Finding Motivation to do Hard Things By Dr Helen Street
Positive Matters, August, 2023
It is all very well understanding the motivational power of intrinsically rewarding activities, but how do we help students to stay motivated when learning is tough?
Research tells us loudly and clearly that motivation increases when tasks are intrinsically rewarding. As students become more interested in a topic, they become more motivated to learn about the topic. This understanding of intrinsic interest and motivation has led to teachers everywhere doing all they can to help students ‘enjoy’ their studies. For example, teachers around the world work to develop student interest with relevance, real-world examples and novel questions. They also attempt to increase levels of learning enjoyment with novel approaches, collaboration and even healthy competition.
Many of these strategies work well in the early years of school, but as students grow older, learning invariably becomes dryer, harder and less obviously ‘fun’. Moreover, even when students are keen to learn about a topic, more advanced learning invariably involves the development of foundation knowledge and skills that are not necessarily engaging in themselves. This can leave many teachers resorting to the use of rewards, awards and the promise of meaningful marks, to keep students on track. These more extrinsic drivers of motivation can indeed garner compliance and commitment. They are however, frequently cited as also creating disengagement, especially when the prize becomes the desired goal more than the learning outcome. Extrinsic reinforcers can also contribute to inequity in an educational context, a reliance on gaining favourable feedback, and an overall diminished sense of wellbeing.
So, what can educators do?
How can they better support motivation in students when those students are not intrinsically interested in what they are learning? How can they better support motivation that enhances wellbeing and engagement in their students, rather than diminishes it?
I believe the answer lies in rethinking the basic division of motivation from ‘intrinsic versus extrinsic’, to understanding the importance of ‘who’ is driving the reasons for what we do.
Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Rewards
 See additional information and reading at the end of the article
To explore this idea further, let’s begin with an overview of current popular approaches to motivation in schools. That is, the popular division of ‘intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards’. Generally speaking, most educators understand that motivation is defined as the ‘reason we do things’. With this simple definition comes an understanding that the reasons we do things may either be intrinsic (found within the task such as inherent interest, fun and meaning) or extrinsic (separate to the task such as prizes, awards and rewards).
There is a well-supported belief that intrinsic rewards are more ‘powerful’ as drivers of learning engagement, than are extrinsic ones. Many teachers quite rightly realize that when a task is intrinsically rewarding, it will be more engaging and desirable to do. Students are very self-directed to perform intrinsically rewarding tasks. For example, consider how happily a child spends time at the beach, versus how disengaged they become on the journey home.
Yet, despite believing in the superior power of intrinsic rewards, many educators believe extrinsic rewards also help motivate students to do things. Many of these educators work to support intrinsic interest but also offer extrinsic rewards to their students. Unfortunately, this double-edged approach to supporting motivation tends to fall flat in the long term, even if it results in short-term compliance (more about this later).
Other educators, especially those in secondary schools, very reasonably state that it is very hard, if not impossible, to make all learning intrinsically rewarding for everyone. Afterall, isn’t it a basic reality that learning can be just plain hard, or even a bit boring, even if it is important? Certainly, much high school learning requires a lot of determination and effort to build ground-work knowledge and skills. It doesn’t always appear to be fun. It is therefore understandable that many secondary educators end up focusing on providing extrinsic temptations to keep students on track, even if they know these contribute to school-wide issues around competition, dubious measures of success and inequity.
Thus, in summary, understanding motivation in terms of intrinsic versus extrinsic drivers is as follows:
- Motivation is defined as the reason we do things. Simply put, ‘we do things to gain things’,
- We may ‘gain things’ from the task per se, such as finding a subject ‘fun’ or engaging. When this happens, we call the gains intrinsic rewards
- Alternatively, we may ‘gain things’ that are not about the task per se, but are given to us by others because we did the task in a certain way (e.g. put in effort) or reached a certain level of success (e.g. scored the highest mark). We may gain all manner of things decided upon by others, such as a reward, award or a prize. These gains given to us for doing things are called extrinsic rewards.
This division of motivation into ‘intrinsic versus extrinsic’ broadly leads to three education strategies:
- Some educators focus solely on developing learning which is intrinsically rewarding (e.g. making a topic relevant to real life; turning an activity into a game etc).
- Some will focus solely on the use of extrinsic rewards in various forms, e.g. providing rewards for behaviour or academic performance, prizes for competitions or awards for ‘being the best’.
- Many attempt a mix of developing the intrinsic rewards inherent in a task with the addition of extrinsic ones for task effort and task success (e.g. handing out prizes and awards).
But what it there was a better way to understand motivation?
Moreover, what if the greatest driver of learning engagement was not grounded in intrinsic rewards within a task nor found in the extrinsic rewards set by others? What if the idea of ‘we do things to gain things’ needs revisiting and understanding in a different way?
 See additional information and reading at the end of the article
Self-direction versus Others
Let’s return to the definition of motivation as ‘your reason for doing things’. But this time, let’s think about it from a perspective of personal agency and control (rather than how rewarding doing the task is). This means distinguishing between ‘things we do for ourselves’ versus ‘things we do to garner good things from others’.
