Intrinsic Motivation


Some theorists (e.g., Combs, 1982; Purkey & Schmidt, 1987; Purkey & Stanley, 1991) maintain that there is only a single kind of intrinsic motivation, which can be described as a motivation to engage in activities that enhance or maintain a person's self-concept. Most theorists (e.g., Malone and Lepper, 1987) define the term more broadly.

Note that even though the following pages will describe intrinsic motivation ashighly desirable, most of the activities in which teachers, students, and other human beings engage are most directly influenced by extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989). For example, most people use a knife and a fork in a certain way or follow conventions in a restaurant not because they find knife and fork use to be intrinsically motivating, but because the correct use of these utensils leads to such intrinsic benefits as a good meal or the respect of people we care about. This is not a serious problem, unless the person feels coerced or in some other way alienated by having to use the utensils.

However, as the discussion of artificial reinforcement in Chapter 10 will further clarify, extrinsic motivators may lead to merely short-range activity while actually reducing long-range interest in a topic. Therefore, it is essential that extrinsic motivators be backed up by intrinsic motivators or that the extrinsic motivation become internalized through processes described later in this chapter. If this does not happen, the result is likely to be a reduction in the very behavior we want to promote.

One of the most frequent failures in education is that students rarely say that they find studying to be intrinsically rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). This is a critical problem. One of the most straightforward conclusions of research from the past two decades is that extrinsic motivation alone is likely to have precisely the opposite impact that we want it to have on student achievement (Lepper & Hodell, 1989).

Malone and Lepper (1987) have defined intrinsic motivation more simply in terms of what people will do without external inducement. Intrinsically motivating activities are those in which people will engage for no reward other than the interest and enjoyment that accompanies them. Malone and Lepper have integrated a large amount of research on motivational theory into a synthesis of ways to design environments that are intrinsically motivating. This synthesis is summarized in Table 5.1. As that table shows, they subdivide factors that enhance motivation into individual factors and interpersonal factors. Individual factors are individual in the sense that they operate even when a student is working alone. Interpersonal factors, on the other hand, play a role only when someone else interacts with the learner. These are discussed in detail on the following pages.



Table 5.1. The Factors That Promote Intrinsic Motivation.






Related Guidelines




People are best motivated when they are working toward personally meaningful goals whose attainment requires activity at a continuously optimal (intermediate) level of difficulty.

  1. Set personally meaningful goals.
  2. Make attainment of goals probable but uncertain.
  3. Give enroute performance feedback.
  4. Relate goals to learners' self esteem.




Something in the physical environment attracts the learner's attention or there is an optimal level of discrepancy between present knowledge or skills and what these could be if the learner engaged in some activity.

  1. Stimulate sensory curiosity by making abrupt changes that will be perceived by the senses.
  2. Stimulate cognitive curiosity by making a person wonder about something (i.e., stimulate the learner's interest).




People have a basic tendency to want to control what happens to them.

  1. Make clear the cause-and-effect relationships between what students are doing and things that happen in real life.
  2. Enable the learners to believe that their work will lead to powerful effects.
  3. Allow learners to freely choose what they want to learn and how they will learn it.




Learners use mental images of things and situations that are not actually present to stimulate their behavior.

  1. Make a game out of learning.
  2. Help learners imagine themselves using the learned information in real- life settings.
  3. Make the fantasies intrinsic rather than extrinsic.




Learners feel satisfaction by comparing their performance favorably to that of others.

  1.  Competition occurs naturally as well as artificially.
  2. Competition is more important for some people than for others.
  3. People who lose at competition often suffer more than the winners profit.
  4. Competition sometimes reduces the urge to be helpful to other learners.




Learners feel satisfaction by helping others achieve their goals.

  1. Cooperation occurs naturally as well as artificially.
  2. Cooperation is more important for some people than for others.
  3. Cooperation is a useful real-life skill.
  4. Cooperation requires and develops interpersonal skills.




Learners feel satisfaction when others recognize and appreciate their accomplishments.

  1. Recognition requires that the process or product or some other result of the learning activity be visible.
  2. Recognition differs from competition in that it does not involve a comparison with the performance of someone else.


Click on a topic from the following list, or use your web browser to go where you want to go:

Intrinsic Motivation <<You are here>>
Interpersonal Motivation
Summary of Intrinsic Motivation
Motivating Through Curriculum
Reinforcement and Punishment
Affective Aspects of Motivation
Physiological Aspects of Motivation
Cognitive Aspects of Motivation
Needs and Motivation
Attribution Theory
Development and Motivation
Motivation as a Personality Characteristic
Teacher Expectancy
Social Aspects of Motivation: Classroom Structure
What Teachers Can Do About Motivation
What Parents Can Do About Motivation
What Students Can Do About Motivation
Chapter Summary
Annotated Bibliography
Answers to Quizzes