How to boost intrinsic motivation

Systems of reward and the benefits of intrinsic motivation have been topics debated amongst the staff of St Andrew’s for some time. As parents have been made aware, we have questioned our current practice of rewarding the students in our care, asking if this is the best approach to prepare our students to move confidently into their future. The challenge was to consider whether there was a need to shift our mindset of rewarding students for their results as opposed to rewarding them for their efforts. Typically, schools, parents and community/sporting organisations have difficulty moving away from the need to constantly reward children.  

It is important to understand the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and why the latter is important for student success. Extrinsic motivation occurs when the cause of a behaviour arises from factors outside of the individual and the task performed. In other words, the person performs the task in order to get the reward. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within the individual. The emphasis shifts from external forces to self-determination and self-regulation of actions. This type of motivation is important in helping correct behaviour long term as children learn to not just change their actions, but self-regulation implies an understanding why they should correct themselves.

Studies have shown that extrinsic rewards do not produce changes that are permanent. Thus, changes in behaviour, as a result of extrinsic rewards, are due to an external motivator, not to an innate desire. Rewards are no more helpful at enhancing achievement than they are at fostering good character and values. Research (1993) completed by eminent author and lecturer of education, parenting and human behaviour, Alfie Kohn, revealed that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task, or for doing it successfully, simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. An extrinsic system sends a fixed mindset message, one which makes a child’s motivation more fragile, one which affirms they have reached their best and one with the potential to stop a child from trying for fear of failing to meet the level of their previous success.

Intrinsic motivation is the cornerstone of the learning process. Research shows that intrinsically motivated learners:

  • are more likely to engage in challenging tasks
  • have more active involvement in activities
  • show greater creativity and conceptual learning
  • gain a deeper understanding of new constructs.


The implementation of the Walker Learning Approach as Primary School pedagogy and the adoption of Positive Education aligns closely with the concept of intrinsic motivation. The Walker Learning Approach is designed to promote children’s intrinsic motivation, as opposed to sourcing extrinsic motivation i.e. performing for the sole purpose of gaining an award. The premise of Walker Learning is to develop a love of learning, whilst Positive Education focuses on intrinsic motivation as its primary source. Therefore, an evaluation of the way in which we build motivation and goal-setting within our students is important.  My ideal for this year is to see staff and parents work on developing this intrinsic motivation within our Primary students, both at school and in the home environment. We need to foster a growth mindset to encourage a desire to continually learn and grow. Students with a growth mindset (e.g. “This challenge is helping me to understand and learn”) outperform those students with a fixed mindset (e.g. “I am no good at Mathematics”). Students with a growth mindset believe their intelligence and skills can be developed; those with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence and skills are fixed.

How then do we develop a child’s intrinsic motivation? In a classroom, it is essential to establish a caring and cooperative learning environment. When children feel safe, the need for extrinsic rewards is eliminated. By being encouraged to take risks, be independent thinkers and be responsible, a classroom community can be developed in which children interact successfully for the sake of maintaining a harmonious classroom. Teachers need to encourage the children’s originality and efforts, promote their successes, create meaningful lessons, use positive and constructive feedback and be aware of their interests (core to Walker Learning) while providing an engaging curriculum. All of these components will foster a child’s intrinsic motivation. What can parents do at home to develop this? Here are some ideas:

  • Praise effort rather than success or innate abilities
  • Highlight their progress
  • Encourage autonomy by offering choices
  • Encourage problem solving
  • Have realistic expectations
  • Recognize the good things your kids are doing and praise them on that rather than focus on their shortcomings.
  • Limit extrinsic motivators


As we continue throughout 2018, let us focus on developing the intrinsic motivation of the students in our care to best prepare them to move confidently into their futures. Our ultimate aim is to encourage, guide and support our students to reach their potential, to try their best and to not be afraid of failure. This will be a fundamental shift in the mindset of our students, but one worth the challenge.

Mr Rob Paterson