Motivation Matters!

Social media is full of influencers trying to increase your motivation. Whether it is a fitness influencer trying to help their followers on their health journey, a mental health influencer trying to help their followers take care of themselves, or a business influencer trying to encourage their small business followers to keep going, motivation on the Internet is unavoidable.

I would have to assume that your plan to motivate your students most likely didn’t include setting up an Instagram account and posting things like “You can do tonight’s homework!”. It more likely may have included class rewards, extra credit, or more homework passes. The social media influencer and the class rewards are the models we are used to seeing, but are they the most effective? What really motivates us? And, more importantly, how can we motivate our students?

Why Does This Matter?

Before we can go any further, we need to establish what the goal of motivating our students looks like. Let’s let thoughts filter into our head and just take them as they are- no judgement at first. Go ahead and write this list down (Yes! Go do it!). Here are the goals that first popped into my head:


  • want to listen during my class and their other classes
  • want to push themselves to achieve at their highest level
  • want to continue learning for the rest of their lives
  • are curious about the natural world
  • have a desire for a grade in my class that reflects their understanding of content
  • behave in my class, their other classes, and in life
  • care more about learning outcomes than their grade

Did your list have any similarities with mine? If not, that’s okay- I am sure this list could be infinite! The reason I had you do this activity is because, in general, if we don’t know why we want to motivate our students, then we won’t know how to motivate them.

Types of Motivation

Now, contrary to what you might think, not all types of motivation are created equal. In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink outlines two different types of motivation: Type X and Type I. Here’s what they mean:

Type X

  • Values the external rewards that can come from completing a task more than the internal satisfaction that may come with working on and completing a task

    Type I
  • Values the internal satisfaction that comes from working on and completing a task more than the external rewards that can come from it

If it wasn’t already obvious enough, yes, Type X and Type I are complete opposite types of motivation. They have different ways to be switched on in our students, which means that we must understand what they look like, and when each type is beneficial to trigger.

Type X

The blog reader in you is probably thinking, “Oh, well Type I must always be better than Type X, if she’s bringing this up.” And, while Type I is generally more beneficial than Type X, it isn’t always. You know just as well as I do that there isn’t always a great “why” behind why students need to complete a certain task. In cases like those, Type X motivation is a great thing to trigger, often using rewards. Wondering when this might be? Here’s a flow chart to help you figure it out.

Taken from Drive by Daniel Pink, page 69

Let’s run through an example using the flow chart of a task that is mostly routine: memorizing the metric prefixes.

  • Is the task mostly routine? Yes!
  • Can you increase the task’s challenge or variety, make it less routine, or connect it to a larger purpose? In some ways, yes, but overall, no. You should certainly tell students that memorizing the prefixes leads to the larger purpose of using those in dimensional analysis problems. But, at first, they don’t know what those problems are, nor do they probably care. You can’t make it much more challenging, since it is just memorizing, and, technically, you could add variety to how they memorize them (playing games, flashcards, team challenges), but not what they are memorizing.
  • Use rewards, even “if-then” rewards, but be sure to
  • Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary: You must let your students know that these prefixes are going to be used for all sorts of problems throughout the year. They are a very essential building block of all that is to come in your class and in the content.
  • Acknowledge that the task is boring: Do just that. You know just as well as your students do that memorizing prefixes is not the most exciting thing… let them know that you understand and show them you are human, too.
  • Allow people to complete the task their own way: Sure, you may have used flashcards to memorize these yourself, but that doesn’t work for every student. Allow them to have some autonomy in the way they memorize these and you should get less pushback- and it will help to build their overall study skills!

Motivate students extrinsically using things such as small prizes, homework passes, extra credit, class parties, etc. Anything that students can work towards that would be given to them would be considered extrinsic motivation. And, in some cases, as mentioned above, it can be a good thing.

Here is a TED Talk about the importance of being careful with your extrinsic motivators and the importance of creating intrinsic motivation instead.

Type I

In a perfect world, all students would be Type I, or intrinsically motivated. This may look like:

  • having the desire to learn
  • asking lots of questions, at times beyond the course content
  • making connections to everyday life, or asking about these connections
  • being excited about learning

Imagine having a classroom full of students like this! Imagine how much you all could learn together, how positive the atmosphere of your classroom would be, and how much you could push your students. Now, of course, most students don’t arrive in our classroom feeling this way, being intrinsically motivated. So what can we do to help? Here are some examples:

