Research shows that alienated extrinsic motivation—extrinsic motivation that is completely external to the actor (the stars on my chore chart)—leads to surface level learning. Students focus on learning outcomes such as grades. They learn to use tools such as rote memorization to recall or reproduce what has been said. These students have the ability to pass and even do well in classes, but never really engage with the material. This type of motivation is great for success on standardized tests, but it leaves little room for students to grow intellectually and it does not inspire them to discover and explore their passions.
The more extrinsic motivation becomes self-regulated by the student the deeper his or her learning is likely to become. Extrinsic motivation is often the starting place that hopefully leads to genuine interest. Once the student is interested they will integrate the new knowledge, concepts and skills they are learning with their existing knowledge base. Integration will not only help them remember facts, but it will also lead to deeper processing of the information. Interested students are more likely to make connections between different topics and subjects, to relate concepts to their lives and to feel that what they are learning is meaningful and useful.
Some practical, but maybe not very intuitive, research results suggest that teachers should give students praise instead of tangible rewards. Praise, whether it is contingent upon completing a task or spontaneous, increases students identification with the information and thus increases their likelihood of becoming intrinsically motivated to learn the content. On the other hand, task-contingent tangible rewards decreases interest in activities and information. If students get a reward for completing an activity, research suggests, that the students complete the activity for the reward. If no reward is offered they are more likely to do the activity in order to learn or master the concepts or skills. Spontaneous tangible rewards do not seem to affect students’ motivation or interest. What this research means for educators is that you should use verbal rewards over tangible rewards when possible. If you need or want to use tangible rewards be aware of how you are using them. Tangibles are very effective in classroom management, but if you are using tangibles to encourage learning though make sure it’s spontaneous, not contingent upon a task. Instead of putting stickers on their tests, given your students stickers one day simply for showing up.
As educators we have a responsibility to help light the fire within each of our students. Sometimes it is difficult to know the best way to go about it, but research on topics like motivation can help us understand the most effective ways of inspiring our students to find and pursue their passions!
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.
Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2002). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, (25), 54- 67.