The next four posts in my series examining the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education’s report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning will be on what motivates students. This time I look at Principle 9: “Students tend to enjoy learning and to do better when they are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve.”

It goes without saying that motivation is important, but as Graham Nuthall said, “Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.” So do some kinds of motivation matter more than others?

If we’re intrinsically motivated we do a thing for its own sake. I write this blog for no other reason than I feel driven to do so. There may be extrinsic rewards on offer – the affirmation of those I respect for instance – but basically writing is something I’m intrinsically motivated to do. By contrast, whenever I’m commissioned to write something, a strange ennui sets in; I’m just not motivated by cold, hard cash. In the end, it’s the looming deadline and the fear of disappointing others that does the trick. The carrot and stick of extrinsic motivation do work, but more intrinsic goals are “positively related to more enduring learning, achievement, and perceived competence and is negatively related to anxiety.” Now, I’m not so sure anxiety is altogether bad – we need a modicum of stress in order to get anything done – but the idea of learning being more enduring appeals.

 It’s worth pointing out that intrinsic and extrinsic factors are not mutually exclusive – most of us are motivated by a judicious mix of both. Even students who passionately love learning for its own sake may well also be keen to get good grades. The report states that, “a substantial body of experimental research studies shows that extrinsic motivation, when properly used, is very important to producing positive educational outcomes.” Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us disagrees. He argues that extrinsic rewards essentially lead to short-term thinking. They act to snuff out intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, and encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior.

So is intrinsic motivation something you’re just born with, or can it be developed? Very much like the message explored in Principle 1, students’ beliefs matter hugely. But we can teach in such a way that even the most closed minded students is more likely to feel a measure of internal motivation. When students repeat tasks and deliberately practice basic skills they get better at whatever it is they’re practicing. Over the past few years, my wife and I have done daily batter with my eldest daughter to get her to practice the piano. It’s been a hard slog at times, but it got a lot easier when she got the knack of being able to play with ‘hands together’. Suddenly, she started to enjoy practice more and in the past month or so we’ve actually had to prise her stubborn fingers off the piano in order to get her to go to bed or to school. Currently, she’s working to master Abba’s Dancing Queen and will spend endless hours perfecting a single bar.

Pink reckons that the best way to motivate anyone is to give them mastery, autonomy and purpose. Mastery is about getting better at something that matters but students may not always see the value of what they need to learn. As we become proficient in the basics, tasks require less effort and become more enjoyable. We need to offer lots of feedback and encouragement to nurture students’ burgeoning intrinsic motivation, but if we’re patient and if we have consistently high expectations practising the basics like phonics, grammar, number bonds and times tables lays down the foundation required to make future learning significantly easier and more enjoyable. At times, the work students need to do is not inherently fun; success generally requires persistence, determination, hard work and resilience in the face of setbacks.

Autonomy is trickier. If students are given autonomy before they’ve mastered the basics there’s a good chance they’ll make poor choices. The key to successful autonomy is, I think, accountability. I argued here that trust and accountability must go hand in hand for teachers and maybe the same can be said of students once they’ve reached a certain level of competence.

Purpose is what keeps us going. Paul Dolan tells us in Happiness by Design that we need purpose as well as pleasure to feel fulfilled. But if we’re only interested in short-term goals like passing exams, what happens when the goal is achieved? Teaching students who seem only motivated by threats and rewards and give every appearance of hating everything to do with school can be a joyless exercise. If it’s not in the exam, they’re not interested; they take short cuts and balk at the merest whiff of difficulty. Teaching students whose purpose is to learn for its own sake is an altogether different proposition. They listen attentively, work conscientiously and strive to relate new concepts and information to what they already know. “They also feel more self-efficacious and are not burdened by achievement anxiety.” Having a purpose gives us the desire to master tricky content just because it’s there.

While the message of the report on the importance of intrinsic motivation is hard to dispute, the advice offered to teachers is less clear cut. The report’s authors are right to suggest teachers should “support students’ fundamental need to feel competent and autonomous,” I’m not sure it’s helpful to say we should, “introduce novelty by providing some level of surprise or incongruity and allowing forcreativeproblem solving.” The quest for novelty is often a distraction which reduces the likelihood that students will work hard at difficult mastery goals. Likewise, suggesting that teachers allow “students to select from an array of achievement activities and to have a role in establishing rules and procedures,” is potentially harmful. This approach gives the illusion of autonomy at the expense of mastery and long-term purpose. Having said that, the observation that, “Much of the perception of control can be managed by the way in which a task is communicated to students,” is better advice. It’s useful to acknowledge that tasks are difficult and that struggle is not just normal but indispensable.

The other nugget of advice is on the issue of grading students’ work. The report states, “When using grades, teachers might want to highlight their informational (feedback) rather than controlling (rewarding/punishing) function.” I’d go further: if you decide it’s important o give a grade, don’t bother wasting time on giving feedback. And if you think it’s important to give feedback, don’t undermine your efforts by also giving a grade.

Motivation to work hard requires self-control. Self-control is a limited resource which depletes as we expend it. Expecting students to continually make the right choice when there are so many distracting options is perhaps unreasonable. If we work hard to reduce distractions and limit the choices available, then maybe we’ll make it easier for students to make the choice to work hard. We can set up classrooms and run schools so that choosing effort and risking failure becomes the default option so that it’s easier to learn and socially awkward and undesirable to muck about. We need to apply gentle but firm pressure to encourage pupils to avoid the behaviours that run counter to their best interests and then provide rewarding release when they make choices that result in them being best able to learn.

References cited in the report