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Empowering Students Through Intrinsic Motivation

Empowering Students Through Intrinsic Motivation
Dr. Paris Priore-Kim

Over the last few weeks I’ve been stunned at the ways in which our students exhibit a command over their learning in so many environments. In many cases, I forgot that I was watching or listening to young learners, and rather, I felt that I was in the presence of those who had already mastered specific skills and competencies. What struck me most was the ownership students had of their learning, and it was evident that they had a purpose for learning that was their own. I witnessed this not only in their passion for the content, but in their command of it, and most importantly, in their ability, as “experts”, to teach me. Their embrace of the content made it apparent that their motivation for mastery was not linked to extrinsic factors, but rather to their intrinsic desire and drive.

Intrinsic motivation in students relies on some of the same factors that influence their sense of belonging, such as autonomy and agency. In addition to those, a studentʻs ability to “attach meaning to their work and to persist in the face of challenges” are key elements to being motivated from within (Intrinsically Motivated, Harvard Graduate School of Education, September 11, 2016). The notion of “purpose” is apparent when students see the clear benefits of learning something. When learning has clear personal resonance for students, when it is tied to their altruistic intentions or solutions they seek, when it is tied to a contribution that they want to make, “they view their academic work as more meaningful and beneficial [and} this enhances students’ persistence, leading them to process the information more deeply” (Students With a Bigger Purpose Stay Motivated, Digital Promise).

With a strong sense of personal purpose, studentsʻ efforts towards mastery become organic. They begin to approach learning metacognitively – they build the ability to monitor their own learning because they have every interest in measuring their progress towards their purpose. They internalize markers of progress towards the level of competency they seek to accomplish their objectives. This lies at the root of self-efficacy and a studentʻs belief in their ability to achieve their goals.

The views that I have had on our students reflect that belief even when faced with high challenge - actually, especially in the presence of high challenge. This has been evident in performances, presentations, panels, and classroom work that simulates work done by content experts. It is their strong sense of purpose coupled with their belief in their own capacity that fuels them toward amazing contributions and challenges in our classrooms, the community, and beyond.


Students need to be challenged by schoolwork and know that expectations are high, but they also need a sense of competence — a feeling that they are equipped to meet these challenges and standards. Studies have shown that once students perceive themselves as competent in learning class material, they develop more intrinsic learning motives, even in the face of obstacles.

  • Teachers can cultivate competence by introducing activities that are optimally challenging.
  • Teachers can provide noncritical feedback, along with information on how to master the task.
  • For instance, Callahan asks his students to identify challenging vocabulary words they’ve encountered in their coursework. Next, he presents effective strategies for using flashcards to learn vocabulary. Students then practice in the classroom and at home, and they are tested on the strategy, rather than on whether they were able to memorize a long list of words.

“My goal is to give them the tools to be competent — not just tell them ‘nice job,’” he says. “I want to show them how to learn so that they can demonstrate competence.”

Research on Student Motivation

Developed by University of Texas-Austin psychology professor David Yeager, purpose for learning teaches students to learn with the goal of making a broader, positive impact on the world. For example, students can set goals such as, “gain skills I can use in a job to help others,” and learn material to “become an educated citizen that can contribute to society.” They can then connect these aims with self-focused goals, such as expanding their knowledge of the world or becoming critical thinkers. Doing this encourages students to develop an internal drive, or intrinsic motivation, for learning, and find meaning in mundane schoolwork

Research shows that and gain better recall of material (3).

Purpose for learning interventions also work because they are aligned with students’ learning needs. All students, especially adolescents, benefit from having a sense of belonging (6), autonomy in learning (7), and intrinsic motives to learn (6,8)– all of which are keys to student motivation.

Mastery goals focus on learning new material and skills, while performance goals focus on achieving tangible outcomes such as grades or awards. Research has found that when students set mastery goals, as opposed to performance goals, they have better learning outcomes and are more likely to develop self-regulated learning skills and positive classroom behaviors.