Using Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation to Enhance Learning

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  1. 0:12 Introduction
  2. 0:59 Definitions
  3. 2:00 Classroom Application
  4. 4:04 Sources of Intrinsic Motivation
  5. 5:34 Use of Rewards
  6. 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Why do you want to learn about Educational Psychology? Do you enjoy reading about different theories and practices? Do you have to pass this class in order to receive a degree? Our behaviors are driven by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In this lesson, distinguish between these types of motivation and learn how they can enhance learning.


Picture this scenario: Three friends hit the gym after work. Macho Mindy, Fit Fred and Tentative Tom. Macho Mindy heads directly to the 75-pound weights and begins curling as fast as she can. Soon, she has drawn a crowd and this seems to encourage her to do more reps. Fit Fred heads to the treadmill. He enjoys running and often talks about the health benefits and increased energy he feels after each run. Tentative Tom just stands in the middle of the gym. He's not sure why he's even there. He wants to feel more energetic but he also wants to gain more muscle to impress his friends. Mindy and Fred are motivated to work out, but their motivation is derived from different sources. Poor Tom isn't sure what motivates him yet.


Not all motivation has the same effect on human learning and behaviors. In this lesson we are going to talk about the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake. People who are intrinsically motivated perform tasks and engage in behaviors because they find them enjoyable. Simply participating in the activity is reward enough. Fit Fred falls into this category. Fred enjoys running and is happy about how he feels afterwards. He needs no other motivator to continue running.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is motivation promoted by factors external to the individual. Individuals who are extrinsically motivated work on tasks because they believe that participation will result in desirable outcomes such as a reward or praise. Macho Mindy is motivated by external rewards such as praise and a muscular appearance.

Classroom Applications of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

It is easy to assume that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation fall along a continuum with intrinsic motivation on one end and extrinsic on the other. However, there is no automatic relationship between the two. For any activity, an individual may have both high extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, low or in between, on any given day.

Let's go back to the gym. Tentative Tom is intrinsically motivated by the health benefits of working out, but he is also motivated extrinsically by building muscle to impress his friends. In the classroom, a student might study hard for a math test because he or she wants to have the highest grade in the class but also because he or she really enjoys the subject.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are time and context dependent. Things that people find interesting one day can slowly become mundane the next; doing something because one wants to can easily become doing it because one has to. For example, if Fred was hired to teach people how to run, his intrinsic motivation for running might decrease because now he has to run for a purpose as opposed to simply running for enjoyment. Has this ever happened to you?

So which type of motivation is best for learning? Do students learn better when they enjoy the content or can they learn just as well if their goal is to please the teacher or have the highest grade in the class? Motivational researchers have studied these questions and concluded that working on a task for intrinsic reasons in not only more enjoyable, but also relates positively to learning, achievement and perceptions of competence.

In the educational environment, many students have low intrinsic motivation - especially in subjects that they don't feel are relevant to their future. Did you remember thinking, 'Why do I have to learn algebra, I'm never going to use this stuff!' Teachers are faced with a challenge of identifying sources to enhance intrinsic motivation among learners.

Sources of Intrinsic Motivation

There are four sources of intrinsic motivation that have been highlighted by researchers. They are: challenge, curiosity, control and fantasy.

Challenge: Activities that challenge student's skills may be intrinsically motivating. These activities should be right above the learner's skill level so they feel proud after successfully accomplishing the activity.

Curiosity: Presenting ideas that are surprising or inconsistent with the learner's existing beliefs will motivate students to seek information and resolve the discrepancy.

Control: Our third source of intrinsic motivation is control. Activities that provide students with a sense of control over their academic outcomes may also enhance intrinsic motivation. Students who feel like they have a choice are more likely to be willing to engage in the activity versus being told what to do and learn.

Fantasy: The final source of intrinsic motivation is fantasy. Intrinsic motivation can be promoted with activities that involve learners in fantasy and make-believe play. By identifying with fictional characters, students can derive vicarious pleasure not ordinarily available to them. Game-like elements can add meaning to what might otherwise be a boring activity. Fantasy may portray out of school situations to which learning can be applied and thereby reinforce teachers' instructions to students about the usefulness of learning.

The four sources of intrinsic motivation
Intrinsic Motivation Sources

Use of Rewards

The use of extrinsic rewards in the classroom should not be discouraged entirely. Research indicates that while giving rewards regardless of performance level can diminish intrinsic motivation, some use of rewards may increase intrinsic motivation and promote learning. The use of rewards to foster motivation requires that they be linked with student's progress, skill improvement, learning and competence. When rewards are utilized in this manner, they convey to students that they are learning and performing an important task or skill.

Here are some examples: A kindergarten teacher uses praise to motivate her students to learn the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Instead of using global praise, she specifically tells each child how they were correct and that they are improving.

Another example is a middle school teacher rewarding his students with extra time to play math games on the computer. For every five questions they get right on their homework, they receive one minute of additional computer play.

Lesson Summary

Let's summarize what we've discussed. Back at the gym, Tentative Tom is still trying to decide why he's there. Finally he realizes that he enjoys the elliptical and its cardiovascular benefits, so he hops on. Tomorrow, he may be motivated by something completely different.

In summary, a person can be intrinsically motivated (from within), extrinsically motivated (through external rewards) or both. In the classroom, promoting intrinsic motivation through challenges, curiosity, control and fantasy is recommended. But the use of extrinsic rewards is acceptable as long as they are used to reward performance and increased skill development, and not just globally.

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