Need to Know:
- While both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation motivate students, intrinsic motivation produces better quality and longer-lasting learning results.
- Research links intrinsic drive to prosocial motivation and perseverance—skill sets and qualities that advance social-emotional fluency.
A Closer Look:
Students are motivated to learn via both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. But, if we listen to research, we’re better off using instructional practices that center learners’ intrinsic motivation. After all, it’s linked to heightened engagement, more remarkable persistence, better performance, and more sustainable outcomes.
And, we wonder, if intrinsic motivation is so great at facilitating academic learning, wouldn’t it improve social and emotional learning (SEL), too?
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation for Learning
Extrinsic motivation is rewards-driven. It’s spurred by the possibility of some kind of external gain—like money, fame, or power. In the classroom, it’s often inspired by the promise of a prize, a reward sticker, extra credit, or even performance grades.
Extrinsic motivation can be necessary for some scenarios (like winning the state volleyball trophy or saving money for a new iPhone). But, there are potential downsides, too. For example, studies tie rewards-based learning in the classroom to diminished performance and intrinsic motivation. Some suggest that it also promotes a reliance upon extrinsically-driven inspiration. And while educators might see a temporary bump in student engagement using these techniques, it’s usually short-lived.
An intrinsically-motivated person, meanwhile, is compelled to achieve for intrapersonal reasons. Perhaps they simply enjoy the activity or appreciate how it makes them feel. The task or learning behavior might make them feel more competent, relaxed, or connected to others.
Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic inspiration tends to have long-lasting effects. Additionally, it can drive productivity, satisfaction, and self-confidence among learners (Harney, 2020; Kuvaas & Dysivik, 2009).
A potential snowball effect is at play here, too. When something makes a person feel good, they usually want to do more of it. If students are intrinsically motivated to grow, they’re more likely to invest in the continued process of learning.
Intrinsic Motivation and SEL Growth
SEL is concerned, in large part, with prosocial fluency. For example, self-regulation, responsible decision-making, cooperation, leadership, and empathy are all prosocial behaviors. They’re also core components of Social-Emotional Learning.
When young people practice any of these skills, they’re likely to feel good. Not to mention, these kinds of behaviors tend to elicit positive responses from others. These "feel-good" outcomes can have that snowball effect, making students want to grow their social-emotional capacities, leading to additional positive feedback, and so on.
There’s another piece to the puzzle, as well. University of Pennsylvania researchers tie intrinsic drive to amplified prosocial motivation, which they describe as “a desire to care for the wellbeing of others without personal gain.” In addition, the study found that those who experienced prosocial motivation also demonstrated perseverance. In other words, internal rewards from an activity or effort can inspire us to work even harder to accomplish a goal or learn a new skill.
Most school-based SEL curricula rely heavily upon extrinsic factors to engage students. But the tide may be turning. Carousel, a mobile SEL app designed for students, is a leader in this area. The platform blends extrinsic motivation through gamification with intrinsic motivation through daily practice and engaging lessons. Carousel’s activities encourage students to apply SEL content through research, reflection, discussion, and action, encouraging both pro-social behavior and internal growth. Educators can provide meaningful feedback and understand engagement in SEL content through Carousel’s dashboard.
Kids with developed SEL skills are more likely to feel socially included and empowered as decision-makers. We might expect more authentic and sustainable student SEL gains by rethinking our social-emotional programming to focus on intrinsic motivators.