What Drives Your Students?

Believe it or not, your students are people, too. Each student will have different interests, different methods, and most importantly, different motivators. When you have a task to complete, are you more motivated to complete one because you want to do it or because you have to do it? We eat cake because we want to and enjoy it. We eat our vegetables because we have to.

It is likely that your students have come from an educational background full of extrinsic motivators, things like grades, GPA, stickers, and candy rewards. Extrinsic motivators are great, but they should be used in moderation and only in certain circumstances, especially in the classroom.


Extrinsic motivators take the emphasis off the joy of learning for the sake of learning, and on some menial, external reward that isn’t going to last long. Students complete their work, do what they need to do for the reward, receive the reward, and then they don’t even remember what they learned, because learning wasn’t the goal. The goal was that piece of candy. The goal was to get a passing grade. Sometimes we don’t do our best because we want to, but because we want the credit.

What motivation should I use in the classroom?

Intrinsic motivators are internal rewards- that feeling of accomplishment that comes from within after you’ve completed a project, knowing that you’ve done something you couldn’t have done three months ago. Intrinsic motivators aren’t motivators you can see, they are motivators you can feel. These motivators bring the focus back to the joy of learning– learning something for the sake of learning it– because you are interested, because you want to improve, because the learning is meaningful. When students are intrinsically motivated, they will truly learn, not just memorize facts just to get by.

How do I make students intrinsically motivated?

Keep in mind, there is no one answer for this. Every student might have different intrinsic motivators. Some might be motivated to know more about the life cycle and processes of plants, other students are going to be more interested in bacterium and how they impact other living things. There are three big things that are going to help you guide your students to be intrinsically motivated: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.



  • Give your students choices. Students won’t be motivated to learn everything, but if you give them options for how to complete an assignment, they may be more willing to do it.
  • Provide support, but don’t be controlling. Sometimes, teachers assign projects that appear open-ended, until students get initial feedback or a rubric that is too strict. Provide your students with scaffolding, but let them be creative and make assignments their own.
  • Break the class into teams. Autonomy doesn’t mean students have to work individually, it means they have a voice. Breaking your class into teams of 2-4 people and asking them to become experts on a topic (maybe a topic of their choice) to present to the class can allow students to use their voice.


  • Mastery is approachable, but not necessarily achievable. As a teacher, you have probably realized you will never know everything there is to know. As a science teacher, the subject is always changing and expanding- it’s the nature of the subject. Many students are under the impression that receiving a 100% on an assignment means that he or she has mastery of the subject. Getting better at something is a natural motivator for students. Be sure both the top students and struggling students feel challenged.
  • Mastery isn’t easy. This one feels obvious, but I still feel it should be emphasized. Mastery requires time, effort, and it required us to focus on the things that we are “bad at”- something that doesn’t really make us feel good about ourselves. In order for students to work on mastery, they need to have some grit.
  • You don’t have to be “smart” to master a class. Anyone, with enough effort, and proper support from others, can work toward mastery.


  • If students don’t see a purpose, they aren’t going to want to put in the effort. Can you blame them?  A student’s time is valuable to them. They spend hours in school each day. Many are involved in extracurriculars or sports. Some students have jobs. Some are researching colleges and trying to figure out what they want to do in the future- their ultimate purpose. A worksheet is going to carry very little purpose. A class project researching ways to make their school community more sustainable and eco-friendly may carry more purpose, and more meaning.By giving students autonomy, guiding them towards mastery, and giving assignments that have real purpose, you help students become intrinsically motivated. Is every student going to feel intrinsically motivated for every assignment? Probably not; school forms us into extrinsically motivated individuals. Sometimes, it’s okay to extrinsically motivate our students. Daniel Pink, the author os Drive! provides an excellent flow chart to decide when extrinsic motivation is okay:

    Help students become motivated to learn for the sake of learning, not for a menial reward.

    With every lesson, make the material relevant to the students. Allow students to relate the material to their passions. If they are having trouble making connections to mitosis, have them discuss what would happen if something went wrong during meiosis. What if the chromosomes don’t separate properly? What happens then? What does it mean to have an extra chromosome? Would a Martian have the same genetic material as someone on Earth? Get students talking. Give them freedom. Give them the keys, and watch them drive.


  1. Meghan,

    I really loved your blog post this week! I liked how you organized your blog and asked questions to help the blog along. I think your description on why intrinsic motivation is so important really helped readers understand why it should be used in the classroom. Your sections on autonomy, mastery, and purpose highlight the big points Pink makes in his book! I liked how you said that making learning relative to students life and giving them freedom help drive the learning. I also think your graphics help get your point across. You did not talk a lot about extrinsic motivation. How do you think extrinsic motivation plays a role in the classroom? Overall, I think your post was well done.


    • I think extrinsic motivators are extremely present in the classroom. Many students are focused on grades and maintaining a good GPA, which are both extrinsic. I think teachers should be aware of this, and therefore try to avoid using extrinsic motivators like candy and rewards as much as possible. I tried to include the flow chart to help teachers decide when rewards are okay to use, but since schools typically are filled with extrinsic motivators, teachers don’t have to focus on adding them.

  2. Meghan,
    I absolutely love your initial statement about how we eat cake because we want to, but eat vegetables because we have to. It got me thinking…how do we motivate kids to “eat their vegetables” in the science classroom? There are certain topics that students have to learn, no matter how seemingly awful they are–how do we make those just as appealing as the cake? Your thoughts on autonomy were good starts, and I especially liked how you made it clear that there was no one way to motivate all of your students–your students are individuals, and to motivate them, you have to know them all personally. It takes work on their end AND work on your end–but in the end (how many times can I use that word), it’s all worth it. Great post!

    • Naomi,
      I think giving student autonomy and making the material relevant are the most important things to getting them to eat their vegetables. It helps them to know why we are learning something that seems boring or irrelevant. The boring stuff is always a part of something bigger!

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