Practical Application: Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation in Education

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

The menu of factors that motivate students is as diverse as the schools they attend. This practical application will allow you to demonstrate your knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators as well as the role of consequences when motivating students.

Motivation: Fear, Fun, and Fulfillment

One of the most important roles of a teacher is to motivate students. In the increasingly diverse classroom, teachers have the monumental task of connecting and encouraging each unique student to strive for excellence.

In the lesson entitled Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation, we see that intrinsic motivators are the ones that drive students from a center of genuine enjoyment while extrinsic motivation comes from external consequences. You could say that extrinsic motivators are fear and fun - the motivation to act because of the consequences (good or bad). Intrinsic motivators are the things that give people a sense of personal fulfillment.

A Case Study in Motivation

Mr. Armstrong interacted with many students during the course of his life, but one student will be forever emblazoned in his memory. As any teacher knows, motivating students can be a challenge, but Mr. Armstrong had the truly life-changing experience of teaching a young man who overcame unimaginable barriers because of his innate desire to learn. Unlike many students, this young man didn't require the fear of bad grades or the potential for college scholarships in order to excel at academic study. He simply wanted to learn more than anything else in the world.

Like so many students, Mr. Armstrong's memorable pupil came from an inherently disadvantaged position. His family lived in poverty, had little formal education, and often struggled to secure reliable food and living space. Also like many teenagers, Armstrong's student worked hard at a low-wage job to help ensure his family's financial survival.

Things began to change for the student, however, when his burning desire for an education led him to change the course of his life. Realizing the need to balance long-term success with short-term needs, the young man who would become Armstrong's most memorable student put his family in the best financial position he could before making the commitment to put his studies first. He did this, of course, because he knew that long-term stability meant having an education.

Now, consider the following:

  • Does the phrase ''innate desire'' indicate an intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?
  • Are poor grades and potential scholarships examples of intrinsic or extrinsic motivators?
  • Is there a difference in being motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors? (i.e., Is one better than the other?) If there is a difference, what is it and why does it matter?
  • Which kind of motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) is displayed by a teenager who works a low-wage job in order to help his or her family secure basic necessities?
  • At the end of the story, is Mr. Armstrong's future student being motivated intrinsically, extrinsically, or both? Explain.
  • What is the overjustification effect?
  • Is it present in this story, and/or did it play a role in the student's motivation or lack thereof?

Reflections and Solutions

Some readers may have already identified this teacher and his student. Mr. Armstrong is, of course, the Civil War General Samuel Armstrong. His memorable student is Booker T. Washington - the founder of one of America's first colleges (Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute) dedicated to helping former slaves obtain an education, a trade, and a self-sufficient life. The young man, born into slavery and emancipated in his pre-teen years, began his educational journey to the Hampton Institute from a role as a laborer in a salt mine. So motivated was he that he walked more than 500 miles to attend the school, and he was lucky enough to have Mr. Armstrong (among others) to help him through school.

Washington, who essentially gave himself the surname, having not really had one prior to school, was motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

About the Overjustification Effect

One of the most poignant criticisms leveled at Washington later in life was that his intrinsic love of learning became eclipsed by the overjustification of teaching former slaves a trade. Specifically, he was criticized for taking public positions that seemed to move away from educating former slaves and instead training skilled laborers (With critics arguing that the position implied that skilled labor was the best that a recently freed slave could hope for.)

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