The Science of Motivation

On Day 7 and 8 this week (Thursday and Friday), we’re going to think about what motivates us in school: why do we study for important assessments? Why do we turn in homework on-time? Why do we care about what shows up on Powerschool or our report cards? This may be the most important thing we think about this year, because motivation is key to all learning.

All students (all people, really)  are motivated by different things. In school, some work hard mostly for reasons that come from inside them. They study because they enjoy learning new things;  or because they want to prepare themselves for what comes next–high school, university, their future careers; or  because they find it satisfying to overcome challenges. Motivation that comes from inside us is called intrinsic motivation.

Other students work hard mostly for reasons that come from outside them. They study hard because they like to get praise or rewards from their teachers; or because they want to make their parents happy; or because they want to avoid ‘getting in trouble.’  Motivation that comes from outside us is called extrinsic motivation.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can work, and most of us are motivated by a mix of things. But there is some interesting research that suggests that extrinsic motivators (e.g., rewards and punishments) work better for mechanical, boring things, while intrinsic motivators (e.g., working hard because it is satisfying to do a job well) work better for things involving creativity and higher level thinking–much of what we do in school.

For example, rewarding people with money for picking up trash is likely to result in them picking up more trash. But rewarding people with money to become great writers or to solve high level math problems, is not likely to be effective. This may seem hard to believe, but this video by Daniel Pink explains some of the research and reasons why this is true. (If you’d prefer to read about these ideas, you can look here.)

So what mostly motivates you as a student–what makes you work hard when you work hard? Which are more important to you, extrinsic (outside) motivators or intrinsic (inside) motivators? Share your thinking in the comments below.

24 thoughts on “The Science of Motivation

  1. In most classes i work hard because it feels good when i have done something right. i have. goood feeling of acomplishment and mastery over what we did in class.

    • Lewis, it sounds like you are motivated because you enjoy mastering things. Mastery is a powerful kind of intrinsic motivation.

    • Hi Nasr, it sounds like you are motivated by the good feelings that come from mastering something. That’s a great kind of motivation.

  2. For my motivation its to make my family happy and proud of me i also like to make myself proud of my work because it makes me feel like i have accompished my goal in whatever subject I’m working on and also because i can make my teachers proud that when they teach me something they know it will always stay in my mind ready for Someone to ask me if i remember what we learned and to say yes makes me feel happy

    • Hey Gisele, I thin it’s great that you want to make your family and your teachers proud of you. That’s a good kind of motivation. I’ll bet there are other reasons as well.

  3. DongHan, why do you work hard? It sounds like you want to improve yourself–is that about ‘mastery’ and how it feels?

  4. When i am motivated its because of he satiation or reward like now I’m working hard in school and doing jobs around the us embassy to get money to pay for some of my new phone
    When i am not motivated it’s because I don’t enjoy it I don’t enjoy who is telling me to do it or there is no reward

  5. In most classes, I work hard because I want to achieve my goals and to get the highest score if possible, if I don’t get the highest score then it’s fine I can work even more to achieve it.

    • Afreen that is great. Getting good scores is great, and so is the understanding that often goes along with those great scores.

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