This guide outlines the history of intrinsic motivation, related theories—including extrinsic motivation—and how professors can instill motivation in the next generation of learners. Currently, some students may feel as if their courses and assessments are irrelevant to their career goals. Thus, they may not see the value in learning about, for example, Freud, or deciphering the periodic table of elements, reading up on the nervous system, or anything else.

Motivated students develop as a result of seeing the value in their work. When students are intrinsically motivated, they’re likely to become inclined to take part in class discussions and be an active leader in group projects—the number of students who are reward motivated should decline in tandem.

Our Ultimate Guide to Creating Community in the Virtual Classroom offers tips and tools to make learning more human. Download it for free, here.

Table of contents

1) What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is a person’s willingness to engage in an activity for entertainment sake or a challenge rather than reward. To some, the reward is the behavior itself1, as opposed to meeting a tangible goal or reaping benefits.

Intrinsic motivation is found in all aspects of life. An example is learning a new language for the fun of it and to experience new things, not because your job requires you to do so. Another example is painting or sculpting for personal enjoyment, instead of profit.

It’s important to foster intrinsic motivation in students as early as possible, so students want to learn for the enjoyment of learning, rather than their desire to get an A+ on their upcoming exam. Supportive learning environments—areas free from discrimination that encourage students to raise their hands to answer questions, even if they are unsure—foster intrinsic motivation among learners. Intrinsic motivation may also stem from encouraging student curiosity and goal-setting. As a result, students who are able to choose their own research topic report higher levels of enthusiasm2, which makes their learning more enjoyable.

Finally, professors play a role in intrinsically motivating their students. For example, an energetic tone can lead students to believe that the curriculum has intrinsic value. This belief can motivate learners to want to know more—they’re motivated by curiosity instead of the need to ace an upcoming assessment.

Intrinsic motivation has a long history, starting with Harvard Professor Emeritus Robert White. White’s effectance motivation theory was developed in 1959. He argued that we want to feel effective and productive and want to work on developing ourselves: his theory measures the relationship between task challenge and degree of pleasure elicited, the role of social agents and the reinforcing environment and internalization of a self-reward system.3 Optimal incongruity theory was proposed by Joseph McVicker Hunt at the University of Nebraska in 1965. According to Hunt, when there’s an inconsistency between a stimulus and a personal standard, an individual will be intrinsically motivated to act until the discrepancy is resolved.

The third set of researchers—Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester and Richard DeCharms from Washington University—challenged Hunt’s optimal incongruity theory. In 1968, DeCharms proposed that what motivates people is personal causation: where people incite their own behaviors out of will rather than being forced to act only to gain rewards. To complement DeCharms’ findings, Deci and Ryan advocated for competence and self-determination—which will be discussed in the next section. DeCharms and Deci and Ryan’s theories overlap in that people are motivated by the degree of control that they have over others, external objects or themselves.4

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognized and named the psychological concept of flow. In a recent study, he described flow as a highly focused mental state that is conducive to productivity. Csikszentmihalyi said the highest intrinsic motivation is a flow state. This typically happens when working on tasks that are pleasurable but that also provide a certain degree of challenge. In a flow state, the individual becomes fully absorbed in the task at hand, self-consciousness is lost, one surrenders completely to the moment and time means nothing.5

2) What is self-determination?

Self determination theory (SDT) was proposed by Deci and Ryan in 1975. SDT suggests that there are three psychological human needs: the needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. Competence arises from positive feelings about an activity or from successful experiences or encounters. An example is the way toddlers explore a new toy and then experience joy once they figure out how to operate it. Contrastingly, negative experiences with a new toy may result in less intrinsic motivation within the toddler. Autonomy goes hand-in-hand with competence, whereby individuals must be given choices, acknowledge their feelings or given an opportunity for self-direction. Students’ sense of autonomy may increase with peers or professors supporting an individual’s choices and being responsive to their opinions. Finally, students must feel connected, or related, to their learning communities—this increases engagement since it can make students feel like they belong. A strong connection to school often indicates academic and personal success.6 When people feel competent, autonomous and self-determined, they will voluntarily seek out what’s interesting to them.

