Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic rewards include things such as: personal achievement, professional growth, sense of pleasure and accomplishment. Extrinsic motivation is based on tangible rewards, is external to the individual and is typically offered by a supervisor or teacher. Regarding adult motivation, the extrinsic motivation found in a job or profession is the compensation one needs to live while the intrinsic motivation is found in job or career satisfaction and is its own reward.

Although both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have their place in K-12 education the goal should be to replace extrinsic education reward with intrinsic rewards as soon as possible. The younger the child the more prevalent and useful extrinsic motivation are but as the child matures well designed cognitive learning materials should encourage the intrinsic desire to learn for its own sake thus gradually replacing external motivations. Some students learn in order to earn extrinsic gold stars and may stop when these rewards are no longer forthcoming. Other students strive to develop intrinsic new skills for the sake of self-mastery and will not stop until they are acquired. Still others seek to demonstrate intrinsic superior ability either by outperforming others or by achieving notable successes with little or no effort.

The underlying assumption is that if we can provide the right extrinsic rewards and enough of them, or threaten sufficient punishments, we can arouse (drive) otherwise dispirited, lazy students to higher levels of achievement. Then there is the corollary: that arousal is greatest when these rewards are distributed on a competitive basis, that is, with the greater number of rewards (e.g., high grades) going to those who perform best. Motives-as-drive mentality encourages largely negative reasons for learning, including the threat that if one does not perform well he or she will be punished.

A second perspective considers motivation in terms of intrinsic goals or incentives that draw, not drive, individuals toward action (Heyman & Dweck, 1992). This tradition assumes that all intrinsic actions are given meaning and purpose by the goals that individuals seek out, and that the quality and intensity of their actions will change as their goals change (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995).

Considered from this perspective, motivation is a unique intrinsic human resource to be encouraged for its own sake, not simply a means to increase school performance. Indeed, by this analysis, fostering meaningful, goal-directed behavior and positive reasons for learning becomes the ultimate purpose of schooling. These positive reasons are noncompetitive and intrinsic in nature, that is, they beguile and entice individuals into action for its own sake and generally for ennobling purposes or “for no reason whatsoever,” save perhaps curiosity.

The research that draws its inspiration from the drive-theory tradition helps clarify the basic causes of school failure today and their motivational roots. For example, whenever students are savaged by extrinsic competition as a means to drive them to learn, they react in negative ways such as:

  • Become defensive
  • Resistant
  • Angry
  • Doubt themselves even despite doing well

Whenever students are intrinsically drawn to learning out of:

  • Curiosity
  • To understand the world in which they live
  • For the sake of some intrinsic valued personal goal

they act in ways we all admire and wish our students would emulate:

  • They become absorbed in learning
  • Committed
  • Oblivious to the passage of time

And what is doubly bad is the fact that the kinds of extrinsic rewards typically associated with drive theory:

  • Praise
  • Applause
  • Gold stars
  • Grades

Largely extrinsic in nature, that is, basically irrelevant (or external) to the act of learning. This means that once the need for recognition is satisfied or the threat of failure removed, there is no longer any particular reason to continue learning. Moreover, the pursuit of such extrinsic rewards creates a highly noxious situation because the dominant reinforcers are negative – success is counted largely in terms of avoiding something that is bad, not necessarily achieving something that is good.

These circumstances detract from true learning and focus students’ attention on performance per se, without regard for what is learned or its meaning to one’s life. Intrinsic motivation makes students more willing to learn for its own sake