Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Students

Dr. Ellen Mauer
Dr. Ellen Mauer
Elementary school principal; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies
A group of students happily high-five.

What is Intrinsic Motivation? 

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The intrinsic motivation definition is doing something for inherent satisfaction rather than for a reward or to avoid a consequence. In teaching young children, extrinsic rewards are often offered to motivate them to complete a task.

For example, kids in early childhood may work to earn good behavior points and once a class or individual goal is achieved, they will earn a tangible reward, such as a sticker or popcorn party for the class. As kids age into higher grades, these extrinsic rewards may be eliminated in favor of other kinds of tangible rewards, like a higher letter grade on an assignment. Some parents employ the practice of rewarding students for grades with money.

As young children grow, their brains develop to be interested in doing things for their own sake rather than for an extrinsic reward. It is important to note, however, that when a child experiences trauma, the brain rewires itself and can greatly affect behavior and motivation. When teaching students, it is important to know whether or not they may be experiencing some sort of trauma so that strategies may be implemented for those students.

Additionally, suppose the low-level needs of a sense of safety, hunger, thirst, and shelter are not present in students. In that case, they will be less likely to be able to focus on activities that foster intrinsic motivation. (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

The key to determining how well students will do with intrinsic motivation will be first to determine if low-level needs are met and if any kind of trauma exists as a barrier. Once those determinations have been made, it is time to explore activities that will foster intrinsic, student motivation.

Ways to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Students at All Levels

One way to help motivation in the classroom and students’ love of learning is to allow them to see the meaning behind the learning.

  • When presenting lessons, do the students understand what the objective of the lesson is?
  • How does this apply to them at this time in their life?
  • How will this help them in their future life?

Apply Lessons to Real-Life

Spending time on the meaning of the lesson as an anchor for why they are learning this particular lesson can motivate students to want to learn it for that very reason. If the lesson is about a certain math skill, talk to the students about how that may apply to money if that is important to them or relevant to their everyday life.

Likewise, kids learning to read often experience large surges of wanting to pick up books as they find they uncover a whole new world. This can be seen in high school level personal finance classes as students can directly see how what they are learning will be relevant almost immediately. Giving feedback that is encouraging also helps students to develop intrinsic motivation. Feedback should be honest to students and should be done in a positive way that makes them want to go back and revise their product.

Regular Check-Ins for Lengthy Projects

Timeliness is important. For example, when students are in the developmental stages of a multi-step project, having check-ins with the teacher and having them apply the feedback they get at each stage has the potential to be a powerful motivator for them. Assigning a project and then not doing check-ins along the way does not help to build in the idea of revision in a student’s mind. It becomes more of a judgment at the end of a project.

Gamification of Lessons

Designing lessons that are more like games or puzzles can affect a student’s internal desire to do well at that lesson. It will help to increase participation and can be motivating in the risk-taking that students do. Additionally, it can foster social-emotional learning. Students will want to acquire new skills to do better at the task at hand.

For example, instead of lecturing about the Oregon Trail’s history, have them get into teams of wagons and pretend they are going on this journey as the settlers did. There are pre-made games for this activity, allowing kids to learn about the lives of those who ventured on this trail and the dangers they faced. The team has to work together to make it safely to the end of the trail. Gamifying lessons like these are extremely motivating for kids. It can also help them to learn to work in a group.


Allowing students to have some control over their learning is yet another way to foster intrinsic motivation. Student choice in learning can be more simplified in the early grades and become more complex as the student ages. For example, let students vote on read-aloud books in early grade levels.

Give a choice time during centers to provide some degree of choice. As kids age, allow them to have choices over topics they may be writing about. Assigned reading is also an area that kids can be given more freedom in choice. Student choice leads to more student engagement and a better feeling toward learning. Ultimately, kids are more apt to develop an intrinsic sense of motivation when choice is present.

Best practice is to move from extrinsic rewards and motivation in children to intrinsic motivation as the child ages, building appropriate strategies at each grade level. When students experience a love of learning for the pleasure of learning itself, there is no extrinsic reward that can top that feeling.

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