What’s in Front of the Wheel in Your Classroom?

Recall the last time you sat in a classroom. What were you thinking about? Was it the grade on the last test you had? Were you thinking about how much you had to study to maintain your grade after the next test? These thoughts are linked to extrinsic motivation in the classroom.

So, what is extrinsic motivation? Have you ever heard of the carrot and the stick? Carrots are rewards and sticks are punishments.


Extrinsic motivation relies on the student fearing punishments and desiring rewards. Carrots and sticks, that is to say, punishments and rewards, have plenty of drawbacks.

Daniel Pink describes some of those drawbacks in his book Drive:

  • 1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  • 2. They can diminish performance.
  • 3. They can crush creativity.
  • 4. They can crowd out good behavior.
  • 5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  • 6. They can become addictive.
  • 7. They can foster short term thinking

Encouraging extrinsic motivation in the classroom creates an environment where the students only try hard enough to get the grade they want and the students do not care about what they are learning. For an exemplary science teacher, that is not good enough! We want our students to care about science, strive for understanding, and follow their creativity. How can we, as exemplary science teachers, encourage our students to go beyond “learning for the test”?

The answer is intrinsic motivation! What is intrinsic motivation? It means to find motivation from yourself and not from outside sources. Students want to learn! Especially when they are younger. The educational system ignores and suppresses their natural curiosity and drive. By the time they have made it to high school, most students are strictly extrinsically motivated and hesitant to follow their creativity or interests.

Ted Talk about fostering Intrinsic Motivation in the classroom!

Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.

Teresa Amabile

In Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the best ways to foster intrinsic motivation.

  1. Autonomy 
    1. Let students do tasks in their own way, with their own technique, control over the amount of time spent, and control over working in a team (or not!)
  2. Mastery
    1. Let students engage in what they are doing and strive for mastery
    2. Mastery is never “achieved”, so there is always somewhere to strive towards
  3. Purpose
    1. Let students choose their own purpose, or decide what the purpose means for them

There are a lot of options for fostering intrinsic motivation in the classroom! The biggest is student led inquiry and projects with a lot of creativity! The more room there is for specialization the more likely the students will choose to explore something that interests them, and the more likely they are to be intrinsically motivated!

Here are some other examples:

  1. Move away from a traditional grading system and report card
  2. Allow students to work in groups based on shared interests
  3. Limit awards for completing creative work
  4. Praise students for their creativity and process (do not just praise completion!)
  5. Remember that students are people, and people do their best work when intrinsically motivated!

So, what is in front of the wheel in your classroom? What DRIVES your students? Is it extrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation?

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  1. I loved the way you set up your blog post. It was very easy to follow and understand why extrinsic motivation will not be the best for my students. I think giving students time to find a true purpose within their work will allow for amazing growth. The school was only memorable when I felt I had a purpose. What are some good examples of praise that would encourage my students?

  2. Hi Ms. Smith, thanks for reading and enjoying my post! That is a great question, and I agree that grades and rewards are deeply ingrained in our concept of schooling. I think it would be beneficial to use alternative report cards that are more well rounded and focus on student progress rather than a static number or letter. Something more similar to a rubric with a sliding scale of skills and a place for notes from the teacher about specific struggles and sucesses.

  3. Hi Ms. Henry, I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I think a good lesson for fostering intrinsic motivation is a lesson that is very student directed. For example, one where students are given a broad topic (like science ethics) and they get to choose something that interests them specifically. This allows them autonomy, the opportunity for striving towards mastery of skills (like research and presentation skills), and the purpose of the activity is to learn more about something they are passionate about!

  4. Hey Audrey, Great post! I especially liked your quote from Teresa Amabile. Having extrinsic motivation as a goal in a classroom limits learning, excitement, and creativity. I loved your examples of implementing intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Awards and grades are such an intricate part of our education system so losing these would completely change the way students think about their goals. My high school didn’t have a class rank and it allowed us to not see each other as competition but as peers. Do you think we could change over from the education system we have now to more intrinsic motivators? What would you use instead of grades or traditional report cards?

  5. Hi Audrey, I really enjoyed reading your post! I really like the carrot and stick image you included at the beginning, it really helps visualize what Daniel H. Pink discusses in his book. You made it clear that intrinsic motivation is the goal for all students in our classrooms. Is there a specific lesson that comes to mind that you think would be good for fostering intrinsic motivation?

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