Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

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At the end of the article are guiding questions for the educator.

Educators are always trying to find ways to motivate their students. When talking about motivation, the two hierarchies that all techniques fall within are extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic means outward, so extrinsic motivation comes from outside the person to entice a particular action. On the other hand, intrinsic means to come from within, so intrinsic motivation is best defined as motivation derived from the person.

Most educators are well versed in the techniques of providing extrinsic motivation to students, as it is the easiest to implement and most often produces immediate benefits. However, intrinsic motivation is very difficult as the educator has little control over what the learner produces internally. So, how does an educator use a balance of both to produce the results he is looking for?

Extrinsic Motivation

 Examples and Function

  • Money: financial gain
  • Candy: sweets are enticing
  • Stars/points/stickers/stamps/etc: boosts confidence, shows good student, competition
  • Classroom rules: Conform to rules or face punishment
  • Grades: Higher grades mean good student, scholarship money, etc…
  • Food: free food!
  • Many other things educators use

Why It Is Good

Extrinsic motivation is great way to maintain interests in class activities or as motivation to behave properly. There are physical objects that the student can acquire in the list above, and some non-tangible concepts that the student cannot possess. The good points of extrinsic motivation are:

  • It can provide students with the sense they gained the educator’s recognition for doing something well
  • Creates a deeper involvement in activities
  • Can increase competition which may increase studying
  • Allows students to aim for goals and be rewarded for reaching them
  • May increase confidence in the student

Why It Is Bad

Extrinsic motivation also has a dark side as most educators have figured out. When the items or techniques do not meet student expectations, then it becomes negative and can have adverse effects.

  • Promotes disharmony. During a team competition, a weak team member may cause the team to not meet expectations, so other students may chastise that student.
  • Can create inferiority. Some students may notice others getting more rewards and believe it is because they aren’t good.
  • Creates selfishness. Students may protest if there is no reward or begin to ask first what the reward will be so they can decide to “play” or not.
  • Creates complaints. Students will complain if the reward does not meet expectations.
  • May perceive unfairness. Sometimes it is difficult to judge who did better and should receive the reward. In this case, if both aren’t satisfied then the educator can be seen as playing favorites.
  • May cause some students not to try. If there are certain students who always dominate, then the lower level students may not try as they feel like they have no chance.

Ultimately, extrinsic motivation, if utilized too much, has more opportunity to produce harm than good. For instance, some educators who teach younger students resort to giving chocolate to get them to talk in class, and this works for some time, but then spirals out of control where the students WILL ONLY talk if they receive chocolate. Also, students will start visiting the educator outside of class to ask for chocolate. When the educator fails to meet their requests and tries to end using candy as motivation, many students will be upset and potentially shut down. Extrinsic motivation can be a slippery slope for educators to venture down, so caution is greatly needed.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is on the opposite end of the spectrum as extrinsic motivation as this type of motivation is created by the learner and not the educator. There is a higher rate of learning if students are motivated by internal means as opposed by external measures.

How to Increase

Intrinsic motivation is very difficult to gauge as the educator cannot easily see into the mind and heart of the learner. Also, what motivates one student may not motivate another, so how can the educator provide intrinsic motivation?

  • Provide the student with useful language. Students, especially in an EFL context rarely have opportunity to use the target language in a natural setting, so it is important that students receive language they can easily use when the opportunity arises. For example, teaching young learners how to talk with a travel agent is not something they see as useful. Therefore, find subjects they will be able to use if given a chance.
  • Help the students make the language personal. Have the students add their own ideas, views or personal information so the language becomes an expression of them and an opportunity to learn about others. Stay away from meaningless chunks of information.
  • Build a rapport with students. Students are usually interested in the educator and want to talk on a personal level- especially true with younger students. Have real conversations with students inside/outside of class that builds a connection between the educator and student. This connection can motivate the student to learn more as it is an  experience in different culture, people, and language.
  • Provide students with information in which they are interested. University students may not find it enjoyable to describe themselves, but may find more engagement to talk about their ideal mate. Produce topics that engage the students while using the target language. Combining this element with the three aspects above, can encourage the student to be more involved.

By using these strategies above, this may increase motivation and build confidence. Many students view language learning as hard, and it is difficult for many students, but giving the students useful language, allowing them to talk personally, and being able to speak freely with a native speaker will do wonders for their confidence. Most students shy away because they feel like they are not good at language, so give them a chance to prove themselves wrong.

Why It May Not Work

Sometimes students do not want to learn a foreign language, and there is little the educator can do to change that. Here are some elements the educator may have to overcome.

  • The student may not want to be connected with the language community. For example, Iraqi students may not want to learn English as they see the Americans, who speak English, as an occupying force.
  • Students may want to retain their national identity. On the surface this sounds strange, but when learning and using foreign languages students need to understand the target language’s culture and fear of losing their own in the process. For example, many Koreans opposed the school system teaching all subjects in English as they believed it would eventually do away with Korean all together. So Koreans may not object to learning English for the benefits of travel, education, and jobs, but fear their national identity is at stake if too much use of English is emphasized.


Final Thoughts

Motivating students is a complicated area of education that usually has no single correct answer as all students and classes are different. It is in the educator’s best interest to emphasize intrinsic motivation the most, but extrinsic motivation is very useful at the same time. Classroom rules and grades have the least downside of all extrinsic motivation, but still have to be utilized properly. Candy, stars, food, and other forms of outer rewards can be used, but these can easily work against the educator and must be monitored closely.

Educators need to be mindful of how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are being used when lesson planning and managing the classroom. Using only one or the other can deprive the students from the benefits of both, so careful planning is needed to properly motivate the students. Motivation is not easy, and easy motivation (candy, etc…) does not last long.

Questions to Think About to Help Teaching

  1. What forms of extrinsic motivation do you use and does it work well? Have there been any downsides to extrinsic motivation?
  2. Make a list, in order, from the worst forms to the best forms of extrinsic motivation.
  3. How can you handle students who only want to do something when they receive a reward?
  4. How can you make activities fun without using rewards?
  5. How do you use intrinsic motivation in your class?