Motivation 2 – Extrinsic Motivation

In my last post I wrote that students with intrinsic motivation were most likely to be successful learners. But in practice I know that I, and my students, sometimes need some extrinsic push to get a task done. So in this article I’m going to list techniques that I have found to be successful, with a little bit of analysis as to how and why I think they work.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that urgent trumps important every time. I understand that I should take the long term view, but knowing I must have something ready tomorrow (or even later today, but I’m not admitting that) is a powerful factor in focussing my attention.

So how can we make deadlines work for students? First – ensure students are aware of due dates for work. Whether they record tasks on mobile devices or use ink in a paper notebook, all students need a one place reference list of what they must do and by when. We take care of this with young students, but as they get older we don’t always support them as much as they need.

Second – make those dates matter. I don’t mean that if students miss deadlines the work gets missed too. But if students get behind with their deadlines then they need to know when and where there will be support for them to catch up, and the absolute expectation that they will do this. Coursework is disappearing from the specifications; I have mixed feelings about this. But what I shan’t regret are the comments when I announce intermediate dates for different sections: “But, Miss, those are just your dates, right? When must it be in for the exam board?” and the subsequent discussions. The deadlines set by their teacher have to be valued by students.

Enforcing and following up the completion of tasks is frustratingly time consuming for teachers. However hard we try to convince students that we are supporting their learning, as we insist they come back and finish their work in a classroom where we are present to help them, most students regard such requirements as detention and punishment.  I try to remember the students who object furiously throughout the school year, and then send me ‘thank you’ s  at the end of the course. But the percentage is not very high.


‘Specific ‘and ‘prompt’ are my keywords here.

I’ve read criticism of feedback that is personal. Many authors seem to feel that teachers who begin with phrases such as, “Good effort, Tom,” continue to focus on congratulating a student for trying, rather than giving feedback that is specific to the task. I still try to do both.  Some authors criticise “Two stars and a wish,” but I think all of us respond better if progress that we’ve made is recognised. So the ‘stars and wish’ should be for actual attainment, for example:

“Well done, Susan, you’ve described what happened in the experiment accurately. You have used the correct names for all the equipment this time. To move up to a grade B you need to use scientific ideas to explain why it happened this way. For an A grade I should need to see you using the density equation, and explaining what happens to the air molecules.”

Achievement is recognised, progress commended (‘this time’), and requirements for improvement specified.

‘Prompt’ is a challenge for busy teachers, but we have to set an example! How can we expect improvement with the next assignment if students haven’t received feedback on the last one?

Rewards Celebrations

Quizzes and competitions with sweets and chocolates handed out to the winning teams leads to a happy classroom in the short term. But an expectation of a lollipop for a good mark benefits no-one in the long run, except dentists maybe.

So how do we strike a balance?

I liked an idea I saw a few years ago (sorry, can’t remember whom to credit). Treats are never earned, they can never be expected as the outcome of successful study or compliant behaviour. They are an occasional celebration when things are going well, to be enjoyed (by all, hopefully).

Most of the time recognition and praise (we all like praise!) will do the job. Exemplar work on display, stars, merits etc all augment the feedback process.


In an ideal world a look or a word would be enough to bring a miscreant round. And if we notice what’s going on in time (and developing strategies to keep an eye on the rest of the class while paying attention to one member is a valuable skill, even if it does force a teacher into the position adopted by the social climber who scans the party for someone more interesting while apparently paying attention to the stopgap they’re listening to) then naming or nodding to a someone off task often pre-empts anything requiring more intervention.

But we can’t prevent things happening to students in their life outside our classrooms. Sometimes for one reason or another, a student prevents other students learning. Sometimes sanctions are needed. And students need to see that expectations are enforced. But, personally, I could never say I use punishments consistently. Because each student is an individual, and a rigid tariff of repercussions for particular infringements is as inappropriate as forcing each member of a class to choose the most personally significant phrase/event from a novel.

Deadlines, feedback, celebrations and consequences of poor behaviour – four extrinsic motivators that can support both the development of intrinsic motivation, and supplement it. Which do you find most effective?


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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