Motivation is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in education. Teachers with the skill to motivate disengaged students are heroes beyond measure.

Most people believe that the only way to motivate students is with rewards and punishments. Rewards such as good grades and eventually a middle class life await those who can meet the standards of the institution.


Recent research demonstrates that not only do extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments) not work on tasks that require creativity, complex problem solving, or other higher order skills, they actually decrease performance.

To increase performance, teachers need to create an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation, turning most traditional classroom practice and management upside down.

Extrinsic Motivation

Rewarding students with grades, stars, candies, or privileges are very common traditional ways to motivate them. It is so ingrained in our culture, it almost becomes hard to notice when it happens.

The bad news is that research shows these types of motivators tend to backfire in important ways. If you are rewarding students for rote work that doesn’t require creativity or problem solving, rewards and punishments work quite well. However, for work that requires higher order skills, it’s a different story.

Research shows that rewards work in highly counterintuitive ways. In fact:

  • Rewards don’t make us happy – even lottery winners return to their previous level of happiness after about three months
  • Rewards can decrease performance
  • Rewards can actually make us stop enjoying things we love, as when a student who loves to read who is given a reward for every book completed then starts focusing on the reward and loses the joy he or she once had in reading for its own sake.

It is almost impossible to imagine motivating students without rewards, but it is entirely possible. It simply requires activating their intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is what drives people who are passionate about their work or their hobbies. These are not just people who work hard, but rather are those who love their work, those who say “I can’t believe I get paid (credit) for this!”

Rarely do students exhibit that kind of passion about their schoolwork, but when they do it’s magical. It happens in classrooms where students see their work as truly meaningful and ┬ápedagogical approaches are used that help ignite intrinsic motivation.

In order for intrinsic motivation to thrive, there need to be three elements in place:

  • Autonomy – students have choice in what they do, how they do it, and when they do it
  • Mastery – students learn deeply about things they see as valuable
  • Meaning – students find the work relevant and authentic