Strategies for Motivating Students: Start with Intrinsic Motivation

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“Curiosity is,” said writer Samuel L. Johnson, “in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

This quote is a great reminder that if we can get students curious and motivated to learn, we can set them up for a lifelong love of learning. And as a teacher, you have the power to help them find that passion for learning while they are young.

In this article, we’ll go over the difference between two types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—and why you should prioritize the former in your classroom. Then, we’ll provide you with a few tips and strategies for improving your students’ intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: What’s the Difference?

Before we explore how to motivate your students to learn, let’s go over the difference between two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation occurs when students are engaged because of internal rewards, like a love of learning or interest in a subject.[3] These students learn to value learning for its own merits, regardless of any external factors. An example of intrinsic motivation is a student learning new vocabulary words because they love to read.

Extrinsic motivation, however, is learning because of external factors. Students may be motivated to learn to pass a test, to gain a reward, or to avoid a punishment. An example of extrinsic motivation is a student who is studying so their parents will not ground them for poor grades.

Generally, children lose engagement after being externally rewarded.[7] This suggests that extrinsic motivation is short-term and can lead students away from an inherent love of learning. As a teacher, you can prevent this by prioritizing intrinsically motivated learning in the classroom.

How to Motivate Students: Encourage Intrinsic Motivation

The value of choosing intrinsic motivation over its extrinsic counterpart is clear, but it’s not always easy to know where to start. When it comes to the classroom, there are a few strategies that you can use to make sure your students are interested in your class material and ready to learn.

Elementary-aged children are highly motivated when their teachers prioritize content mastery and understanding over high test scores.[2] Although tests can be a great way to measure student progress, try to focus on helping them understand the concepts they find difficult. As they spend more time learning, they will be better able to turn their weaknesses into strengths and gain an appreciation for learning that’s deeper than test scores.

Students are also more likely to be motivated if class material is relevant to their lives and involves their interests.[10] The best way to make your curriculum relevant to your students is to get to know them. Spend time understanding their needs and what makes them light up in a classroom setting. And allow some flexibility in your assignments so students can spend some time focusing on what they personally find interesting.

Research also suggests that online learning can encourage intrinsic motivation.[1] In part, this is because online learning often involves some level of independence—and independent learning is also linked to motivated students.[12] Consider either making some of your curriculum online or including some independent learning activities, like reading or personal project time.

And finally, gamification can have an engaging place in the classroom if intrinsic motivation is prioritized.[4] In a nutshell, gamification is the use of activities and rewards to teach different learning concepts. When an activity or reward is focused around intrinsic motivation—like giving a child a calculator as a prize for winning a math contest—student engagement improves.

7 Ways to Boost Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Finding ways to motivate students—especially those who are currently unmotivated—can feel tough. But by knowing the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, you can make sure you’re taking the right steps to engage your students.

Here’s a quick list of 7 motivational activities and strategies you can use to improve your students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

  1. Get to know your students and their unique interests. When possible, structure your assignments in a way that can include their interests. If you have a student who loves dinosaurs, for example, write a math problem that involves counting cartoon dinosaurs.[8]
  2. Choose rewards that encourage intrinsic motivation. If you’re holding a reading contest, for example, you could make the prize a book of the child’s choice.
  3. When students have some autonomy over their assignments, they’re more likely to be motivated.[9] Consider trying blended learning, a strategy that involves a mix of independent learning and whole-class lessons.
  4. Include some curriculum that is relevant to your students’ lives and current needs to boost motivation.[10]
  5. Give your students positive feedback on their assignments to encourage them and to reinforce that they can do well.[11]
  6. Motivation is often enhanced through curiosity.[5] Ask your students what they are curious about and help them find something that interests them about an assignment.
  7. Share your love of a subject or concept with your students. If you show why you love learning, your students are more likely to catch your enthusiasm, too.


  1. Rovai, A., Ponton, M., Wighting, M., and Baker, J. A Comparative Analysis of Student Motivation in Traditional Classroom and E-Learning Courses. International Journal on E-Learning, July 2007, 6(3), pp. 413-432.
  2. Meece, J.L., Anderman, E.M., and Anderman, L.H. Classroom Goal Structure, Student Motivation, and Academic Achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 487-503.
  3. Williams, K., and Williams, C. Five Key Ingredients for Improving Student Motivation. Research in Higher Education Journal, 2011.
  4. Buckley, P., and Doyle, E. Gamification and student motivation. Interactive Learning Environments, 2016, 24(6), pp. 1162-1175.
  5. Ciampa, K. Learning in a mobile age: An investigation of student motivation. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, February 2014, 30(1), pp. 82-96.
  6. Schiefele, U. Classroom management and mastery-oriented instruction as mediators of the effects of teacher motivation on student motivation. Teaching and Teacher Education, May 2017, 64, pp. 115-126.
  7. Cherry, K. Differences of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation. Verywell Mind, Jan. 2020.
  8. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Motivating Students.
  9. Ferlazzo, L., and Sypnieski, K.H. What Teachers Can Do to Boost Student Motivation. Education Week, 2019.
  10. Ferlazzo, L. Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves. Edutopia, Sep. 2015.
  11. Teach the Earth Staff. Motivating Students.
  12. LaRosa, K. Fostering Independent Learning and Intrinsic Motivation in Your Child.

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