Science Teaching 2.0: From Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

What does motivation have to do with learning science?

Quite a bit, actually. For students, motivation typically stems from either extrinsic or intrinsic motivators.

Source of Extrinsic image:
Source of Intrinsic image:

Too often, student motivation has been dependent on extrinsic motivators, such as grades, extra-credit, candy/treats, technology, cash, and pizza coupons, to “incentivize” them to learn (Pink, 2009, p. 9). Although research has found this system of extrinsic motivation to be largely incompatible with the learning environment, there is disconnect between what science knows and what schools and teachers actually do. As Pink (2009), the author of Drive, notes, rewards such as those mentioned about only deliver a short-term boost in motivation, focus on controlling behavior, and tend to reduce both long-term and intrinsic motivation (p. 8, 37). More importantly, extrinsic motivators can lead students to develop adverse behaviors that negatively impact their academic performance. These issues are summarized in the table below, titled Carrots and Sticks: The Seven Deadly Flaws (Pink, 2009, p. 57).

Pink, 2009, p. 57

Extrinsic motivators continue to be used in science classrooms because it’s the only motivation system students and teachers have known – its comfortable and they are used to it. But, as Pink has shown through his book, Drive, extrinsic motivation often fails to promote engagement, creativity, innovation, or problem-solving.

So how can we, as teachers, avoid extrinsic motivation and foster intrinsic motivation in our own science classroom? It begins with three elements of deeper motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Pink, 2009, p. 62).


In the traditional classroom, compliance and control are central tenets that are implemented through extrinsic motivators, which often uses “if-then” rewards that require students to lose some of their autonomy (Pink, 2009, p. 36, 86).

  • However, this system clashes with students who are in adolescence and moving into young adulthood. Instead, students should be given opportunities to make choices and decisions regarding their learning – which can have a powerful effect on student attitudes and academic performance (Pink, 2009, p. 88).
  • “According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being” (Pink, 2009, p. 88-89).

To foster more autonomy among students, the four essentials to autonomy (known as the 4 T’s) need to be considered. The 4 T’s include: task, time, technique, and team (Pink, 2009, p. 91-92).

Real-world application: FedEx Days. The purpose of a “FedEx Day” is to diverge from traditional class time and topics to allow students to explore topics that are of interest to them within science. This “passion project” would be conducted by students (individually or in teams) over several, separate days throughout the quarter. Students are able to do research, investigations, and/or observations on a (school appropriate) topic of interest within science and present their project to the class at the end of the quarter.


Like autonomy, engagement is also needed for students to pursue mastery of the concepts learned in the science classroom. In the extrinsic motivation system, students will only be motivated to reach the acceptable threshold of learning (i.e. a passing grade) rather than pushing beyond the threshold to achieve something more. As stated by Pink (2009), “Solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one’s way to a fresh solution – only engagement can produce mastery” (p. 109). This is where intrinsic motivation can inspire students to pursue mastery, which is having the “desire to get better and better at something that matters” (Pink, 2009, p. 109). To understand how mastery is an integral part of intrinsic motivation, the 3 laws of mastery are summarized below.

  • Mastery is a mindset: 1) students need to view their abilities as infinitely improvable rather than a predetermined, finite amount, and 2) learning goals lead to mastery instead of performance goals because the “goal is to learn, not to prove they’re smart” (Pink, 2009, p. 119-120)
  • Mastery is a pain: mastery requires intense and deliberate practice and “grit,” which is the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Pink, 2009, p. 122).
  • Mastery is an asymptote: it can be approached, but mastery can never fully be reached; “the joy is in the pursuit rather than the realization” (Pink, 2009, p. 125).

Real-world application: Students become the teacher. Give students the opportunity to teach each other and the class what they know about a topic (Pink, 2009, p. 196). This can be done through activities such as Think, Pair, Share and Jigsaw, as well as through multi-media presentations and skits.

Check out this TEDx talk by Behrouz Moemeni, who describes the role intrinsic motivation plays in our lives and in education in particular.


We, as teachers, need help our students see the big picture to what they are learning and why its relevant to the world we all live in (Pink, 2009, p. 190). Asking “why” learning a particular concept matters makes it personal and gives students a purpose for learning it (Pink, 2009, p. 137). For example, why should we care about climate change, or renewable energy, or the conservation of endangered species? Understanding these and other concepts, topics, and questions in science is important to not only the health, safety, and advancement of ourselves, but also our families and friends, community, country, and the world in which we live.

Example of a River Cleanup project; Source:

Real-world activity: Finding meaning and purpose to science will often lead outside the classroom. For example, if the classroom topic was water quality and pollution, the class could take a trip to the local watershed and assess the water quality for themselves based on their own observations (e.g. color of the water, presence of different organisms, occurrence and amount of trash, etc.) and investigations (e.g. testing pH of water, oxygen levels, etc.) Utilizing their findings on water quality and pollution in their local watershed, students could organize a watershed clean up day and design an information flyer that can be posted on the school website and well as be shared with the local community

References: Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books.


  1. Hi Lauren,

    I think your activity that you proposed is a great one for fostering intrinsic motivation in your students! This allows them to gain a sense of ownership over their work and actually get out and get involved in their work. Moreover, I think that if your students (inevitably) find that the their local water sources are polluted and the implications of this, they will intrinsically want to learn more and make a difference.

    • Hi Emiia,
      Thanks for reading my post! For the student-purpose activity, I drew from my background in environmental consulting since I delt with contaminated water on a regular basis. Through that work, I felt that I was making a difference in those communities and I hope to inspire those same feelings and motivations in my students. I agree with your thoughts on creating a sense of student ownership. I think having students investigate issues pertinent to their own communities will show students that they have a stake in these issues and can be directly involved in remedying them as well.

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