Breaking Down Motivation – what actually DRIVES us?

As a student, I think and talk about motivation frequently. Some days, I don’t feel motivated at all- I procrastinate and drag my feet to complete a homework assignment or study for an upcoming test. Other times, I do feel motivated to do my work well and be productive with my time. I’m sure you can relate, too! However, motivation in a learning context is more than just feeling inclined to do your homework. Instead, motivation is more about what is driving us to succeed, learn, and excel academically. Why do we do what we do? Are you driven by outside factors like getting great grades, raising your GPA, or keeping a certain scholarship? Or are you motivated by external rewards, such as the approval of your parents, the satisfaction of scoring higher on a test than your friend, or going out for ice cream?

When you think about motivation in a teaching context, the question becomes- how do we cultivate and maintain student motivation? Where does motivation come from? These many important questions can be answered in Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” as he explores the science behind what motivates us.

Differentiating Motivation

First, it’s important to define intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. The graphic above does a great job at describing the difference between each kind of motivation, so give it a read! Daniel Pink applies these concepts as divides motivation into two “types” – Type I and Type X.

  • When we are motivated by rewards and punishments, Type X behavior is the result. They are mainly fueled by extrinsic, or external, desires or rewards that an activity leads to.
  • Type I behavior is higher level, intrinsically fueled motivation. They are more concerned with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself, not the external rewards that come with an activity. Type I’s intrinsic motivation sustains them in the long run and their motivational resources are easily replenished.

The Main Idea – “nobody exhibits purely Type X or Type I behavior every waking minute of every living day without exception… Type I behavior is both born and made” (Pink pg. 76-77). So, don’t fret if you feel like you are more Type X! While Type I is the goal, intrinsic motivation in Type I needs to be grown and cultivated in the classroom. Here’s how we approach it!

Fostering Motivation – Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

In Drive, Daniel Pink claims that the three main elements behind motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. To increase motivation among students, these are the areas in which teachers should focus on developing!

Autonomous Learning

“Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.”

Daniel Pink, Drive pg. 92

Most of us know what it feels like to go through school and have little to no autonomy – the monotony of the school day includes following all the rules, doing the worksheets, following the teacher’s directions, and doing work and listening because it’s “going to be on the test.” However, this method is the opposite of autonomous, it’s compliance. Instead, provide students with opportunities to be inquisitive and have more control over their learning, then, their motivation to learn will be more self-directed and intrinsically driven.

Practical ways to implement an autonomous teaching approach:

  • Use student-created classroom rules at the beginning of a semester. Have students set their own learning goals too!
  • Offer students some autonomy over how and when they do homework or assignments (Pink pg. 186). Sometimes less structure and more freedom can lead to more engagement!
  • Assign students concepts and have them take turn teaching what they’ve learned to their peers. Involve their own individual passions to direct their inquiry and learning.

Mastering Material

Only engagement can produce mastery. Daniel Pink describes mastery as 3 things:

  • Mastery is a mindset. Mastery is striving for improvement- in our abilities, knowledge, and understandings. Help students see the worth in mastering material. Not only does it lead to extrinsic rewards, but internal satisfaction to see growth in ourselves as we learn!
  • Mastery is a pain. Mastery requires hard work, critical thinking, deliberate practice, and determination. Mastery isn’t developed overnight or after acing one test. However, the pain that it takes to master something is worth it in the long run!
  • Mastery is an asymptote. Mastery, similar to learning, is a lifelong process, we may never fully realize it.

A few ways to develop mastery in the classroom would be to provide a variety of assessments for students to learn material (formative, summative, project-based, group work, etc.), emphasize the importance of practice, not perfection, and use pre-assessments and post-assessments before and after learning material so that students can see their own progress!

Purpose-driven Learning

How will students have a desire to learn if they don’t understand the big picture of why the content is important or relevant to them? Helping students understand the PURPOSE of what they do in the classroom is essential to developing Type I behavior. I feel that this is the biggest piece that is often missing from modern-day classrooms!

Daniel Pink brings up “helping kids see the big picture” in the education system (Pink pg. 190). When school focuses on if-then rewards, students are blindly going through school without a clue of why they’re doing what they’re doing. When students can see how what they are learning is relevant to the world around them, whether it is relevant in nature, their career path, in their culture or workplace, they will start to apply what they learn. Exemplary teachers connect the classroom to the outside world!

The graphic above provides a quick recap to this blog and the essential ideas within Drive! Increasing intrinsic motivation in the classroom takes time and effort, but it’s not impossible. Motivating our students and teaching them how to be intrinsically motivated is one of the most essential things I believe we can teach them – motivation isn’t just for school, it’s for life!

Thanks for reading! Yours truly, Miss Creeden


  1. Hey Anthony,
    I appreciate the feedback and I’m glad you liked it! In terms of evaluating mastery, I think I’ve learned more about this in EDP301 (Assessment) because I could incorporate formative assessments, things like low-stakes quizzes, exit-slips, and practice problems that students could work on in class to ensure their mastery and understanding over a topic or chapter. To evaluate their progress in the unit overall, I would focus on using summative assessments that are more cumulative and occur less frequently. A combination of these will help me be able to make a decision about their mastery in the classroom!

  2. Hey Steven,
    Thanks for your comments! The GIF was from Grace’s tweet and I thought it was funny too! I think in that situation I would talk to the student to find out how they’ve been motivated in the past and to see if there’s anything going on in their life that’s hindering their motivation currently. Because every student is unique, I would work with them to come up with individualized goals, see what interests them the most and introduce those topics in inquiry settings, and remind them of the purpose of why we’re doing what we are doing in school. I think it is important to check in with those students specifically often to monitor their progress and ensure they feel supported!

  3. Hey Rachel,
    I really liked your blog this week. Great job! The video you included had a lot of great examples for how we can incorporate intrinsic motivation into the classroom. Also how you included that we should let students pick how they demonstrate their knowledge. I also thought the part on how mastery is defined was a great addition. How would you recognize in the future whether a student has mastery over a unit or subject?

  4. Hey!
    Awesome post about motivation, it was very well-rounded. I love the addition of the Eddie Murphy GIF LOL. I also like how you incorporated that image of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in the post. It gave me a better way to visualize each concept. I think that motivation is crucial for our students in getting them to better understand concepts. A question I have for you is if you see a student that’s struggling to get motivated in class, what are some ways you could reach out on a personal level to that student? I think that there are many different ways but it’s challenging to decide due to each person being so unique.

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