that the effect of extrinsic rewards was "minimal and inconsequential." Deci and Ryan countered this claim with newer research in 1995 which proved that "tangible rewards do indeed have a substantial undermining effect" (Deci et al. 2001).

How Can Teachers Meet These Needs?
Need for Autonomy Need for Belonging Need for Competence
Encourage sense of personal control for successes and failures

Recognize and try to tap into students’ interests and reasons for valuing content

Giving choices and allowing self direction

De-emphasize extrinsic rewards as much as possible

Promote mutual respect

Allow social interaction

Provide recognition and feedback privately

Ensure equal participation and opportunities for all students

Promote “caring” for one another

Setting challenging but attainable goals for students

Provide effective feedback on goal attainment

Using appropriate models to build self-efficacy

Keep feedback confidential

(Adapted from Anderman & Leake, 2005)

An Argument Against Motivation Theories[edit]

On the opposite end of the educational motivation research field are some that believe that motivation theories are not valid, such as Steven Reiss. Reiss, a professor of pscyology at Ohio State University, claims that Deci & Ryan and other similarly minded researchers 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. But there is no real evidence that intrinsic motivation even exists" (Reiss, 2008). Reiss believes that different people can be motivated in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to motivate. "Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy - for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can't say some motivations, like money (or other tangible rewards), are inherently inferior." While some children are "inherently curious", other children are not as much so, for which extrinsic rewards may be more effective. Reiss further argues that extrinsic rewards may encourage students to pursue activities that they would normally have shyed away from.


Your third grade class is very active today. The energy level is high as the kids get ready for an end-of-the-day holiday party. But before they can go, they need to finish an important history lesson which they will be quizzed on. You know getting their attention will be hard. What do you do? Do you offer them all a "homework-free" night as a reward for paying attention? You still have a bag of lollipops in your desk for halloween - would that be a good idea? Or if you make it a fun, interactive game will they all jump in and get the job done because they'll be enjoying themselves? Or perhaps giving them the choice of giving up some of their recess in order to spend more time on the history lesson would encourage them to make good choices?

People can be motivated differently for a variety of reasons, from age to culture to special needs. As teachers, we will each have various scenarious where one might work better than another or a combination of the two is a better approach. While many of our actions are motivated extrinsically, intrinsic motivation must be there as well to encourage long term interest and learning. Being aware of different theories (such as intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, self-determination theory) and being flexibile in our methods will be important in order to be the most effective teachers we can be.


Anderman, L. & Leake, V. (2005). The ABCs of Motivation: An Alternative Framework for Teaching Preservice Teachers about Motivation. The Clearing House, 78(5), 192-196.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self Determination Theory Overview. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2008 from

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R.,& Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrisic Motivation: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Education Research, 71(1), 1-27.

Grabmeier, J. (2008). Intrinsic Motivation Doesn't Exist, Researcher Says. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2008 from Ohio State Universary Research News Website:

Lepper, M., Corpus, J., & Iyengar, S. (2005). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivational Orientations in the Classrooms: Age Differences and Academic Correlates. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 97 (2), 184-196.

Maslow, A. H. (1946). A Theory of Human Motivation. In P. Harriman (Ed.), Twentieth Century Psychology: Recent Developments in Psychology (pp. 22-48). New York: Philosophical Library.

Motivation (2008). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2008 from Merriam Webster Online Dictionary:

Vallerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G., Blais, M.R., Briere, N.M., Senecal, C. & Vallieres, E.F. (1992) The Academic Motivation Scale: A Measure of Intrinsic, Extrinsic, and Amotivation in Education. Educational and Psychological Measurement (52), 1003-1017.

Vockell, E. (2008). Education Psychology: A Practical Approach. Retrieved September 18, 2008 from

Review Questions[edit]

1. According to the intrinsic motivation theories of Deci & Ryan, which of the following would be the least effective in a classroom setting:

    a.   Giving students the choice between two different learning activities
    b.   Providing a one-on-one feedback session
    c.   Making sure each student gets exactly 15 minutes for their presentation
    d.   Giving each student a letter grade based on a clearly communicated rubric

2. According to the Self-Determination Theory, which of the following is NOT one of the basic needs:

    a.   the need to be a part of a group
    b.   the need to express yourself
    c.   the need to have a certain amount of control
    d.   the need to feel competent

3. Mrs. Jenkins has noticed that Kevin is not participating in the classroom activities. He seems to prefer solitary activities and never raises his hands or talks to his classmates. She is concerned that he feels isolated or alone. Which basic need could be unmet in Kevin, according to the Self-Determination Theory?

    a.  Autonomy
    b.  Belonging
    c.  Communication
    d.  Competence

4. At the end of each student presentation, Mr. Oliver asks the entire class to cheer for the presenter. This could be an example of:

    a.  Intrinsic Motivation
    b.  Extrinsic Motivation
    c.  Neither
    d.  Both a & b

Answers: 1. d, 2. b, 3. b, 4. b