Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: 17 Practical Application Ideas

As teachers, we have heard the dialogue on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, and the importance of instilling authentic passion for learning.  But in a day of real-life frustrations and desperation for student cooperation, where is the realistic balance as we apply this important classroom management principle?

The discussion on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation is a widespread and often emotionally charged issue in education.  Intrinsic motivation calls for individuals to reach inside for reasons to achieve, while extrinsic involves people looking to outside sources to find their drive.  Some teachers feel that they would never get students involved without their steady incentives systems.  Others call for an end to all exterior measures of success, including treats, grades, and report cards. Still others employ a “take it or leave it” approach altogether, maintaining it’s not their job to motivate students who won’t be motivated.

The Research

Whatever your perspective may be, it’s important to examine the behavior research we have available to us to guide our decision-making in the classroom.  While there are still many questions unanswered on this subject, several conclusions are clear through decades of research:

  1. Intrinsic motivation steadily drops as students get older¹ (no surprises there for you high school teachers!).  The reasons for this are still unclear, and very likely have many complex contributing factors, from decreases in students’ social willingness to identify themselves as interested in schoolwork, to the increased levels of evaluation and competition in higher grades.¹

  2. Intrinsic motivation is more beneficial to learning. According to an article by Avi Kaplan, “Engagement out of intrinsic motivation requires no external incentives and enhances motivation to engage again in the future. Studies also suggest that engagement out of intrinsic motivation is associated with enhanced comprehension, creativity, cognitive flexibility, achievement, and long-term well-being.” ²

  3. Extrinsic motivation is still beneficial in certain situations.  Kaplan points out research that explains that when students are required to perform unmotivating tasks, teachers should help students internalize those extrinsic motivating factors.

Intrinsic Practices & Application Strategies

How, then, can we increase intrinsic motivation in practical ways?  The research indicates that students must have three needs met: safe environments, autonomy, and challenging schoolwork.²  Kaplan offers specific practices (listed below) that can promote these three environmental factors; we have added strategies for each practice to help you encourage authentic participation and interest.


Encouraging Exploration of Interests


Let them pick: During writing units, have students select their own topics within the scope of the assigned genre whenever possible!

Model it: During lessons where you hope to encourage students to identify their own passions, model exploring your own in that context!  Not only will they better understand the process when it’s their turn, but they will better connect with the material and with you!


Providing Student Choice

Homework projects: Instead of teacher-assigned worksheets every day, work with your team and/or administration to see if you can implement homework projects for your class!  One approach to this involves creating a weekly list of several project choices that relate to current class work, and then allowing students to choose one. Click here for an example of this approach!


Democracy in the classroom: In order to help students see their ownership and autonomy as valued members of the class community, integrate a variety of classroom democracy strategies.  For example, begin the year by asking them what they need to be successful in the classroom.  Then, during that discussion, help them develop behavior agreements that they sign and reference throughout the year.  Additionally, you could establish a suggestion box that is regularly evaluated so they can provide feedback.  One of my professors once related a teaching experience in which she was hired so last-minute that her third graders entered the classroom on the first day of school with the chairs and desks still stacked against the walls!  While she clarified that she would not repeat that chaotic situation on purpose, it did create a sense of student ownership that lasted the entire year as students decided together what they needed to create their classroom.


Building on Prior Background & Experience



Inquiry-based activities: Rather than sharing the final learning objective with students at the beginning, give them opportunities to discover big ideas as you provoke their thinking.  Ask questions that bridge their previous learning to the next step, and design activities that will accomplish the same thing.  Check out the “Inquiry Learning” tag at one of our favorite inquiry-based blogs, What Ed Said, for more ideas!

Real-world connections: Design hypothetical issues and math word problems around current events, people, and tools with which students are familiar (ie, pop culture, social media, current event debates).


Encouraging Collaboration



Class meetings: Hold regular class meetings, during which students work together to solve any problems that have arisen.

Group rubrics: At the beginning of a new unit or assignment, create a rubric as a class.  Not only will this help them learn to work together in decision-making, but they will also thoroughly understand the expectations.

Model it: Model effective teamwork before group assignments to help students understand participation expectations!  Nothing kills collaboration in group work faster than imbalance in efforts, so modeling this situation in particular can help students develop better collaboration skills.


Incorporating Fantasy



Video games?:  Yes!!  Check out this Prezi called Playing to Learn for some compelling rationale and ideas on using games in the classroom!

Process drama: From role-play to pantomimes, process drama helps students engage on a deeper level as they truly visualize their learning.  Click here for a list of 21 process drama tools and how to use them!

Simulations: Particularly suitable for social studies, recreate historical situations for students to “live” various experiences, from laying on the floor of a slave ship while listening to an actual account of those conditions, to creating an Industrial Revolution era assembly line.


Providing Informative, Frequent Feedback



Verbal affirmation: When students have met expectations, be consistent in providing feedback (“Wow, I appreciate how _____ included a detailed reflection on this assignment!”).  Not only does this reinforce individual understanding of expectations, but it also serves as a reminder to the entire class.

Rubrics: Use of rubrics (especially when student-designed), can help students gain deeper understanding of their performance, rather than solely the blanket classification they receive with letter grades.


Reducing Controlling Rewards

Evaluate your current incentives system: If you already have a system of extrinsic rewards in place, think about how and when you use them (and be sure to look at the Internalization section below as you do this)!  Specifically, ask yourself whether you use promises of treats or class currency for situations for which students would be able to find intrinsically motivating factors, especially if you better implement some of the above applications!  For example, when students have been thoroughly engaged and involved in a science experiment, it can  undermine their intrinsic passion for the activity if, afterwards, you reward their participation with candy.



Extrinsic Practices & Application Strategies

As stated above in the research, a key to effective extrinsic motivation is internalization. This makes sense because sometimes, we’re all required to do things by which we’re completely unmotivated.  Below are a couple tips that may help students internalize those unmotivating tasks.

  • Explaining the “Why”: From standardized testing to walking quietly in the hallways, a variety of mundane mandates exist in schools.  Teaching students the actual rationale for each and every one of these shows them that you respect their ability to process that logic.
  • Intermittent extrinsic rewards: When it comes to the above-mentioned unmotivating rules and activities, giving students tangible rewards can be quite effective (see our article on a few incentives). Both research⁴ and experience has taught us that doing so with an intermittent approach is usually more successful than rewarding every demonstration of participation or compliance.

Concluding Thoughts

Albert Einstein stands out in history as a famously intrinsically motivated person. One of his quotes that stands out to us on this subject is as follows:

“Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as hard duty. Never regard study as duty but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.” ³

Hopefully as you employ some of these strategies, you will start to see true love of learning emerge more frequently from your students–and yourself!  However, please keep in mind that we understand that despite our best efforts as teachers, there will always be difficult days when nothing seems motivating for anyone.  Always remember that it is a messy and unpredictable process to work with people, but one that is incredibly rewarding as we persist in the most significant and far-reaching efforts!

Photo Credit:

Featured Image: Elade Manu






3 Replies to “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: 17 Practical Application Ideas”

  1. If division of labour is the separation according to level
    of intrinsic motivation, unemployment rate can’t take
    place at high level.
    How must a economic system work? It must push intrinsically motivated students forward. Because a well educated workforce can state prosperity and they are sources of innovation.

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