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Understanding Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation in Your Students

By Paul Dagnall

What motivates your students?

Do they have a genuine interest in your topics and material, or are they just checking a box on their way to a degree? 

Would your students do optional readings and assignments?

Two Types of Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the natural, inherent drive to pursue something and seek out challenges and new horizons [1]. People do what they enjoy. Extrinsic motivation is any reason someone does something other than the joy of the task. Employees rarely work if they are unpaid. 

Many people are intrinsically motivated to listen to music, follow a sports team, or binge-watch a TV series. In higher ed, an instructor for Psychology 101 will usually be able to differentiate between students who are psych majors and those who are non-majors. How? The evidence of a student’s intrinsic motivation is thoughtful questions, enthusiasm, and effort, while extrinsically motivated students require the threat of bad grades or a reward to move them forward. 

Instructors really like having intrinsically motivated students in class. No doubt about it, but by no means are the extrinsically motivated students stuck in a world of carrots and sticks. 

Here are some ways you can use an understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to help your students connect with you and your content...


Create Intrinsic Motivation By Providing Options

You can increase intrinsic motivation by creating opportunities for satisfying accomplishment [2], and the best way to do this is to give your students options. You can’t predict what is intrinsic to each student, so the thing that is satisfying to Katie may not be satisfying to Jerome; however, if you allow students to choose their own adventure, there are three things that can come out of that: 

  1. The students will enjoy the choice they selected more than a single forced option. 
  2. Students will intrinsically feel more ownership of their learning because they were given a measure of control, and completing the task will be more satisfying. 
  3. As the instructor, you will learn more about your students’ interests, and consequently, be able to help them make meaningful connections to your content. 


Create Intrinsic Motivation Through Persuasion

Some of your students just aren’t believers in what you’re teaching yet. How can you persuade them otherwise? Sometimes it just takes a story. If you share a personal story from your career where the concepts you’re teaching were critically important to you, your students just might start listening in a new way. Good stories about yourself are magical in that they can create a bridge between you and your students, and that bridge can support the weight of your content. 


Don’t Abandon the Carrot and Stick

The tools of extrinsic motivation, rewards and punishments, have traditionally been overused; however, with some creativity, they can perform their functions in more positive ways. Start with rewarding the activities you know lead to positive outcomes. For example, offer some extra credit for turning work in early. This might lead to struggling students asking questions before the actual due date. Gasp!

Punishment is a harsh word. Let’s call them deterrents. Creatively think of ways to deter behaviors that lead to failure. If skipping reading assignments is a problem, nothing strikes fear into the heart of a student like a pop quiz about the reading they didn’t do. Oof! That’s more classic than creative, but it does require you to think through the questions and plan ahead.


Next Steps

The big takeaway from this is that even though some students are not naturally going to be intrinsically motivated, there are ways you can grow and cultivate extra interest and enjoyment around your subject area. If you’re successful you might be the instructor that gets the comment, “I really didn’t think I would be interested in this class, but I actually really liked it, and I learned a lot.”

Spend some time thinking about your students and your courses. Think about how to motivate them, and reach out to the Center for Online Learning for assistance. We staff instructional designers who are intrinsically motivated to help you with these sorts of things.



  1. Di Domenico, Stefano I.; Ryan, Richard M. (March 24, 2017). "The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research". Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  2. Dirksen, J. (2015). Design for How People Learn (Voices That Matter) (2nd ed.). New Riders.
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