Robyn Jackson


Washington, DC

Interests: Professional...

  • Posted 8 Years ago
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Is Intrinsic Motivation Over-Rated?

Here is my latest article from the Mindsteps newsletter and blog:

For years, I have unquestioningly accepted the prevailing wisdom that the holy grail in education is to have intrinsically motivated students who learn for learning's sake.
And yet, most of us don’t do everything we do for purely intrinsic reasons.  We work at least partially for a paycheck. We drive the speed limit not because we enjoy driving 25 mph when we are in a hurry but because we don’t want to get a ticket and imperil the lives of the other drivers around us. We work weekends in order to meet deadlines and complete paperwork because its our job.  We clean behind the fridge because company is coming over and we endure family dinners with Aunt Midge so we don’t upset our mothers. In fact, very little of what we do is purely intrinsically motivated.

For years I thought the key to student engagement was to make work more interesting and yet studies have found no evidence that the interest value of material is a determinant -- as opposed to a consequence -- of learning. In fact, the more I read the literature on motivation, the more I am struck by one startling idea: Intrinsic motivation may be over-rated.  Two concepts have changed my mind.

The first is the idea of integrated extrinsic motivation.  The research shows that external motivators, when used correctly, can actually help people develop intrinsic motivation over time.  When students recognize the underlying value of a behavior, identify with it, and integrate it with other aspects of themselves, they will carry out the behavior independently and outside of your control -- even if they are not intrinsically motivated to do so.  Although externally motivated, they are more likely to transfer to internal motivation.
In order to achieve integrated extrinsic motivation, three factors must exist. Students must feel a sense of autonomy - that they are not being forced to do the activity; they must feel that they can be successful at the activity (competence); and they must see how the activity helps them function within the classroom and outside culture (relatedness).
The second concept is emergent motivation. This theory asserts that although students may initially find an activity boring, it doesn’t mean that they will always find it so.  When they begin to see relevance in the activity or their skill set with the activity improves, and if they can find in the activity opportunities to be successful, the activity becomes more interesting and finally, enjoyable. In other words, our motivation to do something may be initially low, but we can actually grow our motivation over time.
For too long, we have been trying to get students to care about what we teach and lamenting their lack of intrinsic motivation. Turns out, the problem isn’t that our students are not intrinsically motivated.  They may never love literature the way that we do. They may never get their kicks from solving impossible math problems and spelling may never be as important to them as it is to us.  The real problem is that the way we try to motivate them externally fails and puts the work on us. We have to keep pushing them to get any work out of them at all and we are exhausted.  But what if our external motivators could be, well, more motivating?  Do we really need students to love everything we do in the classroom or is it enough that they engage for externally motivated reasons, and in doing so, learn to build their own motivation over time?
Don't forget to leave your ideas and comments here
For more information, check out the Handbook of Competence and Motivation. (2005, Elliot, A., and Dweck, C., Eds.)

~Robyn R. Jackson


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13 Feb 10, 10:04 AM

Has anyone read 3 Minute Motivators b Kathy Paterson.  I am new to middle school and motivation is one of my key problems. I need something that help my classes run more efficiently!


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12 Feb 10, 02:11 PM


A great new book on motivation is Dan Pink's Drive (December, 09). He provides more rationale for minimizing (not eliminating) extrinsic motivation - mostly based on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's work, which you refer to above, as well as Carol Dweck's research. One of the most salient findings is the negative impact of "if-then" rewards on motivation. We already have a lot of extrinsic controls built in to the educational system (grades, eligibility requirements for sports, standardized state tests, etc.) Why create an expectation of an intrinsic reward for learning when learning is in and of itself intrinsically satisfying. Why not focus on discussing the WIIFM (what's in it for me) of everything we teach and then teach in ways that appeal to students' needs for relatedness, competence, autonomy, and FUN?

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Jon Erwin

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