When put into practice, self determination can be beneficial for our mental and physical health. Satisfying the domains of competency, autonomy and relatedness leads to improved mental health—resulting in lower depression, anxiety and a higher quality of life—as well as improved physical health, involving more exercise and a healthier diet.

Intrinsic motivation is a by-product of self determination and the satisfaction of the three innate psychological needs which make up SDT. Intrinsic motivation relies on the interaction between individual perceptions of the environment and perceptions of ourselves. In the classroom, professors may support autonomy and competency, but if the student isn’t interested in a learning activity, then they won’t be intrinsically motivated.7 Students can still be self determined if they can “integrate an activity into their sense of self.” Once students realize the value of certain tasks or roles, they can then approach scenarios with a sense of will rather than pressure.

3) Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic, sometimes called external motivation, is where people are motivated to act or behave in a certain way in order to receive a desirable outcome. Here, a person is motivated by external factors in order to avoid negative consequences or to achieve positive outcomes, especially money and/or praise. An example of extrinsic motivation is where a physician treats patients in return for money rather than a desire to help the ill. Another example is where a child does their chores, not because they want to, but because they will receive allowance money from their parents.

As per the research of Deci and Ryan, extrinsic motivation can be internalized. A student who is uninterested in their biology assessment can become self determined if they integrate their postsecondary journey—the stepping stone towards their career—into their sense of self. The student must understand the value of their assessments in order to focus on skill building and their personal growth in their higher education journey. By seeking out the value of an assessment—and what knowledge or skills the student can gain from it—learners will then openly approach a task instead of avoiding it.8

Reaping rewards and avoiding potential punishment are at the heart of extrinsic motivation, but with intrinsic motivation, people are motivated by personal benefits and the desire to partake in an activity for the fun of it. Athletes may be extrinsically motivated when they focus on winning awards, but are intrinsically motivated when they find the sport enjoyable.

4) Rewards and extrinsic motivation

Rewards can convince people to participate in a task. Rewards are the ultimate goal of someone who is extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic rewards can potentially weaken intrinsic motivation—and can be seen when rewards begin to control behavior. Extrinsic rewards may boost intrinsic motivation because rewards can inform people about their abilities in an encouraging way. Studies on the correlation between rewards and intrinsic motivation vary. A study by Deci9 finds that intrinsic motivation decreased when rewards were task contingent—where undergraduate students would earn another dollar by completing a puzzle. The outcome of a reward on intrinsic motivation depends on which message is more salient to recipients. Rewards can influence saliency: if someone feels pressured or as if they are completing a task for external rewards, their intrinsic motivation for that task will decrease.

On the other hand, rewards can have a positive effect on intrinsic motivation. A separate study10asked undergraduates to work on a task where half the participants in each group were paid, and the other half weren’t. The participants receiving the reward had higher levels of intrinsic motivation than their peers who didn’t get paid. Positive feedback counts as a reward as well. Receptive feedback on a school assignment can lead to enhanced self-efficacy—which in turn contributes to increased task interest.11 Positive verbal feedback especially increases intrinsic motivation: after a nervous student delivers a presentation to their class and their teacher congratulates them on a job well done, the student is less likely to fear giving a presentation in a similar scenario again. One positive acknowledgement from a grader can lead to students wanting to complete an assignment out of interest rather than pressure, in turn boosting their intrinsic motivation.

5) How can you harness intrinsic motivation in class?

