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  • The Three Keys of Intrinsic Motivation

    The Three Keys of Intrinsic Motivation

    By Kyle McDonald 

    At the end of 2009, Daniel H. Pink wrote a book entitled “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. You can find him talking about his vision here. Within this book, Pink argues that businesses are not acting upon what we know about the human brain and what psychologists have known for a long time about motivation. The key message being that rewards and extrinsic motivators only increase productivity for straight-forward tasks. In other situations, these motivators may actually inhibit creativity.

    It is impossible to read the book as an educator without thinking about its impact upon the classroom and the little things we do in order to create an intrinsically motivated culture. I am particularly interested in this to discuss the impact that written and oral feedback can have as well as our questioning in the classroom.

    Pink proposes there are three things to strive for in order to promote intrinsic motivation:

    1. AUTONOMY – “the right or condition of self-government”
    2. MASTERY – “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular activity”
    3. PURPOSE – “the reason for which something is done”

    In the classroom, students will be motivated if they focus on these three areas. In particular, teachers can direct student focus to these three things through their feedback and questioning. Sarah Donarski has written a blog relating specifically to feedback and its motivational responses – I will try and take some ideas further, specifically in the context of Pink’s trio.


    Autonomy in the classroom can take multiple forms. Pink argues that autonomy will improve engagement and will take over from compliance in the workplace – the same can be said of the classroom. With a truly autonomous student, a teacher can be confident that there is a prominence of engagement and a desire to carry out actions because they want to do them. Jang, Reeve and Ryan found in 2005 that high autonomy was one of the most important characteristics of a “satisfying” learning experience and low autonomy had an even more negative effect on the experience.

    The question then remains – how do we promote autonomy in our classrooms? Educators can create situations which require autonomy as much as possible. For example, an activity might require students to make a choice at the start and justify. We also must ensure our tasks are challenging enough that students want to engage with them. As students progress through school and are more skilled at making decisions, we may also set tasks which allow for preference and encourage students to think about why they are making these decisions to choose which activity. We cannot let the classroom become a free-for-all but we can slowly introduce these ideas as students are ready for them. The same can be said for classroom dialogue. Teachers can be flexible and allow a more “free” classroom.

    With a feedback hat on, which feedback allows autonomy to grow? Specific feedback with some ideas on how to improve on these specific topics in the classroom give this chance. Darren Carter (@mrcartermaths) has spoken previously about his homework (or lack thereof) “policy” and it strikes me that this is a great way to inspire intrinsic motivation. Of course we know better than the students about what they should improve and how they can go about doing this. This information should still be shared but we are allowing them to decide what to do and explaining why (which encroaches upon number 3). Spend time with students showing them excellent online resources; picking a specific chapter in a specific book or write some feedforward questions which allow immediate improvement. There is no expectancy of completion but all students realise that being active with feedback will result in improvement. Thus an intrinsically motivated action has some extrinsic reward also.



    This is particularly prevalent at the moment in the mathematics world but in this discussion, we are not talking about deeper knowledge about less subjects – we are interested in the idea that students feel better at a specific discipline. All children want to be really good at stuff – this is not up for debate – whether it is maths, English, sport, dance whatever. Everybody wants to be good. Teachers must tap into this innate part of a student’s make-up. How can we do this through feedback? We must be positive and we must be specific with this praise. See below for a tweet from Ben Ward I saw this week (@mrbenward).

    “We remember criticism because it is specific and personal.

    Whereas encouragement is general [so it] washes over us.

    Aim for ‘precision praise’”

    I love the idea of precision praise. It is a big part of sports coaching and every course I have been on in this domain has focused heavily on generic praise and its pitfalls (namely that nobody acts on it and it is wasted energy). Precise praise can mean a student knows they are further along the journey in mastering a topic than they were before. Specific praise on something you have asked them to improve in the past will have the added bonus of showing them that their choice of work has worked and been recognised (their autonomy is improving too). Too much praise can be a negative but using praise in the right scenario in a very specific context will improve student’s internal motivation and reaffirm their belief in themselves.

    In Sarah’s blog, she examines the idea of a positivity bias in which students focus on the good things you say or see overly positive messages in circumstances which might not be wholly positive.  She proposes that this can be a good thing for students and again specific, precise praise can let a student know that there is positives in what they are doing. This can only be a good thing at all ends of attainment.



    How many times have we heard “When will I ever use this?” about almost everything taught in the maths classroom? The answer of course is that almost everyone will not use the sine rule nor the area of a trapezium nor differentiating trigonometric functions from first principles outside of their maths lesson. In much the same way that students will not analyse the meter of a poem many times after GCSE English nor testing the pH of something. The point that students aren’t getting is that all of these should be ends in themselves. Carl Hendrick (@c_hendrick) has written a piece recently looking at the idea that education should not be a vehicle to prepare us for what comes after school. At the end he writes,

    “Students should study Shakespeare not because of what job it might get them but because it’s an anthropological guidebook that tells them how to live.”

    This same sentiment should be held by teachers in all subjects. You are not learning about pi because it will help you in some 21st century job yet to be created, you are learning about pi and its place in history because it shows you something remarkable which was at one point undiscovered. Yes, you will be able to use google maps to tell you how far away something is – that isn’t why we teach triangles but you should have some appreciation of size, number and shape. It is important that teachers highlight this purpose throughout all of their feedback and discussion. Teachers must live the idea that everything taught is purposeful and should not find themselves justifying existence.

    Moving forwards, I aim to incorporate these three ideas of internal motivation through all my student interaction. Any feedback given should look to promote at least one of these areas. Remember that feedback should be more work for the receiver than the giver.