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Why Intrinsic Motivation Is Necessary for Student Achievement

Parents and teachers have long depended on reward motivations to improve student performance. You may have offered your child a certain amount of money for every good grade they earn or promised a new video game for an improved report card. Similarly, teachers also reward their students by giving them a day free from homework or other incentives for increased performance on tests or better classroom behavior. While these rewards are effective in the short term, their benefits tend to fade quickly. That’s why emphasizing intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic rewards, can be more helpful. It is harder to cultivate such motivation, but it can lead to more effective learning.

Limits of Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation, which includes rewards based on external factors, can produce almost immediate effects. Most people, including students, like to earn rewards for effort. You may have bribed your child to do yard work with a crisp $10 bill. Despite your firm resolutions, you might have promised your small child a toy if they would just stop misbehaving in the store. It’s easy to apply rewards to schoolwork too. Money, extra TV time, a trip to a fun park: these are tried-and-true ways to get a child to study.

Unfortunately, when students work for a reward, they often don’t really learn the material. They may have no real interest in it other than to get something tangible. In fact, research has suggested that students who might have been intrinsically motivated to learn are derailed by external awards. Some of these students have been labeled “bulimic learners” because they cram for tests and then promptly purge themselves of the information afterward. And negative motivation is also not advised since fear discourages exploration and creative thought.

Intrinsic Motivation Benefits and Challenges

Intrinsic motivation produces students with a real interest in the subject matter who learn for learning’s sake. They enjoy exploring the material and mastering it. They don’t look at learning as a way to get things. Instead, they get emotional and intellectual satisfaction from learning math concepts or classic literature. Intrinsic motivation has lasting effects, often driving people to be lifelong learners and even leading them to careers they will enjoy in the future.

Intrinsic motivation requires time to build, so it can be difficult in a world that demands instant results. You have to work hard as your child grows to foster this type of learning. Plus, some students simply do not respond to this method. In certain instances, extrinsic motivation may work better for an individual student’s learning style.

Building Intrinsic Motivation

Parents and teachers can help build intrinsic motivation by focusing on choice whenever possible. Many college students thrive in part because they can choose a number of learning paths.

It’s important to build your child’s self-esteem so that they dare to learn, but provide honest feedback as well. Students need to hear about their strengths and their weaknesses. Learning without constructive criticism is not effective.

Technology also helps build intrinsic motivation. Advanced software programs and online searches make it easier to explore concepts in-depth. And students can instantly receive the information needed to continue their projects.

Extrinsic motivation for learning doesn’t have to be abandoned completely. It works in some situations and for some students. But deeper, more satisfying learning takes place when the student also has intrinsic motivation. Students learn better when learning is the point and not the path to a video game or even good grades.

If your child isn’t motivated to learn for the sake of learning, consider becoming more involved in their education. In a K12-powered virtual school, you can be your child’s Learning Coach while they learn from home (or anywhere there is an internet connection) with online lessons, interactive activities, and virtual classroom sessions. Visit K12.com to learn more and find a school in your area.

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