Intrinsic motivation and the desire to learn

Intrinsic Motivation in the WL class

Extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are important for students AND teachers, but they can lead to very different outcomes. We’ve all had students who are motivated to pass our classes only because it keeps them out of trouble at home, or off the no pass, no play list. As soon as the season is over, the motivation is gone.

Intrinsic motivation is entirely different. Some of our students are learning a language because they WANT to. Maybe they hope to live or travel in France someday, maybe they want to be able to watch French content on YouTube, maybe they are just huge fans of old French poetry. Whatever the reason, they enjoy learning the language because of something inside them, not because of a perceived reward or punishment.

I’ve had a lot of intrinsic motivation when learning languages. I’m good at it and I find it interesting. I’ve studied French, Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, German and Ukrainian. I’m almost done with the Duolingo Polish course (having finished the French, Russian, and Ukrainian courses) and I’m already thinking about which language to do next.

I may never use these languages, but I might use them someday – in any case, I find it fun to pick up new words and compare the different languages I know. I’m willing to work in order to do something I’m intrinsically motivated to do.

On the other hand, there are things that I’m absolutely not interested in and have no motivation to do. It doesn’t matter how much other people enjoy football, I have no interest in it an no desire to play. I don’t care to practice the skills or do the conditioning to be a good football player because I don’t want to be a good football player – or a bad football player, for that matter!

I’m simply uninterested. If I were forced to play on a football team, I would probably have a lot of resentment towards the coach for trying to make me do drills, exercises, etc. It’s not really the coach’s fault – but it wouldn’t really be my fault either.

We should keep this in mind when we have students who are not willing to do the work to pass the class. They likely don’t want to be in our class, they don’t have any interest in the subject, and they may resent us for ‘forcing’ them to do something that they absolutely do not want to do. This isn’t fair to us as teachers who have no control over who is in our classes, but it also isn’t fair to our students who don’t want to be there and don’t see the point of doing something they dislike.

How do we deal with students who don’t have intrinsic motivation?

On the very first day of class, I ask my students why they are taking French. One of the options is always “my counselor put me here.” I try to talk to any student who doesn’t really want to be there to find out what the story is. Did they ask for Spanish, but get put in French instead? Did they not choose an elective in pre-registration? Did they register late and French was the only class open during that period?

If it’s something I can help fix, I make every effort to do so. I’ve worked with counselors to get students who wanted Spanish moved into a Spanish class, because I want them to feel that their education is useful.

If schedule changes aren’t possible, I’ll find out from the student if they need the class. Often, they don’t need French per se, but they need the credit. I do what I can to get these students to pass and get the credit they need, but I also accept that they may never really like my class. I’ve also had seniors who are in my class who don’t need the credit but had a hole in their schedule.

Once I know for sure that they don’t need the credit, I’ll talk with the student about what consequences a low grade would have – lower GPA, or angry parents? If these aren’t an issue, it’s their choice to fail or not. So long as they are not disruptive, I won’t push them too much.

If there is neither intrinsic motivation nor extrinsic motivation, there’s not much to be done. Studies have shown that while extrinsic motivation can work, intrinsic motivation is much more important in school achievement. Without intrinsic motivation, teaching is an uphill battle.

What factors promote intrinsic motivation?

The number one factor in intrinsic motivation is curiosity. Just having a sense of wonder or curiosity about a topic will get some people motivated. In a language class, using the language to teach useful or interesting information may help get the curiosity of students working for you – they may not care about forming the passé composé, but being able to read about the latest soccer game might get them interested.

Challenge and control are also factors. Challenge can be good – but be careful not to be too challenging. I know this one from personal experience! As an adult beginner at hockey, I have been told many times that the only way to improve is to play against people who are better than you are.

This is certainly true, but only to a point. If the competition is too much better – and is unwilling to ‘play down’ to give the beginners a chance – I am more likely to just shut down and get discouraged.

Your students will do the same thing. If a task is challenging but doable, they will try to complete it. A challenge that is simply out of their reach is pointless. Giving students choices in tasks can give them a sense of control, so you might allow them a variety of ways to practice the material and show that they’ve mastered it.

Cooperation and competition can also be important. People in general want to feel that they belong and being a part of a functional group can give them this feeling. Competition can be an extrinsic motivator (especially if there are prizes) but a friendly group competition can motivate students to do work they may otherwise not do, even if there are no prizes other than bragging rights.

My own issues with intrinsic motivation

Think about your own life and how motivation has been a factor. I personally have great intrinsic motivation to do certain things because I’m good at them and I enjoy them (music and language learning). These things provide a positive feedback loop, making me want to continue and search out more challenging activities.

But there are also things that I’ve done that started out with intrinsic motivation but that has changed over time (anything sports related). Even though I have enjoyed playing hockey at a low level – I’m a very unathletic person – my motivation has waned over the years largely due to the factors I mentioned above.

While I originally enjoyed playing because it was novel and exciting, in many cases I found that the challenge was too great, and it was just discouraging. Some teams that were supposed to be working together weren’t really accepting of certain players for one reason or another, so the cooperation aspect was lacking. A lot of the sense of control over where I play and who I play with is gone, and in some case the only sense of control left is whether or not I play at all.

I’ve gone from being an enthusiastic hockey player to someone who is utterly ambivalent – and sometimes even hostile – to the idea of playing. I’ve written about the value of doing something you’re bad at as a way to stay in touch with your struggling students, and this is yet another lesson in teaching.

If you push a kid too far – even a kid who started out with high levels of intrinsic motivation – it is possible to lose them. Take away the sense of accomplishment, belonging, choice, or control and you may turn the student off from learning your content. Intrinsic motivation can go a long way, but once you’ve lost it you may have a very hard time getting it back.

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