Intrinsic Motivation: Getting Behind the Wheel of Your Own Learning

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Teachers are always looking for ways to get their students to connect more deeply with the content in the classroom. This is often manifested in a lot of hard work on the teacher side of things. Sometimes this is all for naught, students only learn for the test, and forget the rest. Why is that?

Chase Mielke is a high school teacher who sat down with a group of sophomores, who were in the bottom three percent of the class ranking, to ask why they didn’t feel motivated in school. His findings align with the same findings of Daniel Pink’s book Drive. The students he interviewed pointed out that they felt blocked by, among other things, high stakes test, boring lectures, and lack of respect. All of which are detrimental to intrinsic motivation.

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Pink asserts that intrinsic motivation is built on three essential factors:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Now looking back at those elements that students felt hindered them, we can see where autonomy, mastery, and purpose have an effect on student performance.


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Lets start with autonomy which I think is the most important to student success. Student autonomy can be hard for teachers to reconcile with, because so much of schooling has been about making sure students stay well behaved and in line. That is best achieved through strict rules, and a hard and fast outline for the students day. But when teachers relinquish their need for absolute control and allow the students to direct their learning, they will naturally learn through their innate curiosity.

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In the quote above, the seminal educational philosopher John Dewey reinforces the idea of giving power back to the students, and giving them the authority to direct their learning.


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What are the traditional ideas of mastery?

  • Being perfect at something
  • Being the best at something
  • Being an expert on something

Each of those are a state of being, they treat mastery as a level you can reach. Daniel Pink says that mastery is a a journey, not a destination. What does this mean for our students? Well this means that we have reinforce the dynamic nature of science. There is no “mastery” in the traditional sense, science is all about learning more to update current models and staying curious.

This must also translate into our assessment of students. We can’t expect our students to understand the continuous journey that mastery is, if we treat a test as the end-all be-all to learning. Students should also be given a chance to revise their work to show growth. All of this well help students better understand what mastery is, and help develop intrinsic motivation in their own learning.


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The last key element to intrinsic motivation is purpose. Pink says that people have to feel that the work they are doing has meaning, and is doing some good in the world, in order to feel intrinsically motivated by it. Once again, the same is true for students.

Keep this in mind when asking students to do an assignment or participate in an activity. Purpose is directly tied to motivation. This is also another reason to give students the freedom to design their own curriculum. If they are given the choice not only will they follow their own curiosity, but it will also undoubtedly align with a purpose of their own.

How can we help students find their purpose?

  • Engage them in discussions about their goals
  • Share your own passions and purpose in life
  • Talk about how it can take time to learn your purpose, and that’s OK.

I’d like to finish this out with a video from the author himself who provides more background on the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. But the important thing to remember is that in order to get your students to be intrinsically motivated you have to cut out extrinsic rewards and provide the space for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your classroom. Once these are key features of your classroom, you and your students will find your educational journey more robust and worthwhile.

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