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Increasing student motivation

In a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times, psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz summarized the results of their recent study  on the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. People with intrinsic (or internal) motivation, as the psychologists Deci and Ryan (2008) describe, are “people who perform activities because of the positive feelings resulting from the activities themselves.” For example, one of the activities I enjoy the most is gardening: working outside and getting my hands in the dirt is something that just makes me feel good. But if I examine my penchant for gardening, I might identify other, external motivating factors that are at play, such as saving money by not having to buy as many vegetables or receiving praise from my friends and neighbors. Both are examples of extrinsic motivation, or reasons we might perform an activity other than the enjoyment of the activity itself. If you’re at all like me, then chances are you are motivated by both instrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Aren’t two kinds of motivation better than just one?

Not so, according to Wreesniewski and Schwartz’s study, which involved more than 9 classes of 11,000 students who enrolled at West Point and who identified their own motivations for matriculating. As might be expected, the researchers found that those identifying with the most intrinsic types of motivation were the most likely to graduate from West Point and stay in the military after their 5 years of compulsory service were over. However, those cadets who rated themselves as having both strong intrinsic and external motivations were comparatively less likely to have graduated and continued on with the military. Thus, the research supports the notion that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation do not have a cumulative effect: rather than strengthen one’s chances for success, those rating themselves with having both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation did not do as well as those who rated themselves with possessing high intrinsic motivation (at least from the military’s point of view).

The implications of this study are important. As the authors note,

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.

So, while an educator can expound on the instrumental or intrinsic rewards of their particular field of study, what else might she do to help her students cultivate their own sets of internal rewards?

Deci et al. (1991) point to three psychological conditions that support and sustain intrinsic motivation: competence, connectedness, and autonomy. What follows are some brief, unscientific meditations of mine on how these supports might be enacted in the college classroom:


As a part-time writing instructor who has to grade a lot of papers, it is sometimes tempting–especially after a long day at the office–to write curt little marginal notes when I come across things in students’ essays I find abhorrent, like gross generalizations or misstatements of fact. (The fact that I’m human, too, and sometimes commit these errors myself notwithstanding). But, as Deci and Ryan (2000) note, “optimal challenges, effectance-promoting feedback, and freedom from demeaning evaluations were all found to facilitate intrinsic motivation.” Aha! Another reason for me to take a break from grading papers when I start sounding mean. Students don’t need mean: they need constructive feedback they can use to become more competent writers.

The Teaching Commons is sponsoring two online workshops on grading and commenting on writing this fall.


Perhaps recognizing the relationship between autonomy and intrinsic motivation, more and more universities are offering their students the ability to create their own degree programs. But there are ways instructors, too, can give students a greater degree of autonomy: by granting them flexibility in how they meet the course requirements. John Boyer, a senior instructor at Virginia Tech, redesigned his large “World Regions” course to include a number of assignments (all linked to his course goals) that students can complete, accumulating points along the way. At the end of the semester, the students’ points are tallied and their grades are assigned according to a “predetermined, criterion-reference scale.” You can read how Boyer restructured his class, along with how he uses technology to engage his students, on his website.


Students who feel closely connected to their school–that is to say, the social network of students, faculty, staff, etc.–have been found to be more likely to persist in their studies through graduation (Habley, Bloom and Robbins 2012). And studies have shown that a person’s “relatedness” or connectedness to others who value similar behaviors is a factor when it comes to intrinsic motivation (Deci and Ryan 2010).  As George Kuh, an expert on higher education and student success, argues in the Chronicle, the classroom should become “a locus of community,” both to counteract the fact that students are spending less and less time on campus but also to give students opportunities to “learn how the institution works [and] absorb the campus culture,” in addition to mastering the subject matter. To learn how you can introduce more active learning opportunities in your class, check out Erin Sella’s blog post on facilitating engaging discussions and the Teaching Commons on collaborative learning activities.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(1), 14–23. doi:10.1037/0708-5591.49.1.14

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2010). Self-Determination. In Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. doi:10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0834

Habley, W. R., & Bloom, J. L. (2012). Psychosocial Characteristics. Increasing persistence: research-based strategies for college student success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. Retrieved from



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    […] much and how deeply they will master the course material” (p.130). As Joe Olivier recently pointed out on this blog, this greater level of autonomy is linked to increased intrinsic […]

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