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Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation

Updated on December 31, 2015

William Glasser believes that the motivation behind all human behavior is to “feel as good as possible as often as possible” (1998, p. 28). It is the reason behind the things we do and it affects the amount of time and effort people are willing to dedicate to learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Schunk, 2000). It can come about in different ways, mainly internally or externally, but only intrinsic motivation will cause us to work hard towards quality and give us genuine satisfaction.


What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the internal desire to complete a task. This desire comes from the personal enjoyment of the task itself or the satisfaction that comes with completing the task (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). It is the aspiration of all good teachers that their students are internally motivated to attend school and to learn. However, many of our classrooms do not provide the necessary environment or utilize the appropriate techniques to promote intrinsic motivation.

In order for intrinsic motivation to thrive, certain conditions need to exist. When people feel autonomous and competent, are free from control, connected to others and are able to make choices self-motivation flourishes (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). People have an innate psychological need to feel autonomous, and according to William Glasser, we are genetically programmed to satisfy our psychological needs (1998). We have an inherent desire to feel free to make our own decisions and to feel that our behavior is truly chosen by ourselves, not influenced but outside sources (Glasser; 1990; Deci, 1995; Maslow, 1968; McCombs & Whisler, 1997). This autonomy is important not only because our psyche demands it, but also because the information that is learned, stored in the brain, and later recalled is influenced by one’s belief about personal control (McCombs & Whisler, 1997). If we aren’t being treated in a way that offers us choice and autonomy, we start to feel controlled, and control is the enemy of intrinsic motivation and of learning (Glasser, 1990, Deci; 1995).

Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom

Supporting autonomy can be easily accomplished in the classroom by offering choice, acknowledging students’ feelings, minimizing control and by taking an autonomy supportive orientation towards the students (Deci, 1995). Research has shown that simple choices enhance intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1995; Glasser, 1990; McCombs & Whistler, 1997). This is because choice stimulates willingness and encourages people to invest in the task at hand. It also shares the power, reducing the perception of control. When people have the perception that they are in control, they perform at a higher level (Schunk, 2000; McCombs & Whistler, 1997). Offering choice also helps people to feel as if their individuality is being considered, further supporting their autonomy and need for freedom (McCombs & Whistler, 1997; Deci, 195; Glasser, 1990).

Taking a student’s perspective and trying to “understand why they want what they want and why they do what they do” is another way to support autonomy (Deci, 1995, p. 142). This approach will help adults to build stronger relationships with students by showing students that they are trying to understand them rather than control them. This, in turn, will encourage your students to take initiative and entertain their innate curiosity, further supporting intrinsic motivation.

Feeling Competent and Connected

In addition to autonomy, people require a sense of competence to feel motivated (Schunk, 2000). They must believe that their behavior will lead to the outcomes desired. People need to posses the knowledge and ability to reach the established goals (Deci, 1995). “Feeling competent is important for both extrinsic motivation and for intrinsic motivation” (Deci, 1995, p. 64), and its more about the person’s own perceptions, than anything else. People need to feel as if they are able to perform the behavior that will lead to either the extrinsic reward or the intrinsic enjoyment of an activity (Schunk, 2000). They must believe they are effective in order to be motivated. Providing opportunities for people to feel competent and autonomous will encourage greater intrinsic motivation.


People also have an innate need to feel connected to others (Maslow, 1970). Glasser classifies this as the need for love and belonging, while Deci calls it relatedness (Glasser,1990; Glasser, 1998; Deci, 1995). “Humans are imbued with the tendency and energy to grow and develop in accord with their psychological needs” (Deci, 1995, p. 92). In an effort to be connected to others, people—children especially—will adapt in order to conform to social norms and be “part of the group”. As socializing agents, teachers play an important role in how students internalize these social norms.

The desired occurrence would be to have youth integrate these social norms in a way that causes norms to become a part of themselves, rather than introjecting them and feeling forced to follow rules that they deem controlling. Integrating regulations further supports autonomy, because people have assimilated these regulations into their own psyche, and have an internal desire to follow them. Introjection diminishes autonomy because a person merely believes they should follow these regulations, because others expect it (external control).