  • Not throw out empty words: For Type I students, verbal or written encouragement is a great motivator. It reminds them that their work and interest in their work is a positive thing and that they are on the right path. However, when this praise is thrown out all of the time, especially for achievements that aren’t particularly impressive, it loses its meaning. Be sure to carefully craft the words of your encouragement and praise.
  • Have students set their own goals: When students are able to choose their own goals, they are able to cater them to what they believe they can accomplish. And, when they report these goals to someone, such as their classmates or teacher, they are held to a certain level of accountability to achieve them, which is a good thing. Goal-setting doesn’t just have to be about grades or tests, but can also touch on things like behavior, studying, and even attitudes. Here is an example of a goal sheet you could have students fill out:
  • Connect course content to students’ lives: When students realize that the content you are teaching them is actually important, they are more likely to take a personal interest in it, which will hopefully turn into intrinsic motivation. Find out what your students are interested in, and talk about it. An interest in football can become a projectile motion lab in your physics class that includes going to the field and throwing a football! You don’t need to turn all of your students into physicists, but you need to show them that science is everywhere.
  • Go to the margins: If you read my last blog, then you know all about what this means. Essentially, don’t be afraid to follow the interests of students, even if that means veering off of the path of your original lesson plans. When students see that you care about their questions and wonderings, then they will see the value in being curious in the first place.

Remember, the goal here is to create lifelong learners, not robots!

We want to create interested students who are so eager to learn- not just students to show up and run through the motions because they have to.

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose

These have already been indirectly touched on, but these three principles are essential in assisting in the development of Type I students.

Check out this video to learn about a research study done on motivation, as well as what mastery, autonomy, and purpose mean.
  • Mastery: Working at a task until you have mastered it can nearly only be done when you are a Type I individual. With mastery comes “flow”, a state of mind in which you are so engrossed in your task that work almost as if time has stopped, and that task is the most interesting thing. We need to give our students opportunities to attain mastery, not just forget about concepts after a test.

  • Autonomy: Within reason, we should let our students decide how and when they will complete a task. Daily, assigned homework? I mean, maybe, but I have a feeling students will quickly get tired of that and turn homework into yet another annoying, mindless task that they just need to “get through”. Here is a great article from Education World with some suggestions on how to be flexible with homework.
  • Purpose: Again, student interest and investment in their learning is essential. If students think science is completely irrelevant, why blame them if they aren’t interested? You must tell them the why.

TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)

  • Two types of motivation exist: Type I and Type X
  • Type I: intrinsic motivation (students have a desire to learn, they desire the experience of learning rather than the external rewards available from good grades, good behavior, etc)
  • Type X: extrinsic motivation (students participate, behave, study, etc in order to receive extrinsic rewards from the teacher or others)
  • We need to understand these types of motivations in order to motivate our students, as the way we tap into those motivations differs
  • Mastery, autonomy, and purpose promote intrinsic motivation
  • Intrinsic motivation is the overall goal, although extrinsic motivation/rewards can be helpful for memorization and other rote tasks

If you want to learn a bit more about Drive and figure out what motivates you, take this quiz. Intrinsic motivation is certainly more difficult to create in your students, but, just like going to the margins and going out of your way to be exemplary, it is worth it in order to create lifelong learners.

That’s all for now- now go, set goals and motivate!

– Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem)


  1. Hi Luke!
    Thank you so much- I am glad my comparison to social media influencers landed well! I really love how motivating students also connects to things we have talked about in previous blogs, like going to the margins and showing students that science really is important and applicable to them. In reference to your question, I think in my future classroom I would want to use class parties more than homework passes or extra credit, because I think students doing homework is important, and I don’t plan on personally offering extra credit because I will offer corrections instead. My high school chemistry teacher would throw us pancake parties when we did well on a test every so often, which was great bonding time and really motivated us- he did a good job of not using it for every test, though.

  2. Hi Ellie!
    Thanks so much for your comment. That is such a great connection to SMART goals- I don’t know a ton about that concept but have definitely heard of it before and would love to look into them and how to help my students create them to boost their intrinsic motivation. I think a way to help students set goals would be to give them examples of goals other students have set in the past, and to really make them be introspective about the reasons they are taking the class in the first place.

  3. Hey Grace!
    I really loved how engaging your blog was and how full of awesome resources it was! I really appreciated how you connected the book to today’s culture of social media influencers because that is a big part of what I think when I think “motivation”. Your blog was also so practical and I thought you compiled an excellent list of ways to promote internal motivation in the classroom, especially going to the margins! You mentioned some typical external rewards like homework passes and extra credit, and how they could potentially be used in certain circumstances. What place would they have in your future classroom?

  4. Hi Grace!

    Loved you’re why this matters section, I think it’s really easy to forget why motivation matters when you’re stuck in the traditional “grind.” I also loved your goal setting worksheet, it reminded me of SMART goals, it’s worth looking into if you haven’t already. Do you have any goal ideas in mind for students struggling to come up with goals for themselves that will intrinsically motivate them?

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