About Intrinsic Motivation and 10 Evidence-Based Reasons to Build it in Students

Paul Thiebaut III
Apr 17, 2019 · 10 min read
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Defining intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is an interest in learning something for the enjoyment that learning brings. (1) Instead of grades, GPA, or some offer of reward or threat of punishment, intrinsically motivated students spend time and effort learning because it is emotionally fulfilling.

Simply put, intrinsically motivated students learn because it’s fun.

Intrinsic motivation prepares students for the real world

1ST STUDY — In a study of STEM undergraduate students, researchers found that students who considered science more interesting focused more on developing skills than on earning a good grade in the class.

During a follow-up with the students enrolled in a summer science course, the students more interested in science emphasized excitement with science while the less interested students were concerned about their performance in the course. (2)(3)

The STEM study sheds light on one of the most important aspects of living in a society: Passion and skills, not grades, are how people get jobs and promotions, start businesses, create things, and express their full potential.

Although studies like the STEM study have been conducted internationally at all grade levels, and consistently make similar findings, another type of motivation rules the roost in school: extrinsic motivation.

What’s extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation happens when a student feels forced, pressured, or expected to learn. Their reason for learning is based on something other than the learning.

When students are extrinsically motivated they will tend to stop learning when the expectations to learn are removed.

Research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

While extrinsic motivation is easy to observe during the weekends or summer months when students do everything but anything related to school, it’s well researched, too.


2ND STUDY— In a 1973 landmark study on intrinsic motivation in preschoolers, researchers found that when preschoolers who were intrinsically motivated to practice drawing were rewarded after drawing, their willingness to practice drawing declined. (4)

This was one of the first major studies to show that

being rewarded for learning could decrease skill development by causing the student to associate their behavior with being rewarded instead of learning.

Summer slide

3RD STUDY — Summer slide, which happens when a student falls behind academically over the summer months, is often attributed to students not reading (learning) during the summer months. This tendency makes sense in terms of extrinsic motivation.

If reading is presented as a task that the student must perform in order to earn a good grade, then the purpose of reading becomes to earn good grades, and of course they would stop reading outside of school.

Not surprisingly, a summer program that reduced summer slide connected students with books that were tailored to their interests. (5)

Gifted and talented students

4TH STUDY — Not even gifted and talented students are exempt from the off-putting effects of extrinsic motivation.

In a study of more than 200 high school students identified by their teachers as having “exceptional talent”, these high potential students tended to veer away from developing their talents if they lacked interest and intrinsic motivation for their talents. (6)

The researchers concluded that it would make sense that “educators concerned with the cultivation of talent would make it a priority to fuel students’ interest in learning and help them discover learning’s intrinsic rewards.” (p.9)

A “textbook” reason to build intrinsic motivation in students

If being a highly motivated, persistent, and responsible student is important, then building intrinsic motivation is a must.

Behaviors of intrinsically motivated students

5TH STUDY — Motivation researcher, Deborah Stipek, in her textbook, Motivation to Learn (7), pointed to powerful behaviors associated with intrinsically motivated students:

  1. Initiate learning activities on their own
  2. Prefer challenging tasks or pursue challenging aspects of tasks
  3. Spontaneously make connections between school learning and activities or interests outside of school
  4. Ask questions that go beyond the specific task at hand in order to expand their knowledge beyond the immediate lesson
  5. Go beyond the requirements
  6. Are reluctant to stop working on tasks they have not completed
  7. Work on tasks whether or not extrinsic reasons (e.g., grades, close teacher supervision) are salient
  8. Smile and appear to enjoy working on tasks
  9. Express pride in their achievements

Intrinsic motivation increases career success and income

If getting a good job and earning money are important, then intrinsic motivation is something that students should have more of!

Career Success

6TH STUDY — In a study that investigated the long-term outcomes of intrinsic motivation on West Point Academy cadet graduates, principle researcher, Amy Wrzesniewski, and her team found that intrinsically motivated cadets were more likely to graduate, be promoted, and stay in the military versus their extrinsically motivated peers. (8)


7TH STUDY — In a study that followed 400,000 high school students into their post-high school lives (9), researchers found that:

interest was a better predictor of income than ability or personality.

Note: This finding is not a typo. Intrinsic motivations are a very overlooked aspect of school, career, and life success.

Career Success

8TH STUDY — Giftedness and talent researcher, Ellen Winner, presented similar results in her book, Gifted Children. (10) Adults whose jobs were based on their childhood interests were more successful than people who had jobs not based on childhood interests.

The research presented in this section points to the relevance of the STEM study (2)(3) mentioned at the beginning of this article, which found that intrinsically motivated college students focused on developing skills.

School is where skills are learned and work is where skills are used. People who are interested and intrinsically motivated by school and work can be said to enjoy developing skills.

It makes sense then to conclude that people who enjoy developing skills (intrinsic motivation) would become more skilled (and, probably more successful) than people who develop skills in exchange for grades or money (extrinsic motivation) and can’t wait to go home from school or work (stop developing skills).

The best case for building intrinsic motivation in students

Quick overview

In this section, I discuss what I call the “academic generalizing effect”. The evidence suggests that building intrinsic motivation in a student in one class can “generalize” into them doing better in other classes. This section explains why.

Academic generalizing effect studies

9TH AND 10TH STUDY— Two separate research studies, one in the US with disinterested grade school students and one in Spain with at-risk high school students, found that when students were intrinsically motivated in their gardening class their achievement in other classes “generalized”, meaning that they did better in other classes. (11)(12)

These “academic generalizing effect studies” may present the best case for building intrinsic motivation in students because they suggest that

doing well academically in a class that intrinsically motivates a student can transfer into doing well in other classes.

