Seriously! What’s it gonna take?

Motivation -- that way

by Erica Kleinknecht, PhD (2012)

How many times have you found yourself exclaiming “Seriously! What’s it gonna take?!” Motivation is complicated. Don’t you know it. Keeping in mind that complicated mess you know motivation to be, consider for a moment the standard dictionary entry:

Motivation [moh-tuh-vey-shuhn] –noun
1. The act or an instance of motivating.

2. The state or condition of being motivated.

3. Something that motivates; inducement; incentive.

Not really all that helpful for those of us who want to effect positive change, for example, to a student’s motivation for school work though, is it. If you’ve studied motivation in an educational context, you have likely learned a slightly more nuanced definition of motivation, probably presented to you in an “either/or” format as “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic” motivation. If you learned about this in school I also suspect you’ve found that knowledge to be less than helpful in the heat of the moment, when you most need a good trick to pull out of your sleeve to get the job done. I’ve heard that high school teachers often roll their eyes in disdain when their principals bring “intrinsic motivation” up in staff meetings and for good reason. Intrinsic motivation isn’t something that you can “give” a student by sheer force of will or by eloquently executed lectures. And, though the concept of extrinsic motivation is often cited as something to be avoided, in reality it is sometimes a necessary means to a better end — a fact seasoned teachers often come to realize in time.

In short, you likely already know that “interests” drive students (but how do you marry their interests with your course material, you ask yourself?) and that rewards don’t always bring out students’ best (parents, you say, please don’t pay your children for their grades), but you also likely know that this knowledge only gets you so far when a bright but poorly motivated student throws down the gauntlet. I find it interesting (for lack of a more colorful term) that teachers know this, they ask for more (i.e., see the American Psychological Association’s 2006 “Teachers’ Needs Survey”), and that “more” is out there, but it rarely gets into the hands of teachers. That’s why I am writing this post – to get some more information “out there” where it can be useful.

Clarifying what motivation is

First things first, one fact needs to be clear — motivation isn’t “all or none.” Everyone has it, and has it all of the time. Period. What differs from person to person (and for one person, from situation to situation) is not the quantity or presence of their motivation, but, rather the quality. Regarding school work, quality counts (pun intended). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation mark different points along a motivational continuum, and this continuum doesn’t span from high to low or from all to none; rather, according to a very useful theoretical perspective, the span ranges from “fully self-determined” to “a-motivational.”

Overview: Self Determination Theory Basics

This theoretical perspective is called “Self Determination Theory (SDT)” and the original authors of it are none other than the two (Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) who put the “intrinsic – extrinsic” dichotomy on the educational-psychology-map. Their research has come a long ways since the 1970s and the recent “take” on motivation is quite informative and useful for teachers and parents alike. The theory rests on the assumption that all our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings result from a force fueled by the combination of feelings reflecting (a) your sense of community, (b) whether you feel like you are in control of what happens to you, and (c) how much confidence you have in your ability to succeed. The theory does not just apply to educational outcomes, though it fits nicely in a scholastic context.

Back to the fuel idea: the set of feelings are captured with three terms:

  • Relatedness” (your sense of community),
  • Autonomy” (the degree to which you feel like you are in control of your immediate experience or outcomes
  • Competence” (belief in your ability to overcome challenge, aka, self-efficacy).

So the theory goes, when basic needs are met (e.g., when you feel like you belong, like you can control outcomes, and exude confidence), you are highly “self-determined” (i.e., your motivation is the good-quality kind) and you are in a solid position to perform at the top of your game. When some or all basic needs are not met, you won’t live up to your potential; your motivation is of poor quality and this shows in your behavior. Sounds a lot different than the old intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy, doesn’t it. The two terms do appear in the continuum, along with 4 other points. In total, the authors highlight 6 points on this line ranging from “fully self-determined” to “a-motivational.” Listed from most autonomous to least (thus highest quality to poorest), these motivational qualities are:

1. Intrinsic Motivation: acting for the pleasure of doing so; difficult if not impossible to teach, but desirable nonetheless because we all tend to work harder at the things we love doing (e.g., I am intrinsically motivated to teach – no one taught me this – and to learn. I love it.).

2. Identified Motivation: this looks a lot like intrinsic motivation in that it too is fully autonomous, but it can be taught. Identified motivation drives you when you see the value in working hard to achieve an outcome, whether you truly enjoy it or not (e.g., this sense of motivation is what got me through my statistics courses in graduate school).

3. Integrated Motivation: also a form of autonomous motivation, where you act not because you like it per se, but because you think doing so is important and that it makes you look good to others; in other words, you see the work as a means to a desirable end. This form is autonomous because you feel in control, but you don’t really enjoy the work much, thus it yields somewhat less than optimal outcomes, but it still isn’t bad (e.g., this is why I made sure I earned better-than-passing grades in high school; there wasn’t much there I enjoyed, but I knew it was important and it made my parents happy).

