Motivation in the Classroom

Motivation in the Classroom

This week’s lesson focused on the application of social psychology to education. We learned about many of the different ways the student’s personal psychology can influence their academic outcomes while also exploring the different ways the student’s academic environment can shape their psychology and, in turn, their academic performance. One concept that I found to be particularly interesting was the idea of motivation in the classroom. Our text discusses the differences between intrinsic motivations and extrinsic motivations, and how they either enhance or diminish academic success. More specifically, our text defines intrinsic motivations as those that are based on the individuals own desires and enjoyments, while extrinsic motivations are defined as those that are set by external forces and are reinforced by things like awards (Schneider et al., 2012). Our text goes on to suggest that educational environments that facilitate the development and maintenance of intrinsic motivation in students often yield greater student engagement and better academic results (Schneider et al., 2012). This is an important concept, as it has the potential to influence the way we structure our educational systems.
We are all familiar with the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and with how naturally good it can feel to engage in behaviors and acts that are intrinsically motivated. An example of this might be the feeling of elation that follows the completion of a personal project that has required significant investments of both time and energy, but that we decided to do just for the sake of doing it. This feeling contrasts the way we feel about doing something because we were told to by someone else or because someone else was rewarding our completion of the task. When people are intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to engage fully with the task at hand and are more likely to remain committed to completing the task (Dev, 1997). Furthermore, individuals who are intrinsically motivated will not rely on external rewards, but will instead work to complete tasks on their own accord Ryan & Deci, 2000). Why is this the case? An important concept that helps shed light on why intrinsic motivation can be so powerful is the self-determination theory (SDT). According to the SDT, motivation occurs along a spectrum that runs from completely intrinsic, to completely extrinsic (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Between these two polar motivational regulators are a number of overlapping levels of motivation that rely partly on intrinsic desires, and partly on extrinsic rewards. These levels include integrated regulation, identified regulation, and introjected regulation (Schneider et al., 2012). These different levels represent the extent to which the individual has matched their internal (intrinsic) motivations with external (extrinsic) rewards (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Results from numerous studies indicate that when individuals, students included, are either intrinsically motivated or have high levels of self-determined extrinsic motivation, they are more likely to succeed (Schneider et al., 2012). Researchers have even referred to intrinsic motivation as a “natural well-spring of learning and achievement that can be systematically catalyzed or undermined by parent and teacher practices” (Ryan & Deci, 2000). So, intrinsic motivation tends to lead to greater engagement with the task at hand, but how does the concept apply to education specifically, and what can teachers and parents do to create supportive environments?
Students face a number of challenges while in school, and their motivation or lack thereof to engage with school material and persist can have a significant impact on their academic outcomes (Schneider et al., 2012). At the most extreme level of the motivational continuum, you have a student who has amotivation, or in other words, a complete lack of motivation. This individual would likely have low perceived competence, and would not be able to provide any intrinsic reasons for why they are in school (Ryan & Deci, 2000).It has been shown how amotivated students tend to drop out of school at younger ages, do worse on exams, and are less persistent when faced with academic challenges (Cetin, 2015). While amotivated individuals are relatively extreme in their complete lack of motivation, a general trend exists that predicts more academic success as intrinsic motivation and self-determination increase (Vallerand & Bissonnette, 1992). So, it is clear that a student’s motivation can play a large role in their subsequent academic success, and that students who have higher levels of intrinsic motivation and self-determination are more likely to succeed long-term.
Given the findings discussed above, it is important for educators to consider how they may be able to create learning environments that catalyze intrinsic motivation in students. Humans are inherently curious and have deep reserves of intrinsic desires and motivations that can either be stoked or diminished (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In order to fuel intrinsic motivation, students must be made to feel competent and autonomous to some degree (Ryan, 1982). Perceived Autonomy and competence can be enhanced by teachers through lessons that encourage curiosity, exploration, and self-direction (Ryan & Deci, 2000). It has also been shown that parents can influence the development of autonomy in their children which can, in turn, increase the child’s sense of agency in the classroom (Grolnick, Deci, & Ryan, 1997). Together, parents and teachers can facilitate the development of these character traits that stoke intrinsic motivation both in and outside of the classroom. These findings are exciting because they suggest that teachers can shift from a reliance on rewards to lesson plans that encourage intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic regulation. Even more exciting, is the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation in students does not require extensive changes to existing classroom settings, and would be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Çetin, B. (2015). Predicting academic success from academic motivation and learning approaches in classroom teaching students. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 8(3), 171-180. Retrieved from

Dev, P. C. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and academic achievement: What does their relationship imply for the classroom teacher? Remedial and Special Education, 18(1), 12-19. Retrieved from

Grolnick, W. S., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1997). Internalization within the family: The self-determination perspective. In J. E. Grusec & L.

Kuczynski (Eds.), Parenting and children’s internalization of values: A handbook of contemporary theory (pp. 135–161). New York: Wiley.

Ryan, R. M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 450–461.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Vallerand, R. J., & Bissonnette, R. (1992). Intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivational styles as predictors of behavior: A prospective study. Journal of Personality, 60, 599–620.

1 comment

  1. Motivation is such an interesting concept to look at! From kindergarteners all the way up to college students like ourselves, it is fascinating to see how motivation impacts how we learn. One concept that goes hand-in-hand with the motivation ideas that you discussed here is that of social comparison. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012), this is where people are likely to judge their performance and abilities in comparison with others in the absence of objective standards. Classrooms create a perfect setting for social comparison, with students being able to compare scores on tests and assignments with one another. Interestingly, this can be a major motivator for people. If we engage in upward social comparison, where we base our comparisons on those who are slightly better than us, it motivates us to do better by providing information about achievable goals (Schneider et al., 2012). I like to think that Canvas tries to get us to engage in at least some sort of social comparison. When you go into the grade book and click on the icon that allows you to see the spread of scores on an assignment, it can help motivate you to perform better. Depending on where you fall, this rundown of the grades may help you see what is achievable, and, using upward comparison, motivate you to set a higher goal and achieve it. While this Canvas system clearly is not a perfect example of the benefits of upward social comparison (i.e. it would be more helpful if you were able to contact someone who did slightly better than you to get pointers), I still feel like it is an attempt to motivate us with social comparison concepts! Thanks for making me think more about motivation in education!


    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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