This has wide-ranging implications, one being that by focusing on building a student’s intrinsic motivation in one class, their achievement in other classes can be boosted. Interventionists call this an “outsized effect”, basically meaning that you get more bang for your buck.

While this article doesn’t cover the full range of reasons explaining what influences the academic generalizing effect, a big part of the answer lies in students learning to self-regulate their behavior by being intrinsically motivated.

To explain how, I’ll refer to the most widely used theory of intrinsic motivation, Self-Determination Theory.

Using Self-Determination Theory to setup the academic generalizing effect

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) looks at the reasons why people self-regulate their behavior. In SDT, a person can lack total self-regulation (amotivation) or be fully internally self-regulated (intrinsically motivated).

Being able to self-regulate behavior is critically important for school success. Making time to study or do homework, practice for a test, or even manage time requires self-regulation.

In studies of SDT in student behavior, when a student is amotivated, they will not meet any expectations (e.g. will not complete their homework). When they are intrinsically motivated, they will meet expectations (e.g. will complete their homework).

So, if a student is intrinsically motivated by a class, they are likely to self-regulate their behavior and do what is expected — and, probably do well in the class.

Here is an illustration of the concept:

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How intrinsic motivation influences class achievement

How intrinsic motivation can improve academic achievement

The academic generalizing effect studies (studies 9 and 10) found that students who were more intrinsically motivated in one class not only did better in that class, but did better in other classes as well.

Interpreted differently, being intrinsically motivated by their class encouraged the students to self-regulate their behavior and do what was expected.

Because school is standardized, some types of self-regulated behavior are required in every class, such as completing homework and assignments, listening, taking notes and asking questions, practicing for and taking tests, and being on time to class.

Final Analysis: The students in the academic generalizing effect studies were able to apply the self-regulated behaviors they developed for the class that intrinsically motivated them to their other classes. This would explain why they did better in other classes.

Not losing sight of the big picture

Even if the academic generalizing effect is not universally applicable (it’s not), it’s definitely preferable to do better in one class than zero classes. At the very least, being intrinsically motivated will cause a student to do better in the class that intrinsically motivates them.

NOTE: It should be noted that many of society’s most successful people tend to do exceptionally well in only one or two areas. Richard St. John’s book, 8 To Be Great, is a great case study of people whose success is based on being really motivated (passionate) in one area.

The evidence is there. Now, we need the will

I’ve long thought that Dan Pink’s bestselling book, Drive, and his viral TED Talk, The puzzle of motivation, did a great job of exposing a major weak spot in business*:

“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

It’s my view this same weak spot exists in education, which is that despite decades of research finding that employees and students perform and feel better when intrinsically motivated, business and education continue to rely on extrinsic motivation.

The world is changing under our feet. In her book, Now You See It, Cathy Davidson estimates that 65% of students entering grade school (in 2011) will work at jobs not yet invented. Other authors agree. Urbanist Richard Florida, in his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class, and Yuval Harari, in his book, Homo Deus, both point to the future job market as an unknown, but say that it will require a set of skills not being developed by school today.

While we may not be able to predict jobs of the future, we can build habits and skills in students that are used in the real world. As the STEM study (2)(3) showed, intrinsic motivation for learning results in a focus on pursuing passion and developing skills.

As far as I can see passion and skills have always been important to success and probably always will be. The question is whether we want students to develop passion and skills or get good grades.

*Linkedin is a great example of a company taking advantage of the research presented by Dan Pink. They hire people who are passionate and can demonstrate the competencies required by the job, despite not having a formal degree. In other words, Linkedin hires passionate (intrinsically motivated) people who have focused on developing skills more than earning grades.

In a future article, I will discuss “how” to build intrinsic motivation in students.


1 — Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2016). Facilitating and hindering motivation, learning, and well-being in schools: Research and observations from Self-Determination Theory. Handbook of Motivation at School. Routledge. New York and London.

2 — Renninger, K. A., & M. W. Nam (2012). Interest and Achievement among Those Who Continue in STEM. Paper presented as part of the symposium, Interest Development and Its Relation to Academic Motivation, at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

3 — Renninger, K. A., & C. Y. Tibbetts (2010). Triggers for Interest and Naturally Occurring Reconfiguration of Knowledge. Paper presented at the Meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, March, Philadelphia, PA.

4 — Lepper, M. R., & Greene, D. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 28, №1, 129–137.

5 — Kim, J.S., Guryan, J., White, T.G., Quinn, D.M., Capotosto, L., & Kingston, H.C. (2016). Delayed effects of a low-cost and large-scale summer reading intervention on elementary school children’s reading comprehension. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 9 sup1, 1–22.

6 — Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented Teenagers: The roots of success and failure. Cambridge University Press.

7 — Stipek, D. (2002). Motivation to Learn: Integrating theory and practice. 4th Ed. A Pearson Education Company.

8 — A. Wrzesniewski, B. Schwartz, X. Cong, M. Kane, A. Omar, & T. Kolditz. (2014). Multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

9 — Rounds. J. & Su. R. (2014). The Nature and Power of Interests. Current Directions in Psychological Science. sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav. DOI: 10.1177/0963721414522812.

10 — Winner, E. (1996). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. Basic Books. A Member of the Perseus Books Group.

11 — Skinner, E. A., Chi, U., & the Learning-Gardens Educational Association. (2012). Intrinsic motivation and engagement as “active ingredients” in garden-based education: Examining models and measures derived from self-determination theory. Journal of Environmental Education, 43(1), 16–36.

12 — Ruiz-Gallardo, J.-R., Verde, A., & Valdes, A. (2013). Garden-based learning: An experience with “at risk” secondary education students. Journal of Environmental Education, 44.

13 — Elliot, A. J., Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2017). Handbook of Competence and Motivation: Theory and Application. 2nd Ed. The Guildford Press. New York, NY. 10001.

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