Intrinsic motivation is a key part of ensuring students’ success in the classroom. Academic intrinsic motivation can be measured by each, or a combination, of the following:12

  • The ability of the learner to persist with the task assigned
  • The amount of time spent by the student on tackling the task
  • The student’s innate curiosity to learn
  • Their feeling of efficacy related to an activity
  • Their desire to select an activity

Involving students in the learning process is a good first step towards helping learners see the value of their education. Students’ intrinsic motivation can also increase when they monitor and reinforce their own progress in their courses12, using tools in some learning management systems such as Moodle, Canvas and Brightspace.

Here are some practical strategies on increasing intrinsic motivation in class.

5.1) Making choices

The ability to choose and have agency over one’s coursework can increase intrinsic motivation among students. According to a study by the University of Southern California13, students are more likely to engage in an activity if they believed they had chosen it, providing them with a perception of increased autonomy. After attending a series of lectures and being placed into groups, students’ social perception on food consumption was tested—certain words from the lecturer, such as “delicious,” as well as group decisions led to participants serving a specific dish.

Choice should result in positive motivational and performance outcomes according to self determination theory. Providing students with choices may lead to an increased sense of personal control, enhanced motivation, liking and expressing interest in a task. For instance, letting students choose their own groups as opposed to professors assigning groups can lead to higher task motivation and the willingness to complete a project. Control from others diminishes intrinsic motivation, says the research, adding that it has a detrimental effect on students’ motivation and learning.

5.2) Optimal challenge

Students don’t get intrinsic motivation from tasks that are beyond or below their comprehension levels. Research14 finds that the optimal challenge for students in the classroom comes from professors who match their expectations with their students’ learning abilities. If the material taught is too easy, then students will likely achieve the highest level of mastery—but their full potential of growth may be hindered. Becoming accustomed to easy-to-grasp material doesn’t prepare students for higher education or the workplace. Contrastingly, content that is too difficult won’t allow students to achieve the highest level of mastery in a given time frame.

Studies test how students are affected by optimal challenges in the classroom. Students’ optimal level of learning is tested through 10-13 assessment points in a weekly course. A study conducted by Minnesota State University15 finds that frequent assessments and feedback facilitate learning by introducing self-regulated learning, mastery learning, improved communications between students and the instructor, learning motivation and increased retention of the material. Frequent assessments also permit ongoing improvement in the course—from both teaching and learning perspectives—and match the instructors’ expectations with their students’ aptitudes. These findings are highly applicable in active learning classrooms, where the learning process is more engaging and can encompass assignment-setting and evaluation.

5.3) Collaboration

Collaboration in higher education can also increase students’ intrinsic motivation. Collaboration allows students to learn from one another and can make fuzzy material clear—potentially enabling students to see the value in an assessment or course they previously would have dismissed as irrelevant. Educators should ensure opportunities for collaboration are distributed across the semester and not in a one-off instance on the first day.16Some suggestions on how you can implement collaboration in your classroom can be found here.

Working together boosts students’ motivation, according to psychological research16 by Stanford professor Gregory Walton and graduate student Priyanka Carr. Walton and Carr split participants into two small groups: the “psychologically together” group and the “psychologically separate” group, which gave participants the impression that they were either working on a puzzle as a team or individually, respectively. The first group thought they could complete the puzzle together while each of the second group’s members felt they needed to complete the puzzle by themselves. Walton finds that those in the “psychologically together” group:

  • Persisted 48–64 percent longer on a challenging task
  • Reported more interest in the task
  • Became less tired by having to work on the task
  • Became more engrossed in the task and performed better on it

The results found that students’ intrinsic motivation increased just from the impression of working in groups—even though those groups had no effect on competition or pressure to join others in an activity.

5.4) Gamification

Gamification is the use of game design to boost participation, engagement, loyalty and competition in the classroom.17 Points, leaderboards, competitions among peers and badges are good ways to make learning more engaging for students. One surprising example of gamification in the classroom is replacing traditional grades and instead implementing “experience points.” Experience points help students feel rewarded once completing a task and can validate their time spent working.18 These points act as a visual measurement of students’ progress towards their goals and can motivate students to continue working in order to receive another token of recognition.

