Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom


Intrinsic Motivation is defined as the motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake (Schunk et. al p. 238). This is in contrast to external motivation where the activity is the means to an end. In my experience as an educator I feel that students are highly motivated by external motivators, but when it comes to internal motivation I find that very few of my students show evidence of any. I would love to improve my impact on students’ lives by supporting increased levels in internal motivation and finding reward in the process of learning and growing rather than doing so just to gain some kind of reward. In the following pages I will be reflecting on the research of internal motivation in the classroom and then reflecting on implications for my teaching practice.
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My experience in education started in an early childhood setting, and has since transitioned into upper elementary school. One large hurdle that I have found is motivating students. I noticed very early in my transition that students in fourth and fifth grade tend to be very difficult to motivate. I am often asked “what do I get if I do this?”. Whereas students in preschool were motivated, excited, and proud of mastering a new skill. Reflecting on this made me wonder how internal motivation changes as students become older. Gillet, Vallerand, and Lafreniere (2011) studied levels of intrinsic motivation for students at different ages and reflected on the changes in levels of intrinsic motivation as well as the impacts of autonomy support and the correlations to motivation levels for students. Findings showed that there is a drop in intrinsic motivation for students ages 8-14 that slowly begins to increase again and stabilize in early adulthood, although levels are still lower than students at young ages. One drawback however was the difficulty in determining if and how much of the decrease in intrinsic motivation was reflected on an increase in external motivators. Domencio and Ryan (2017) also study the impacts that external motivators have on intrinsic motivation. They studied intrinsic motivation through the Self Determination Theory and reflected on how levels of self motivation decrease when external motivators are introduced. Early research studies of intrinsic motivation suggested that once external motivators are introduced the level of intrinsic motivation is decreased even when the external motivators are removed. External motivators also limited the level of spontaneous interactions that subjects had with the challenge or task.
These readings caused me to reflect on my own practices and how I am supporting and limiting students’ levels of intrinsic motivation. In every educational setting I have worked in, PBIS has been a heavily used system to motivate students both academically and behaviorally. It relies heavily on external motivators though. Although I see how it improves behaviors, I have seen limitations on the impacts that it has on students academic achievements. It turns the tasks into a means to attain something (a point, a sticker, a high five etc.) rather than focusing on the process of learning, growth and discovery.
This peaked my interest in interventions to increase the levels of intrinsic motivation for my students. I found that interventions to minimize the decrease in motivation relate back to opportunities and support for student autonomy. This can be done in the classroom through routines and structure where students have the opportunity to make impactful decisions about their learning process and subject matter. Hang and Reeve (2010) explore how different instructional styles support student engagement to increase autonomy while also allowing for structure in the classroom environment. The two note that teachers who support autonomy do so by “nurturing inner motivational resources, relying on non-controlling informational language, and acknowledging the students’ perspective and feelings” (p. 589). The balance between structure and and student led classrooms can be difficult but can be done with clear expectations, guidance, and modeling. Stefanou and Turner (2004) also examine ways that teachers, classroom structure, levels of control, strategies, and practices impact levels of autonomy in learners. They discuss the importance of providing students with opportunities to make important decisions in the classroom rather than meaningless decisions that have little impact on their academic. Choices in procedure vs. choices in actual content being learned. They also discuss how the environment in autonomy supportive classrooms allow students to manipulate learning materials themselves, inquired about student wants and responded to student’s feelings of frustration with support. Personally, I know that I am really strong in providing structure in my classroom. Where I experience frustration is finding ways to meet the demands of the standards and building curriculum material requirements, while also providing opportunities for choice and student autonomy- even though I know this practice produces higher levels on intrinsic motivation and ownership for students. That is where I am currently when reflecting on my own practices in relation to this subject. I find that adding disabilities into the mix makes it even more difficult. Nevertheless, I will continue to work on increasing opportunities for autonomy in my classroom.
Two factors that I find to be crucial in my own classroom experience in relation to motivation are confidence and anxiety. Corpus, Wormington, and Haimovitz (2016) note that students with high levels of motivation, also show higher levels of success with external motivators, and students with the highest levels of intrinsic motivation, also have low anxiety levels. When I reflect on my students and their anxiety level as it relates to academics it makes more sense why they tend to perform better when provided with external motivators. They know they are different then their peers and experience such high levels of failure that it is difficult for them to take risks. Their frustration is high so when a task feels rigorous they automatically shut down in fear of failure. It is difficult for them to push through without an extra “payoff” for their efforts. Corpus, J. H., & Wormington (2014) in earlier studies also concluded that in order to build quality motivation in students, that first we must build competency for students in the context of school. This is where it is more challenging working with students with disabilities. I continue to work to balance building higher levels of intrinsic motivation, while also supporting their need for external motivators and opportunities to own their learning experience with confidence.
In summary, intrinsic motivation is a key factor in success levels for students, however teachers have a high level of responsibility in creating environments and providing classroom structure that supports autonomy in order to build success and natural interest in the learning environment. As educators we also must know our students and how their experiences, emotional state, and attitude toward learning will impact their level of motivation, and support their learning at their different levels of motivation. In the following section I will outline two learning goals for my students and explain what strategies I will use to support student success, and how these goals and or strategies relate to intrinsic motivation.

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