Thursday, November 13, 2014

Intrinsic Motivation in the classroom: Meeting standards while promoting learning

The role of Intrinsic Motivation (IM) Theory in teaching has been growing in education research. This is particularly important as a tool for education reform that goes beyond training teachers on how to improve teaching methods but also focuses on learning. IM, as a new learning resource, is student-centered and encourages new teaching methods yet still being mindful of standards. It is for that reason that IM is particularly important as a tool for education reform because it embraces a wide range of teaching methodologies and focuses on effective learning as a high quality transformative experience. IM, which has been largely viewed as a personal choice or purely individual choice, has great potential as a pedagogical tool both in P-12 and college classrooms as it moves away from external motivator (grades and tests) for student success and towards learning. Extensive research has shown that external motivators do not support high quality learning, curiosity, persistence, well-being, and confidence (Deci, Vallerand, Pellitier, & Ryan, 1991; Ryan & Golnick, 1986).

Enter IM in education, not only as a way to only engage potential teachers in the classroom, but also often leads to a more critical, integrated, analysis of the lasting implications of course material. In IM theory it is assumed that students want to learn and will do so if allowed to connect to content in ways that are personally relevant and meaningful. Although academic standards remain important, students are encouraged to make choices that align learning to personal interests and goals. Data from an intrinsic conversion course in it’s fourth iteration under the leadership of Education Researcher Dr. Judith Sunderman shows that IM fosters self-driven conditions in the classroom that promote competence, autonomy, relationships, and a sense of purpose among pre-service teachers. Sunderman (2014) has explained that pre-service teachers can learn standardized content in non-standardized format. Following research that suggests that certain conditions in the classroom can promote fulfillment of the needs for competence, autonomy, relationships, and purpose, IM seems to be an important point of intervention, a way to think about creating conditions that support student engagement, sustained interest, commitment, and optimum performance.

Having been involved with an IM course conversion, I have focused on changing my classroom and teaching methods to creatively center students learning experiences by making connections between the historical, statistical, and policy-based information that they learn and everyday teaching practices. Students are in given maximum freedom, while still setting parameters based on the state ad course requirements. This process has promotes students’ intrinsic motivation in their own learning but also as they prepare to teach in the future. While still meeting teaching standards, IM can help teachers effectively and efficiently use their limited time and create lasting learning outcomes based on different learning paces and styles. The process, which still in its infancy is exciting to consider alongside students as they research and learn about the current and potential future state of public education particularly with regards to funding and the pressures that emerge from meeting state standards. In my course, the pre-service teachers have made meaningful connections to their research as it pertains to their future classroom management. In the end, students focused on the direction of their study and on learning as opposed to grades. You can learn more about the iFoundry Intrinsic Motivation Project through publications featured here.

by Brenda Sanya

Brenda Nyandiko Sanya is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Sanya holds a dual B.A. in Philosophy & Psychology, and an interdisciplinary M.A. in Gender and Cultural Studies. Broadly, her research explores education, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and immigration. She interrogates formal and informal structures (such as schooling and education) as spaces where citizenship performance and performativity are produced and reproduced, and circulated in and through global landscapes.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: Self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3&4), 325-346.

Ryan, R. M., & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessments of individual differences in children's perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(3), 550-558.

Sunderman, J. (2014). Executive Summary - Supercool School: Learning through Play for Teacher Education Majors. Intrinsic Motivation Pilot Summary & Findings. Unpublished.