Motivation 1 – Learning for its own sake

Every teacher longs for a class of students who are motivated to learn. But we need to do more than just yearn for such ideal students; we need to understand something about motivation, and how to build it in our students. Research shows that students with intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation have more stamina, are prepared to think more deeply, are, in summary, more likely to succeed. But practice shows us that building intrinsic motivation is harder.

Let’s think about intrinsic motivation. (I’m basing this summary on an article by Kaplan, reference below, which has links to original sources). We can start with Maslow, and his higher order ‘needs’, self-actualisation needs which are only engaged when the basic physiological requirements have been met. Later researchers (e.g. Ryan and Deci) developed Self Determination Theory. This holds that after physiological needs there are psychological – for competence, relatedness and autonomy. Only when these three organistic aspects are fulfilled can a student develop intrinsic motivation for learning. At this point flow is possible, that state where engagement is so complete time passes without the students’ awareness, self-consciousness is absent and concentration on the topic is so complete that all external concerns are forgotten (flow is a term coined by Czikzentmihalyi). Flow is most likely when there is the best balance between the challenge of a task and the student’s abilities. In a positive spiral, the experience of flow is so rewarding that the student is motivated to repeat it, so grows in competency and understanding.

So what are the implications for teachers? First to ensure that those three psychological needs are met. Students need to trust that they will be able to achieve measurable, recognisable success with any task that is set to them. And our feedback must be genuine. If we give ‘two stars and a wish’, those praise stars must be recognition of real effort and achievement that shows progress. Students have to know that the target wish is an achievable challenge, and that further progress towards it will be mentored. Then creating an atmosphere which encourages risk taking, knowing getting things wrong is often a necessary step on the path to getting it right, creating a space where trying things out is encouraged. (Easier to achieve with younger students than when adolescent hormones are screaming that the student will never find a mate if they show any weakness. Overcoming the teenage belief that a blasé indifference to study, or any other effortful activity, appears more cool than being seen to try sometimes seems the hardest task for secondary teachers). And autonomy, handing over some control, giving the student some choice in method and presentation. Here is where being a 21st century teacher gives us an advantage – it has never been so easy for students to access help and information in different ways, or to produce and submit work in different formats.

So the first task is to prepare the ground. But then, like all real teachers, we have to face the specification that we are tasked to teach. Is what we have to teach intrinsically motivating? There is a temptation to seek a context that we think is attractive to our students: Understand the physics of motion to improve your football skills, learn about normal distribution and never be confused when meaningless statistics are used to back up a claim, study the requirements for plant growth and solve world hunger. Seeing the big picture, as we do, we can see links, more or less tenuous. But it is dangerous to try to twist the whole topic to fit a particular example. Initial engagement may turn to disillusionment when real contexts are too complex for the theory we can cover, or, conversely students need to learn techniques beyond that required in our examples.

Increasingly I believe that although it is important to give students a context for what we shall study, this should be almost more of an excuse for us to go ahead to have fun solving the problems we are going to learn about. Most of us can remember the satisfaction of solving a page of quadratic equations, or a set of grammar exercises, many of us continue to enjoy puzzles such as Sudoku or cryptic crosswords, or electronic games. If we accept that intrinsic motivation is the best kind of motivation, perhaps we should accept that that motivation should be contained within the subject, as well as in the student. In another words, learning is a good thing to do in itself – if there is a useful application so much the better.

Steve Wheeler has recently put an academically referenced post on Maslow on his Learning with e’s blog, “Going the extra mIle.”

And for a deeper look at the emotional side of motivation you might like:

Next blog – extrinsic motivation

Kaplan reference via


About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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