External Rewards vs. Intrinsic Motivation for Students


This post is inspired by Mike Reading’s thoughts and research about External Rewards.  Read the post here:  Why are our students disengaged?

Mr. Reading also references a 1969 experiment conducted by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, authors of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior.

Read excerpts from this book, as I have done, by clicking here.  (But be forewarned, the language is dense.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s the good stuff you’ve been waiting for–here’s what I think:

Both external motivation and internal motivation WORK.  THEY BOTH WORK. There’s no doubt about it.

The question isWhich is more EFFECTIVE? And to qualify it even further, I am deciding that effectiveness is defined by HOW LONG the motivator works.  (And for you economic geeks out there, I would also argue that EFFECTIVENESS is also influenced by the monetary and human effort required by the individuals who are trying to get the desired effect.)

External motivation works because students are motivated by pizza parties, stickers, ice-cream, and candy.  They are motivated by certificates of achievement, bookmarks, smiles, money, and x-boxes.  They just are.

Internal motivation works because students relish in a sense of personal accomplishment and pride.

Now where in the spectrum do our students fall?  Let’s figure this out.  Let me give you four premises to help you (thank you logic!)

Premise #1:  Student doesn’t have IM, and will not do X, even if there is EM.

Example:  Marcus doesn’t want to do his classwork, and even if you promise him $100, he still won’t manage to do it.

Premise #2:  Student doesn’t have IM, but will do X, if there is EM.

Example:  Marcus doesn’t want to do his classwork, but if you promise him $100, he will get it done.

Premise #3:  Student has IM, but will only do X, if there’s EM.

Example:  Marcus wants to do his classwork (he keeps getting in trouble for not doing it), but still, he will only do it if he gets the $100 you promise him.

Premise #4:  Student has IM, and will do X, even if there isn’t EM.

Example:  Marcus wants to do his classwork, and he’ll get it done, without you even offering him anything for it.

Re-read each premise and its example carefully.  Think of 1 student in your school that fits under each category.

Now, you will see, our easiest students to motivate fit under premise #4!

For students that fall under premises #2 and #3, we can motivate them too!  And we can potentially wean them off EM.

Students that fall under premise #1 are the students that have us stumped. Right?  With these students we do some of the following:

  1. punish them to no end – detention, parent phone calls, suspension, verbally, loss of privileges, etc.
  2. ignore them/give up on them
  3. isolate them from their peers–maybe when they are excluded from what everyone else is doing, they’ll want to do what it takes to join in
  4. berate them until THEY GIVE UP, and at least become silent, reserved, and “broken”


Now this might sound cheesy–straight out of a PBS program or a Family Matters or Full House episode when the music starts playing and you just know it’s time for the moral or lesson–but, the only thing I’ve seen actually work (and I’m tempted to say, “The Power of Love” but I won’t) is to:


What’s that buzz word again–differentiation?  It could apply here, but I’m not interested in buzz words.  I’m interested in common sense and an understanding of human nature.

Set aside all pressure and desires you have of the student.  Set aside all the demands the educational system has on the student, including passing the class and state tests.  And whoever you are, teacher, parent, prinicipal, coach, you have to



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