Our three summary statements about motivation in students are now as follows:
- Motivation can still be defined as the reason we do things. It still holds that we do things to gain things,
- We may ‘gain things’ that we have personally decided we want, such as the intrinsic rewards of the task, but also possibly an extrinsic outcome that we have set for ourselves (for example, loading the dishwasher because we personally want to experience the benefit of cooking in a clean kitchen). These is self-directed motivation
- Alternatively, we may gain things that are decided upon by others. (For example, loading the dishwasher because your mother offered you pocket money to do it). In this instance, the things you gain are almost always going to be extrinsic rewards. This is other-directed motivation
So, we can see that self-directed reasons for doing things are often related to perceived intrinsic benefits. For example, your students may choose to listen to music, binge watch Succession or go out with friends simply because they gain intrinsic rewards such as enjoyment, belonging and meaning from doing these things. Alternatively, a self-set motivational goal may involve doing things for extrinsic benefits the student has chosen for themselves. For example, showing kindness towards others because they want to create positive social connections, studying for exams because they want to go to university or going to bed early because they want to feel refreshed in the morning (perhaps not the most common self-set goal for teens…).
In contrast, ‘other-directed’ reasons for doing things are invariably about extrinsic rewards. To use the previous paragraphs examples, this means a student may show kindness towards others because they want to receive a kindness card of recognition from a teacher, study for exams because their parents want them to go to university or go to bed early because their parents will deem this worthy of extra pocket money for behaving well at home. This time around, these same activities are enacted to gain recognition and a reward from someone else.
Overall, self-directed reasons for doing things contribute to prolonged effort, determination, engagement, positive outcomes and enhanced wellbeing. When we pursue our own reasons for doing things, be they centered in intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, we are acting autonomously. This enables our actions to feel more authentic, more within our control and more sustainable. We are doing things because we choose to.
In contrast, acting on the basis of ‘other-directed’ reasons is associated with lower engagement, poorer long-term outcomes and decreased wellbeing. When we pursue other’s reasons for doing things (e.g. recognition or reward) we are doing them under the umbrella of another’s control. This loss of control over our actions leads to a broader loss of perceived control over life. Moreover, acting on the basis of other-directed motivation means we are diminishing our ability to experience our core need of autonomy. We are letting others decide how well we are doing, as well as what we do.
We are also creating a power imbalance between ourselves and those we do things for. As soon as a student is behaving to please their teacher or parent, they have let that person have some level of power over them and their actions. Finally, acting on other-directed motivation leaves us in the shaky position of placing our perceived competency in the hands of another’s judgement. For example, success is no longer about how kind the student believes themselves to be, but how kind their teacher judges them to be.
It is not that doing things to please others means students will not be motivated. Rather it is that this basis for action leads to less engagement (we are not acting for ourselves), less autonomy (we are less in charge of our actions) and reduced capacity for wellbeing. Simply put, our core needs for autonomy, relatedness and competency are less likely to be met.
Putting Ideas into Practice
All in all, considering the value of self-direction over and above the value of intrinsic rewards is great news for educators attempting to support motivation. The more teachers can help students identify their own ‘why’ for learning; the more they are helping them engage in that learning, and be well.
To conclude, here are some generalized ideas for supporting self-directed motivation in your students:
- Provide opportunity for students to reflect on:
- what they liked about a task,
- what went well,
- how they have benefited from the process of learning
- Work to meet the key needs which support an experience of intrinsic motivation in students:
- building positive classroom relationships,
- providing plenty of options for choice and control,
- ensuring that progress and competency are possible for all, and never viewed as ‘being the best’
- Encourage discussion about the ‘why’ behind embarking on all important goals and tasks
- Ensure that each student’s ‘why’ is connected to what matters to them now, and/or what they want to do in the future. This means that each student’s learning represents a step in their self-directed journey more than it is ever about anyone else.
- Reduce, remove and avoid other-directed rewards for learning.
When students have a self-directed reason to pursue any learning, they will be more likely to persevere, even when the learning is hard to do, uninteresting or pressured. Moreover, students are more likely to experience engagement in their learning along with an ongoing sense of wellbeing, when they believe that the task is leading to the things that are important to them. It does not matter if an overriding student goal seems unrealistic or out of reach to a parent or teacher. Nor does it matter if a student changes their big goals from week to week. What matters is that students ‘do things to gain things’ as steps along their own path to success.
Want to Know More?
If you are interested in learning more about motivation and engagement in students, come along to my pre-conference workshop, all about motivation and engagement, happening at this year’s Positive Schools conference (PositiveSchools.com.au) in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan (2000) The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior, Psychological Inquiry, 11:4, 227-268
Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner & Richard M. Ryan (2001) Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research Spring 2001, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 1–27
Helen Street (2017) Motivation outside in, inside out in Slemp, G; Murray, S & White, M., (Eds) Future Directions in Well-being: Education, Organizations, and Policy. Springer
Helen Street (2010) The Why Not The What: the positive power of intrinsic motivations in client goal setting and pursuit in Burns, G (ed.) Happiness, Healing Enhancement: your casebook collection for using positive psychology in therapy. John Wiley & Sons: NJ, US
This is Einstein's Blackboard which can be viewed at the University of Oxford in England. The board shows the original workings of Albert Einstein from 16 May 1931 when he was teaching at the university as a visiting lecturer.