Intrinsic motivation, the type that emanates from an internal drive rather than an external one, empowers an individual to persist in any endeavor. An elite athlete training for the Olympics, or a classical pianist preparing for an international competition can withstand grueling hours of training each day when responding to the “fire within.”  What are the essential components comprising intrinsic motivation, and how can educators spark that flame in their students’ academic pursuits?

The self-determination theory of Ryan and Deci in 2000 proposes that two of the essential components related to intrinsic motivation include autonomy and competence.  Thus, teachers can provide opportunities for students to work on their own  and support their feelings of competence by offering positive reinforcement for sustained effort, especially with a difficult task.  Approach motivation, foundational to most forms of learning, steers people to a reward. However, the reward must be intrinsic, such as a feeling of competence, pleasure from self-determined mastery, and desire to satisfy curiosity for its own sake.  In fact, extrinsic reward, designed and administered by an outside person or authority, (grades, prizes,money) cannot sustain effort for an extended period and might even de-motivate.

The “recipe” for eliciting intrinsic motivation include the following principles.

  1. Elicit curiosity and encourage exploration.
  2. Avoid extrinsic incentives.
  3. Remind children that success is possible.
  4. Prioritize social interaction.
  5. Remember that we all have different intrinsic motivators.

Keep in mind, however, the foundation is caring. Students must know that their teachers have unconditional positive regard for them. As Madeline Hunter said, “Children don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”


Laura Maniglia