“Good” grades are achieved by the quantity of the work completed, not the quality. Students can feel rewarded for their effort in completing a task instead of feeling disheartened about an assignment they may have performed poorly in.

Does incorporating games into your curriculum boost your students’ intrinsic motivation? One study19 aimed to answer whether gamification in 200- and 300-level engineering courses increases students’ intrinsic motivation. In exercises taught using gamification, 26 percent found the work engaging and 58 percent could tie the exercise to previous knowledge—and a total of 92 percent of students exposed to gamification showed signs of some kinds of intrinsic motivation themes, such as experiencing pleasure in taking part in an activity or perseverance.

The researchers concluded that gamification can greatly increase students’ intrinsic motivation. They found that gamification helps students tie course concepts together and presents fun alternatives to otherwise mundane assessments. Increased intrinsic motivation will encourage students to engage in exploration, effort and participation due to curiosity and not explicit rewards—as seen through the engineering students in this study.

6) Conclusion

Intrinsic motivation varies from student to student—making it almost impossible for all students to be motivated in any course at the same time. Every classroom will have students with varying motivational orientations. Realistically, professors should aim for intrinsic motivation combined with more self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation, instead of pure intrinsic motivation. Giving students options in class, focusing on their optimal challenge and fostering collaboration and gamification can increase intrinsic motivation—and rewards can have just as much influence on students. The goal, however, is that once students can see the value in their courses and assessments, they will no longer be motivated purely by rewards but by the excitement or challenge that comes along with a given task. After all, the reward is the behavior itself.

Our Ultimate Guide to Creating Community in the Virtual Classroom offers tips and tools to make learning more human. Download it for free, here.

7) References

  1. deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation: the internal affective determinants of behavior. New York: Academic Press.
  2. Valerio, K. (2012). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Journal of Student Engagement: Education Matters, 2(1), pp. 30-35. Retrieved from
  3. Harter, S. (1978). Effectance Motivation Reconsidered. Toward a Developmental Model. Human Development, 21(1), pp. 34-64. Retrieved from
  4. Oudeyer, P-Y., & Kaplan, F. (2009). What is intrinsic motivation? A typology of computational approaches. Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 1, pp. 1-6. Retrieved from
  5. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. Ebury Digital, 2013.
  6. Riley, G. (2016). The role of self-determination theory and cognitive evaluation theory in home education. Cogent Education, 3, pp. 1-7. Retrieved from
  7. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), pp. 68-78. Retrieved from
  8. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, pp. 54-67. Retrieved from
  9. Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum Press.
  10. Eisenberger, R., et al. (1999). Does Pay for Performance Increase or Decrease Perceived Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, pp. 1026-1040. Retrieved from
  11. Pierce, W. D., et al. (2003). Positive Effects of Rewards and Performance Standards on Intrinsic Motivation. The Psychological Record, 53, pp. 561-579. Retrieved from
  12. Dev, P. C. (1997). Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Achievement: What does their relationship imply for the classroom teacher? Remedial and Special Education, 18(1), pp. 12-19. Retrieved from
  13. Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Civey Robinson, J. (2008). The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin. 134. 270-300. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.2.270.
  14. Ahmed, S. (2017). Theory of Sustained Optimal Challenge in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 61(1), 407. Retrieved from
  15. Himmelsbach, V. (2019, February 21). 10 Team Building Activities for Students [Blog post]. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from
  16. Parker, C. B. (2014, September 15). Stanford research shows that working together boosts motivation. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from
  17. Holloway, S. (2018, May 2). Gamification in Education: 4 Ways to Bring Games to your Classroom [Blog post]. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from
  18. Tito, G. (2010, March 18). Professor Abandons Grades for Experience Points. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from
  19. Banfield, J., Wilkerson, B. (2014). Increasing Student Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Efficacy through Gamification Pedagogy. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 7(4), pp. 291-298. Retrieved from

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