Intrinsic and Extrinsic: The Challenge of Motivation

Posted: July 9, 2013 in Home, Module 3: Motivation, Module Entries, Reflections, Insights, and Realizations

Personally, one of the most difficult tasks as a teacher is motivating students to learn. While some students have a natural love of learning, others arrive at a class under protest and act as if they’re being tortured rather than taught. As teachers, we must find a way to motivate these challenging students.

We know what it’s like to feel unmotivated.  Like what I have experienced, I sit and stare at my to-do list, and nothing on it inspires me at all. It’s just a string of tasks that you wish you didn’t have to do. Simply getting started seems to take an unfathomable amount of effort. Yet, it does not always feel that way. We know what motivation feels like, too. There are times when you can’t wait to get started on something – a much-anticipated trip, a big project that you’ve been looking forward to sinking your teeth into, a new course that you’re taking, or a job which is going to be so satisfying when it’s done.

Psychologists distinguish between two forms of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. The effects of each might feel the same – excitement, being keen to “get on with it” – but the two types of motivation arise from different places. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the sort of motivation that you get when you’re doing something you enjoy; when the task itself is its own reward. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside. This is the motivation which gets you to plough on with something you don’t like all that much … because you know there’ll be a reward at the end.  Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have their benefits and drawbacks. Like, intrinsic motivation can be difficult to tap into because of its personal nature. Intrinsic motivation can be a powerful force – but it can also be subject to your moods; when you’re feeling cheerful and upbeat, you’re more likely to enjoy what you’re working on than when you’re feeling low. And for some tasks, there’s simply no way you’re going to enjoy them. That’s where extrinsic motivation comes in. People think that extrinsic motivation is shallow or false – but it can be a very powerful force. Most difficult things become more bearable when you’ve got something to look forward to at the end. There is however a paradox of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is far stronger a motivator than extrinsic motivation, yet external motivation can easily act to displace intrinsic motivation.


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