Spotlight On: Effort and Motivation

23 August 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 23 August 2019

Teachers regularly assess students in terms of the effort they put into their schoolwork. Effort is crucial to success and to assist students to rise to their potential we need to help them find the right kind of motivation. So which type of motivation are we talking about? Intrinsic motivation? Extrinsic motivation? Or perhaps a combination of both?

Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. It arises from within the student because it is naturally satisfying to her. Students are intrinsically motivated when they do something simply because it makes them feel good, is personally challenging, or leads to a sense of accomplishment. For example, a student may be intrinsically motivated to read because it satisfies her curiosity about the world and brings her a sense of calm. Intrinsic motivation is doing something “just because.”

Extrinsic motivation is doing something to earn a reward or to avoid a punishment. The main motivator is external. For example, a student studies for a test because she wants to earn a good grade. Or she hands in her homework on time because she doesn’t want to lose her recess break.

Does extrinsic motivation work?

Whilst extrinsic motivators can have a positive effect on the behaviours we are seeking, studies have shown that they typically produce only short-term effects and they can distract students from learning the subject at hand. One study goes so far as to say, “External incentives are weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run.” Often, once the rewards are removed, students lose their motivation.

When students rely too much on external motivation, they learn to compare themselves to others. Do I have as many stickers as Mary? Is my teacher happy with me because I did the assignment the right way?  If students are always looking outside of themselves for validation, they can become unhappy and unproductive when that affirmation is not readily available, and their confidence may suffer.

So is there room for both?

Extrinsic motivation is not always a bad thing, particularly when it comes to teaching children. In fact, it can sometimes be extremely beneficial, particularly in situations where students need to complete a task that they find unpleasant. In the classroom, just as in real life, there are many things our students have to do that, if given the choice, they would not. Sometimes, the right incentive serves as the hook that gets students engaged. Children are still building up experiences that provide the basis for intrinsic motivation, so if they need a little external motivation to master a new skill or tread into unfamiliar territory then it can work to their benefit.

The key is finding the right balance.

Teachers work hard to create the optimum learning environment, which encourages students to develop their own motivation muscles. There are many ways we do this but one of the most effective is by delivering lessons that stimulate curiosity and the desire to know more. This way, students’ efforts focus on acquiring knowledge, rather than rewards.

Mrs Carmen Merrick
Year 3 Teacher