Empower Student Learning through Intrinsic Motivation

Student typing at computer with an instructor pointing at the screen.
Are your students motivated to learn the lesson content? Consider ways to encourage intrinsic motivation to ensure deeper learning.

An important factor in the learning process is possessing the motivation to learn. A 2016 Gallup Student Poll of 5th– through 12th– grade students from almost 3,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada discovered that the proportion of students engaged at school drops from 74% at 5th grade to 34% at 12th grade. Without being invested in learning, students have trouble finding value in what they are taught.

Data from the 2016 Gallup Student Poll shows level of student engagement decreases from 5th- to 12th-grade.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

So, what is the best way to motivate students to be more enthusiastic about their schoolwork?

Research shows that intrinsic motivation is key for student success and satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation is defined by an internal drive to complete a task where there are “no apparent rewards except the activity itself” (Deci 105). For students, this is demonstrated by a sense of relevance or deeper interest to the subject. For example, a student with intrinsic motivation for reading will read books in their free time simply because they enjoy reading. When students are interested in their work, they are more likely to challenge themselves, leading to a deeper understanding of the information (Mathewson).

In comparison, extrinsic motivation is driven by rewards or punishments. For example, a student may be driven to succeed in their classes so that they’ll have a better chance at being accepted by a top law school. Another student may want to keep their grades up so they won’t be suspended from a sports team. Often, students are motivated by outside expectations or consequences of failure (Mathewson). Strong extrinsic motivators can create two types of learners:

  1. Strategic learners – students who learn as much as they need to do well on exams and then forget the information afterwards.
  2. Surface learners – students who do the minimum to pass an exam or class but refuse to try harder in fear of failure.
Stressed-out student stares at a pile of books.
Are your students frustrated and burned out? Intrinsic motivators can help.

Extrinsic motivation can be useful, especially if you teach large lecture courses in which you don’t have the resources to learn what motivates all your students on an individual basis. However, intrinsic academic motivation often leads to deeper, long-term learning.

How You Can Help

As an educator, you might want to consider emphasizing intrinsic motivation in your classroom. Wondering where to start? Here are some strategies according to the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Use examples to relate the material to the real world.
  • Use student-active teaching activities often.
  • Praise students often and always use constructive criticism.
  • Allow students a degree of control in their own education.
  • Get to know your students. (“Motivating Students”)

How Hawkes Encourages Intrinsic Motivation

Hawkes Learning’s courses use real-world scenarios and examples to connect lesson content to students’ everyday lives and future professions. For example, Developmental Mathematics and Preparation for College Mathematics include Math@Work projects, which directly apply foundational math concepts to diverse career options—from architects and bookkeepers to forensic scientists and pediatric nurses. In our English courses, written examples and visuals connect to students’ academic, professional, and everyday lives. Sections focusing on rhetorical appeals and ways to recognize logical fallacies ask students to use the critical thinking skills that are imperative to being informed citizens. Lessons that relate to these real-world skills and knowledge help make student engagement and motivation more accessible.

Within every Hawkes course, students access a three-mode Learning Path, which is set up to help students achieve their goals. We give students the content they need to complete any section through this path: the Learn mode, which is an interactive eBook; the Practice mode, which provides algorithmically generated practice questions and intelligent tutoring; and the Certify mode, which asks students to demonstrate mastery of the material at a defined proficiency level without relying on tutoring aids.

Independent learning takes place here because students can take as long as they need to within each mode in order to complete their assignment. Students can try Certify as many times as they need to succeed and pass the assignment, which provides a low-stakes environment built on realistic goals for students. Rather than emphasizing how well they are doing in comparison to their peers, the courseware encourages students to prove to themselves that they know the course material and have mastered this lesson content, instilling greater confidence in their abilities before test time. Furthermore, our customized practice sessions tailor the learning path to individual needs, providing students a personalized experience to give them more control over their education.

We realize the importance of motivating students at Hawkes and try to encourage growth, especially through our Explain Error feature and Step-by-Step tutorials in the Practice mode. Explain Error uses artificial intelligence to provide specific feedback for incorrect answers, showing students where they made a mistake and how to fix it. This constructive criticism encourages the student to try again instead of getting frustrated and losing confidence after a mistake. Our Step-by-Step tutorials also provide students stuck on a question with guided assistance to ensure they understand by breaking the question up into smaller, more manageable pieces. This method helps students feel more comfortable with the material by demonstrating a correct method they can follow next time.

Friends celebrating college graduation in cap and gown.
Help students become and stay motivated to learn, even long after graduation.

The intuitive user interface allows students to log right in and get to work immediately. If students do have questions, our technical support is available 24/7 via live chat. During business hours any student or instructor can call us and get a representative on the line without dealing with automated phone menus. You as an instructor don’t have to worry about spending class time fielding students’ technical questions so you can focus on what you do best: teaching and motivating students to learn!


Want to learn more about intrinsic motivation? Check out the helpful sources we refer to within this post below!





Works Cited

Deci, Edward L. “Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 18, no. 1, 1971, pp. 105-115.

Mathewson, Tara García. “How to Unlock Students’ Internal Drive for Learning.” The Hechinger Report, 27 March 2019, hechingerreport.org/intrinsic-motivation-is-key-to-student-achievement-but-schools-kill-it/. Accessed 7 May 2019.

“Motivating Students.” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/. Accessed 7 May 2019.

“2016 Gallup Student Poll: A Snapshot of Results and Findings.” Gallup, 2017.

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