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3.2: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

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    Authors: UQx LEARNx team of contributors

    Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

    How can it be that three students of the same age display such very different levels of motivation?

    We know now that motivation is a very important factor in engaging students for deep learning, and that motivation can manifest itself in varied ways. But where does motivation originate? Are there different types of motivation? How does a learner’s mindset effect engagement in a task?

    Dr. Julie Bower from the School of Education at The University of Queensland explores some of these questions. Taking from the theories (Ryan & Deci, 2000) of human motivation, human development and wellness, Julie explores self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2008) in relation to autonomous motivation and controlled motivation.

    JULIE BOWER: What makes one student curious and open to challenge, while another certain that no improvement or growth can be made. It all comes down to the type of motivation.

    In broad terms, motivation can be classified into two camps:

    • intrinsic, coming from within, and
    • extrinsic, originating from something external.

    We can all identify examples of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our everyday lives, and we know that these types of motivation feel very different.

    Perhaps you’ve been reading a spy novel and you’re intrinsically motivated to finish the book, and find what happens to the main character. In this case, you have a genuine intrinsic interest in engaging with this task. But also, perhaps you are required to read documents for a work meeting the following day about a topic which holds little interest for you. Here, the motivation is to appear knowledgeable about the documents in front of your team, and perhaps for fear of penalty, feels very different.

    • True motivation involves intrinsically driven thoughts and emotions.

    This contrasts sharply to motivation for external rewards, as outlined by Schunk and Usher (2012). What recent research tells us is that where there is true intrinsic motivation, providing extrinsic rewards actually reduces this intrinsic motivation.

    The majority of classrooms operate on a system of extrinsic rewards and yet we know that children are curious about exploring their world and thus are already intrinsically motivated. A baby strives with all his might to take his first steps as he truly wants to walk. And not because there’s an external reward for reaching this milestone. That’s not to say that some forms of external motivation are not wholly appropriate.


    • The key factor here is whether extrinsic motivation is used as a method of control, or if the individual gains satisfaction from the extrinsic reward. That is, is the motivation autonomous or imposed? The baby may be internally motivated to walk in order to say reach a toy, but walking is not imposed on him as a means of control.

    Intrinsic Motivation


    Deci and Ryan in 2011 note that for autonomous motivation to be present, three needs must be in place. We must have a level of competence, connect with others, and have a sense of autonomy in our goals.

    Teachers who provide opportunities for students to become self-determined and to enjoy a level of competence, have more motivated students. This is further explored in Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (2008). Based on theories (Ryan & Deci, 2000) of human motivation, human development and wellness, self-determination theory addresses the distinction between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation, as predictors of performance and outcomes. It’s important to note that both types of motivation direct and empower thought, but in very different ways and leading to very different outcomes.

    Autonomous motivation involves both intrinsic motivation and some forms of extrinsic motivation that are integrated into ‘one’s sense of self’. Deci and Ryan described autonomously motivated learners as those who value and experience self-endorsement of their actions.

    Control motivation on the other hand, consists of the external regulation of one’s behavior, resulting in the need for approval, avoidance of shame or punishment, or self-esteem contingent on the controlling factor.

    Self-determination theory proposes three fundamental needs which must be met for motivation to occur.

    1. The need for autonomy,
    2. The need for competence, and
    3. The need for relatedness.

    Jang, Reeve and Deci (2010) suggest that autonomy supportive teachers, empower their student’s personal autonomy by empathizing with students’ perspectives. They identify and nurture ‘students’ needs’ their interests and their preferences, and they provide achievable challenges. They highlight meaningful learning goals, they present interesting, relevant and enriching activities.

    Dresel and Hall in 2013, suggest that in facilitating students need for autonomy, students might be encouraged to set their own learning and behavioral goals, and choose the content or the process of some learning tasks. To assist with fostering ‘students’ needs for competence, teachers should provide clear, purposeful, specific and individualized feedback. As well as clear instructions and explanatory rationales for learning activities, a level of structure and guidance to model leadership and a range of learning activities that account for learning preferences and skills.

    To facilitate the need for relatedness, teachers can ensure the inclusion of collaborative activities. They can build a positive rapport between students and the teacher, and they can make known that the progress of each learner is really valued by the teacher.

    Fixed and Growth Mindset

    • A fixed mindset suggests that intelligence and ability is static and nothing can change what is biologically predetermined.
    • A growth mindset supports intelligence and ability as dynamic and ever-changing.

    Growth mindset

    Timothy Sifert’s (2004) research highlights that students who attribute success and failure to internal controllable causes, are more likely to feel pride, satisfaction, confidence, and have a higher sense of self-esteem. They’ll then choose to work on more difficult tasks, display greater self-determination and higher levels of cognitive engagement. They have a strong sense of control, they learn from their mistakes and they produce work that is of a higher quality. Such learners are intrinsically motivated. They exhibit a positive affect, they’re flexible and they engage deeply with the task.

    Fixed mindset

    Students that believe that their failure is attributed to uncontrollable factors are more likely to feel shame and will demonstrate reduced effort or cognitive engagement. They are performance, self, other and failure focused, and they view their self-worth as being tied to their performance, and as compared to the performance of others. They may engage in task avoidance, which comes from the wish to protect self-worth. But it’s not as simple as high ability students do well, and lower ability students do not.

    We know that intelligence, achievement and motivation are malleable and subject to change. Learning oriented students understand this and they work to be task focused, in an optimistic manner. Students who perceive themselves as capable, are more likely to be self-regulating, strategic and metacognitive than students who do not.

    Teacher talk in the classroom usually reveals an allegiance to either a fixed or a growth mindset, but Carol Dweck emphasizes the importance of teachers supporting a not yet mindset. Supporting a growth mindset for students can really increase motivation and self-belief, and ultimately deeper cognitive engagement.


    This work is by Reid Wilson for elementary students is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    Resources on Growth Mindset

    To learn more about Growth Mindset go to the Mindset Kit website– and find a wealth of information and resources, including, lesson plans, videos, downloadable resources, and an actual “course” of information to teach you about growth mindset so you can use what you have learned with your students.

    Also go to to learn more, including the research supporting growth mindset , teacher practices, case studies and more.

    3.2: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.