Education (Part 2: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)

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Part one

In working on this next part of my thoughts on education and learning I found myself trying to go in too many directions at once, developing ideas from the first part while also bringing up new things. As such I decided to limit myself to one topic at once. This part will be dedicated to the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.


The topic of why we learn new things, which I brought up in the first few paragraphs of part one, is very much a discussion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Should we learn because we’re curious and find new topics exciting, as I argued strongly for? Or should we do so in pursuit of good grades, goals, rewards? The various reasons that we learn – or, more broadly, that we do anything – can be categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic motivations.

Extrinsic motivation is essentially operant conditioning: An action is motivated by the promise of reinforcement or punishment. In the context of learning and education this would be a parent promising to pay their child $20 for good grades, or threatening to ground them for bad ones. This is the style of learning that I associated with the stereotypical premed student, working hard in school so that you get good grades and the things associated with them: Acceptance to prestigious schools, scholarships, so on and so forth.

Intrinsic motivation is a little more elusive. It’s the desire to do something not because of external reinforcement or punishment, but because one wants to do that thing. The reward isn’t tangible because it’s internal: Curiosity, passion for a subject, that sort of thing. Intrinsic motivation is the time I was sitting outside in winter and wondered how much snow has fallen in the history of the Earth (My estimate was about 3×1026 kg of it, or roughly 50 Earth-masses of snow. I have that saved in a file somewhere, though I’ll need to look up the work I did to reach that number).

How do we apply these ideas? As it turns out, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation tend to be most effective in their own particular domains.

A 1987 study by Malone & Lepper suggests that intrinsic motivation is most common for activities involving challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition (Although I personally would characterize competition and recognition as extrinsic rewards – the desire to be superior to others and to be recognized as so seem more like external things to me). Challenge and curiosity, to me, can be characterized as tasks involving what I’ll refer to as higher order mental processes: Analysis, investigation, planning, invention, that sort of thing. Control and cooperation encompass tasks that offer a sense of meaning or purpose. So, simplistically, intrinsic motivation is best for tasks that make you think or feel.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is generally going to work best for simple, repetitive tasks that require little higher-order thinking. Memorizing the multiplication tables or learning the basic rules of English grammar are boring tasks that are unlikely to ever inspire any sort of internal passion. An interesting caveat here is the overjustification effect, which says that offering extrinsic rewards can actually reduce one’s intrinsic motivation for activities. Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) found that children offered rewards for an activity that they could be expected to enjoy, drawing, showed less interest when the offer of reward was retracted than children who either received a reward without being notified before the activity or those who were neither offered nor given a reward. For this “expected reward” group, interest in the activity was only maintained through continued offer of reward. Although this seems strange at first blush, it actually makes a lot of sense. The offer of extrinsic reward for something you already enjoy doing essentially “cheapens” the experience, and when the reward is removed the activity simply seems less appealing. Put another way, we can imagine that there’s only a certain amount of motivation you can have to do something – we’ll call it 100% motivation. If you’re already at 100% motivation intrinsically, the addition of an extrinsic reward doesn’t push you to 150% motivation, but instead it makes you 50% intrinsically and 50% extrinsically motivated, for a total of 100%. Removal of that extrinsic reward now leaves you at only 50% motivation. On a more amusing, though less applicable note (and confirming the behavior of teenagers everywhere), the threat of extrinsic punishment can actually increase one’s intrinsic interest in something.

So what do we do with all this? It seems like intrinsic motivation should be the clear winner. After all, curiosity and critical thinking are the buzzwords of the day (or year, or whatever) in education. We need to teach kids to be active learners, foster curiosity, bla bla bla. But most elementary school children have no intrinsic interest whatsoever in math or science, challenge and curiosity be damned. Malone and Lepper suggest designing classroom instruction so it promotes their big themes: challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition. For the most part I agree here: we need to teach in a way that challenges students, that provides new experiences and promotes curiosity about the world, that makes students feel like they are in control and accomplishing something.

The problem is that we’ve either completely forgotten about extrinsic motivation or are angling to get rid of it altogether. Sure, it’s true that throwing gold stars and participation ribbons all over the place is terrible if we want kids to be self-directed and self-motivated. But remember those things I said extrinsic motivation is good for? Repetitive and simple tasks, like memorizing the multiplication tables or learning basic spelling and grammar? Yeah, it turns out that these things are the foundations for all our activities that are best motivated intrinsically. It doesn’t matter how curious a kid is if he doesn’t know basic arithmetic or the alphabet. These are things that you have to know to be able to do all that other stuff, and it turns out that in the vast majority of cases there is simply no way to get a kid excited about addition and multiplication – it’s something that just needs to be drilled in, and extrinsic motivation is going to be the best way to do that. It’s also going to be the best way to motivate kids to do things until they begin to develop intrinsic interest. Note that this doesn’t contradict the overjustification effect: Here we aren’t trying to exceed the 100% motivation cap. Instead we’re starting at 0% motivation and bringing it up a bit with extrinsic motivation until the student recognizes the intrinsic value of the task.

So both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have a place in education. Rewards and punishments are necessary to motivate students to learn foundational knowledge that simply cannot be motivated intrinsically, and to create some “buffer motivation” while intrinsic interest develops. Once a student has recognized the value of a subject, however, extrinsic motivation needs to be scaled back so that they can properly reap the rewards of curiosity, challenge, bla bla etcetera. Something I touched on in part one and that will be developed later is grades: They can be categorized as extrinsic motivators, so based on what we’ve said here, should they be removed? For now, though, I think that’s plenty for one post.


Some ideas I want to develop in future parts: Testing and accountability, group vs. individual work. As always let me know if you’ve got other things you want me to consider.