5 Ways to Grow a Student’s Intrinsic Motivation

5 min to read
A student sitting on a chair and reading a book.

When students are motivated to learn, they’re more likely to actively engage in the classroom and achieve academic goals. But a student’s motivation can ebb, and flow based on their interest in a subject or assignment. Luckily, there are ways to ignite their intrinsic motivation for learning. 

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

There are two types of motivation. The first type is intrinsic motivation—sometimes referred to as organic or natural motivation. It stems from a person’s innate or internal desire to complete a task or achieve a goal simply because it’s enjoyable or important to them. 

For a student, that might mean being inspired to do their own research or complete a project because it strikes their curiosity in a natural way. The positive effects of intrinsic motivation tend to be long lasting.  

The second type of motivation is extrinsic. With extrinsic motivation, tasks or goals are completed to earn an external reward.

For example, a student might be motivated to get an A in math in exchange for a new video game. Punishments such as taking away a cell phone can sometimes motivate. The downside of these methods is that behavior changes or goals achieved through extrinsic motivation tend to be short-term.  

3 Factors that Nurture Intrinsic Motivation

Understanding how to get the most out of your students’ intrinsic motivation in school begins with knowing what sparks it. One popular study outlines the three essential human needs that can encourage motivation:

1. Competence

Competence is the ability to perform something well or successfully. When a student has the skills or knowledge to complete a given task, they feel capable of completing it. When an activity meets their competence level—or is an achievable challenge—their motivation to succeed can get a boost.  

2. Autonomy

Autonomy is the freedom to make independent decisions about the things we do. The more autonomy a student has over their learning—such as how they learn the material or having a say in what they learn—the more motivated they might be in the classroom. 

3. Relatedness

Relatedness refers to having a sense of belonging created by strong interpersonal relationships. Having supportive parents, teachers, or peers increases relatedness and can lead to higher motivation and achievement in school. 

5 Ways to Build a Student’s Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation doesn’t come naturally for every subject. For example, one learner might relish the challenge of solving geometry problems but drag their feet when it comes to reading the classics of English literature. The good news is that a student’s intrinsic motivation in school can be strengthened with support and encouragement. 

Here are five ways you can help develop intrinsic motivation in middle and high school students:

1. Praise the process, not the outcome.

It’s second nature for many of us to congratulate a student for getting a good test score or taking first place in a debate competition. The focus of conversation is on the outcome—good or not so good. But to encourage intrinsic motivation, acknowledge the effort a student put into a class project, or the time spent practicing for the recital regardless of the end result.

One way to focus on the process is to ask a student what they learned in science today instead of how they did on their weekly quiz. Shifting praise from achievement to effort helps a student understand the value of the learning process and the time they spend doing it. While grades are important, stressing the value of the learning process itself opens new lines of communication that can encourage motivation. 

2. Leverage what naturally motivates the student.

Intrinsic motivation is heavily influenced by a student’s own interests, dreams, and goals. Finding out what motivates them in their daily lives can guide how you in turn motivate them to succeed in school.  

If hanging out with friends or working out at the gym is important to them, point out that finishing their homework after school will give them more time to do those activities on the weekend. Finding out what they want to achieve and showing them how to get there can help a student self-motivate and understand that their actions can lead them to their own rewards.  

An online school student reading a book due to their own intrinsic motivation.

3. Let the student lead the way.

Autonomy has been singled out by researchers as a key need that intrinsically motivates us. Autonomy in the classroom means giving students a voice and choice in their learning. This concept is often referred to as personalized learning.

Learning Coaches can help students lead the way by steering them to choose topics or projects that they find meaningful whenever possible. Encourage them to express their own ideas and perspectives in ways that meet class expectations and help them grow critical thinking skills. 

4. Make learning social.

Social connectedness is important both in school and at home. Stress the social aspect of learning whenever possible. Encourage your student to engage in a study group, join a Learning Pod, or attend educational field trips with their peers.

One study found that students were more intrinsically motivated when they engaged in learning activities at home. Solving puzzles or playing age-appropriate learning games with them at home can have a lasting impact.  

5. Celebrate the student’s successes.

Success will look different for every student. It might be getting good grades or winning a trophy, but it can also include meeting their personal goals. From getting a driver's license to completing their first painting, celebrating achievements that they find meaningful is a must. 

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