4. Introjected Motivation: a form of externally controlled motivation, where that little voice in your head is what guides you (i.e., your mother, your teacher, your guidance counselor). This is not an autonomous driving force, rather, you believe that the owner of the voice controls your behavior and outcomes, thus it does not yield high quality work. It can yield an outcome, nonetheless, though (e.g., what parents hope for when encouraging their teenagers to “just say no,” despite the fact that their teenagers probably want to say “yes”).

5. Extrinsic Motivation: an externally controlled drive, where you will only do the work if a tangible reward is dangling in front of you. This form typically yields low-quality work (e.g., when my 4-year-old daughter would only allow me to apply eye-drops to treat pink-eye if she got a treat afterwards; no treat, no-go).

6. A-motivation: where rewards barely entice you to act so you usually choose not to. Note here, that though you are not doing the work, it is not because of the absence of motivation, you are making a choice thus you are experiencing a drive. However, your drive is of such poor quality that the choice not to act seems more reasonable than the choice to act

SDT buys us a richer view

The beauty of this continuum is (at least) twofold.

First, note that Intrinsic motivation isn’t the only route to success; Identified and Integrated motivation can yield success too. Hooray for that. As a teacher, it is unreasonable to assume I can get all my students to love Psychology so much so that they study for the pleasure of knowing more. However, I can take specific steps to transform “uninterested” students into students who see the value of having the knowledge and skills, thereby enabling them to feel motivation of the Identified or Integrated variety. This comment leads to the second “beauty” of SDT: that for any given person in any given situation, under appropriate conditions less desirable motivations can be transformed into more desirable ones, by working your way “up” the continuum (or is it “over”?) from the “Controlled” side to the “Autonomous” side. The second half of the list (Introjected, Extrinsic, A-motivational) reflects poor quality motivation, where the outcomes students achieve more than likely do not reflect their aptitude. Students with externally controlled drives do not work up to their potential. Just because a student enters your class with poor quality motivation doesn’t mean this student has to leave that way though. There are things you can do to transform motivation.

Let’s take the case of the high school student who hasn’t found her passion yet. She’s bright but uninterested. Her parents “keep her motivated” by paying her increasingly more money for higher and higher grades. She works for her rewards, but could care less. Can you effect change with this student? Perhaps. According to the theory, this student’s motivation is controlled, not autonomous, and it got this way because her basic motivational needs are out of balance, tipping the scales in the external or controlled direction. Her feelings of Relatedness, Autonomy, and Competence are not aligned properly. What do you do? You think about each piece of the puzzle:

  • Relatedness: Does she feel like a valued member of the group (i.e., her classroom)?
  • Autonomy: Does she feel like she has a say in how her grades turn out?
  • Competence: Does she have self-confidence in her ability to do well?

Once you identify where she is lacking, you can take steps to change her thinking. Just telling her she’s smart won’t do much good (I write more about this point here). Rather, she needs concrete evidence to reflect on. You don’t necessarily need to single her out either, as the steps you can take will actually help the whole class.

Relatedness. Make sure each student gets a turn to speak, in a meaningful way, about the course (whether structure, material, or process). Allocate time for the students to get to know one another through peer review, small group discussion (or an age-appropriate form of group work), or projects. When doing discussions or projects, make sure there is a clear goal and each member of the group has a job to do. Have each student tell the class one little thing about themselves, at some point. Let them feel silly about it and help them if they are shy. Such community building exercises make students feel like they belong and that they matter.

Autonomy. Do students get specific feedback on their work, or just a grade? If the latter, then change to the former. Students need to know why they earned the marks assigned them. Create handouts so student understand what is expected of them (either in pictures or words depending on the age of the students; post electronically, make paper copies, or make a poster for the classroom) and use a version of the handout to deliver their grades to them, making note of what they did well and where they need to improve. When they see such concrete evidence, connecting their behavior to their grade, they learn that they are in control.

Competence. Students gain confidence when they connect their hard work with their successes. If your “autonomy fostering” aims are effective, a sense of competence should follow from repeated experiences. Indeed, all three of these “needs” feed off of one another, as steps towards building autonomy also feed into relatedness, since the student sees that the teacher spent time on her work, and hers alone, if only for a few moments.

