Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

My daughter started school one month ago.

It was lovely seeing this bunch of motivated kids, with overwhelming energy, and sparkle in their eyes. Then, coming back home, I saw teenage students waiting for the bell.

The atmosphere was completely different. Some of them were looking at their mobile, others were chatting, but few were happy. As a father, I was worried, but as a teacher, I was lost.

What happened to their motivation?
We know that many factors affect students’ commitment: home background, personal life, personality, and tiredness. But when it comes to motivation, psychologists identify intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
The intrinsic one is studying for personal sake. Unfortunately, these kinds of learners are rare birds.

People have a utilitarian approach to studying. They learn because it is useful and, needless to say, this happens especially with younger learners, forced by their parents. We are aware that speaking English, for example, can help them find a better job, but they won’t be searching for it unless they finish their university career, ten to twenty years later. So, it is not a good way to keep learners motivated. Some teachers try to overcome this obstacle by using games in their lessons, to tickle students’ intrinsic satisfaction, but the effect vanishes when they go back to normal classwork.

Aware of this, many teachers rely on the second source of motivation, with its dualism between good marks and bad marks. In this situation, better students will see their sense of self-worth increase at the same rate as their anxiety. It is even worse for weaker learners, that can feel demotivated and trapped in a downward spiral of low motivationlow effortlow achievement.

So, what can a teacher do to keep students motivated?

Self-esteem plays a big role both for good and bad learners. People like what they do well. They are more likely to do it again, put in more effort, and get better. So, when weaker learners pretend that they aren’t interested in learning, maybe they are just trying not to see themselves as a failure. We must develop the feeling that they can do something, rather than the one that they can’t.

Our role as teachers is to inspire students, help them shine, and be the best version of themselves.

Matteo Felici

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