While both intorjection and integration will cause students to appear motivated, students who only intojected the societal norms may feel anxious, conflicted, or fear failure (Deci, 1995; Schunk, 2000). Often students will feel that following the rules will lead to approval, and failure will lead to condemnation. This type of contingent love can be detrimental to a child’s development. Autonomy and relatedness are both important for the development of youth and for intrinsic motivation, placing them in competing position will lead to a diminished sense of self and to diminished motivation (Deci, 1995).

Today's Schools Decrease Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is not dependent on external control or rewards. In fact, this type of “encouragement” has been shown to reduce internal motivation, yet almost all of our classrooms utilize external control to some extent (Deci, 1995). The use of external control or rewards as a means to encourage productivity is called extrinsic motivation (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). As previously mentioned, this diminishes intrinsic motivation. External persuasion encourages people to become focused on outcomes, instead of the task itself (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). This is the opposite of intrinsic motivation, where the experience of the task is, in itself, the reward.


Grades, deadlines and evaluations are the most common forms of extrinsic motivation used in schools today (Deci, 1995; Schunk, 2000). While limits and goals are necessary to promote responsibility and to encourage motivation, the way these things are utilized can seriously impact the motivational outcome. It seems that tests and evaluations have become the bottom line in education these days and students seem to only be learning in order to be tested (Deci, 1995). Research has shown that tests not only decrease intrinsic motivation for learning, but also diminish the amount of knowledge retained by the students. Students may do well in rote memorization for the test, but afterwards most of the information is lost (Deci, 1995). Conversely, when students learn in order to put the acquired knowledge to use, they gain a greater conceptual understanding of the material and are able to retain the information longer (Deci, 1995; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Schunk, 2000).

Assessments May Increase Motivation

Utilizing assessments as a source for self-evaluation instead of for grading purposes increases intrinsic motivation. The self-assessments can be presented in a way that eliminates both the pressure to perform and the threat of bad grades, while encouraging students to reflect on the quality and level of their own work (Deci, 1995; Glasser, 1990; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). This method can easily be tied to goal setting. When students compare their current performance with their goal they will experience a sense of efficacy when they improve (Schunk, 2000). This can help students increase their own desire to put in the necessary effort to meet their objectives.

This will require students and teachers work together to create individualized, appropriate goals that represent an optimal challenge—not too easy and not too difficult (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). Students need to have a personalized standard that is within reach that they can feel committed to and to which they can measure their performance against (Deci, 1995; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). This is much more effective in increasing student motivation than imposing predetermined objectives that are irrelevant to the student or out of reach.

Decreasing Effort

Extrinsic motivation and rewards are not necessarily unproductive, but they do undermine intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1995; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). While rewards may initially provoke action, there are some counterproductive outcomes that are associated with them. When rewards are utilized, students become focused on the reward, instead of the task (Schunk, 2000; Deci, 1995). Intrinsic motivation is lost since students are no longer interested in the joy of the task, but rather the excitement of the reward. This leads to rote memorization (instead of conceptual understating), less interest in the task itself (which affects the brain’s ability to store information) and diminished quality. Students will only put in the minimal amount of effort required to receive the reward, that is, until the excitement of the reward has faded (deci, 1995). Behavior tends to last only as long as the rewards are available and enticing. Rewards are best used as a way to acknowledge accomplishment, rather than a way to solicit it.


Motivation that comes from within is central to creativity, learning, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change (Deci, 1995). People need to feel a sense of autonomy, personal causation and choices in order to feel that motivation truly is intrinsic (Deci, 1995). External motivation, which focuses on control, diminishes intrinsic motivation and everything that goes along with it.

Currently we are experiencing a lack of student interest in school and low motivation for schoolwork. I believe this is because we are using classroom management strategies that try to coerce students into submitting to the standards we impose, rather than working with the principles that elicit intrinsic motivation (Glasser, 1990; Deci, 1995). By structuring our classrooms and schools in a way that is autonomy supportive, encourages connectedness and helps students to feel competent would go a long way to increase students’ internal motivation and love of learning.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Deci, E. L. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Glasser, W. (1990). The quality school: Managing students without coercion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Maslow. A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Maslow. A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

McCombs, B. L.& Whisler, J. S. (1997). The learner centered classroom and school: Strategies for increasing student motivation and achievement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Schunk. D. H. (2000). Learning theories: An educational perspective (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.


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