SDT shows us how to shift motivation from weak to strong

Admittedly, these are general suggestions, and need molding to a specific scenario. And it will take a bit more than just this to transform an extrinsically motivated student into one with a more autonomous drive. The hypothetical student noted above, the one who just works for money from her parents, will need more than just the attentions noted above. She will need to hear, loud and clear, from her teacher(s) specific “reasons why” learning the material is good for her – this will help move her along towards that sense of Introjection and hopefully beyond. There is a reason, after all, why the topics covered in school are covered. Figure these reasons out and communicate them in no uncertain terms. To this end, in my Introduction to Psychology classes, I start each semester off doing just this: showing students in all sorts of ways how having knowledge of Psychology can help them later in life (e.g., I’ve created activities and quizzes and have gathered lots of real world examples to show them how such knowledge could have helped others avoid poor outcomes); in Research Methods classes, I do the same. To those students who want to be clinicians not researchers, I tell them about real cases where clinicians who did not pay attention to research have done real harm to clients.

Back to the student who works for money, not knowledge, your aim is for your voice to get into her head, so that she goes away thinking about the stories you told. If she hears your voice and thinks about it, that is a heck of a lot better than just thinking about what she’ll buy with her allowance, once she earns it. Over the course of a semester, assuming your steps taken toward building autonomy have not passed her notice and you keep up the “reasons’ why” discussion, not only will she find herself thinking about the material, but she also may find herself thinking about her behavior as she looks over the marks on the “feedback sheet” you give her. If she doesn’t look at the marks you’ve made for her, figure out a way to make sure that she does – offer your students a couple of “points back” for correcting mistakes, for example.

This can be all it takes for her to start shifting from Extrinsic to Introjected status. If all her teachers do this (and if her parents are informed too) there is no reason why she wouldn’t eventually shift further over into the autonomous range. In short, students don’t have to love what they do, to do well at it. They just need a good reason (or two or three), they need to feel like they matter, and they need some confidence. Teachers can do this for students. Interestingly, when classrooms are run in this way, students usually end up enjoying being there too, which is always an added bonus. I’ve had many students comment that they didn’t care for course material, but they loved the class. Sometimes that is all we can hope for.

And to belabor the point: research results and some more examples…

A tremendous amount of research has been done, testing whether this theory does indeed explain student outcomes. Here is a very brief overview of conclusions drawn from about 200 studies, designed to assess whether motivation shaped in autonomy-building ways relates to student outcomes: When students’ motivational needs are met such that they are driven by a sense of self determination (i.e., they feel a sense of community, they feel they control outcomes and they are optimistic about their ability to succeed) they … .

  •  … are more likely to choose challenging over easy tasks
  •  … productively handle failure (learn from their mistakes and move on)
  •  … persist longer at difficult tasks
  •  … engage in deeper learning
  • … retain learned material longer
  •  … show more positive emotion in the classroom
  • … report more enjoyment of academic work
  • … are more satisfied with their school experiences

On the other hand, students who are on the “externally controlled” end of the continuum are more likely to choose easy, fool-proof tasks, blame others for their failures, give up easily when challenged, and are pessimistic about their abilities to succeed. And, not surprisingly, students who drop out of high school experience a-motivation in spades. From this body of research you can glean a characterization of prototypical classrooms that promote “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” motivation. These descriptions review and extend what I’ve noted above.

A recipe for disaster: the “unhealthy” classroom. One where grades are emphasized and rankings are made public, predictable tangible rewards are used, students are not given choice throughout the day/class-period, the consequences for undesirable behavior are unclear, and the day/class-period is unstructured. Classroom atmospheres that foster unhealthy motivation emphasize outcomes over process and skill acquisition, thereby undermining students’ sense of autonomy. Undue emphasis on grades (e.g., through publicly posted progress charts, ability grouping, and/or “races to the finish”), especially in the absence of individualized feedback on specific aspects of performance, additionally undermines students’ sense of competence. When autonomy and competence are undermined, no degree of warmth or sense of community will make up for it.

A recipe for success: the “healthy” classroom. In contrast, a classroom atmosphere that promotes autonomous motivation occurs when teachers create highly structured environments where the day/class-period is consistent and predictable, expectations are clearly communicated, and consequences for undesirable behavior are known. Teachers who foster autonomous motivation give their students age-appropriate choices throughout the day/class-period and get involved with each student at some point throughout the day/class-period. As well, autonomy-fostering teachers sparingly and unpredictably use tangible rewards (a little treat here and there is fun and makes students smile; a regular reward system is ill advised). These practices, when delivered in a warm and caring way, emphasize process and skill acquisition, not outcomes. When students focus on building skills, their outcomes improve in kind. Indeed, this characterization emphasizes fostering autonomy, but in doing so, the other two basic needs are also stimulated. Receipt of individualized, contingent praise/feedback on their work as they are engaged in it also fosters students’ sense of relatedness and competence, in that specific feedback shows students what aspect of their emerging skills need attention and suggests how to move their skills forward.

In closing:

When confident students of any age feel respected in control they try harder. When students are confident in their skills, they are more willing to take risks. And with risks, come gains. Seriously.


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