Why Intrinsic Motivation Matters in the Classroom

by Norma Gorham

One of the top ten problems teachers comment on is lack of student engagement and motivation. In the world of constant and pervasive technology and a demand for instant attention, more and more students are losing interest in the classroom. What can we, as teachers, do? How can we engage our students and motivate them?

Let’s start with defining what motivation is according to Merriam-Webster online dictionary-


noun mo·ti·va·tion \mō-tə-vā-shən\

1. the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something : the act or process of motivating someone

2. the condition of being eager to act or work : the condition of being motivated

3. a force or influence that causes someone to do something

The definition is simple enough, but what does motivation look like in real life? How do we generate it in our classrooms? How does this definition help you? Better yet, what does motivation on the inside look like?

First, it is encouraging to note that we are all born motivated. Think about it. From the moment we are born, we begin learning. Now think of a small child you know. Chances are, they are curious about everything. They are eager to explore the world around them. They are internally driven. They want to learn!

This drive to know and to find answers for their own sake is referred to as “intrinsic motivation.” When you hear someone say – “Science interests me,” or “Learning math helps me think clearly.” – we are talking about intrinsic motivation. William Glasser’s choice theory suggests how strong intrinsic motivation is in learners when he states that, “we are born with specific needs that we are genetically instructed to satisfy” (as cited in Sullo, 2007). In other words, natural curiosity is literally built into our genetic makeup to help us best meet our basic needs, survive, and thrive as humans. According to Glasser, these basic psychological needs are:

• Belonging or connecting

• Power or competence

• Freedom

• Fun

1- Belonging or connectingAs teachers, it is important to develop the community of our classroom to create a place where everyone is an active member with a purpose and reason for being a part of the learning process. Our classroom communities need to provide a space where students feel safe and welcomed by the teacher and their classmates. The teacher / student relationship sets the tone for the classroom. Not surprisingly, research shows that teachers who developed good relationships with their students have fewer discipline problems than teachers who do not make that effort (Sullo, 2007). Fewer discipline problems indicate more students are engaged and motivated in the work they are doing.

2- Power or competence

Power and competence relate to the ability to do something successfully. When we teach our students how to learn and what not to learn, we provide them with the confidence, skills, and tools they need to be competent and successful individuals. They are willing to take risks in their learning because they feel confident they have the tools necessary to achieve and master new skills.

Modeling and feedback are important parts of mastering skills. The first time I made this connection was watching my children taking ski lessons. At the beginning of the day, they could barely stand upright on their skis, but with clear demonstrations of the correct technique and specific feedback from their instructor within a couple of hours they were able to successfully ski down the slope. Even though it was difficult, they mastered the basic skills needed to enjoy the activity and the desire to learn more. They were competent and therefore empowered by what they had learned.

3- Freedom

As humans we want the freedom to make choices and be a part of the decision making process. By including learners in the decision making process, they have more ownership of that process. But what does that look like in the classroom?

It could start with the students determining the classroom rules for the academic year or could be as simple as what topic they will write their essays about or as thoughtful as determining the criteria for grading that essay. Students that have a voice in the classroom are more invested in the work they are producing for that classroom and thus more motivated.

4- Fun

Everything is better when there is a fun element to it. It is our playfulness and enthusiasm that lead us to discovery and growth. An enthusiastic teacher brings passion, excitement, pleasure, and joy to the classroom. They bring their classroom to life, engage their students, and encourage exploration. A teacher’s emotional engagement and enthusiasm can increase student participation, interest, curiosity, and motivation.

These four basic psychological needs create the foundation of our individual interpretation of the world around us and is the basis for what motivates us. When my students – whether they are energetic 5 year old boys or slow thoughtful grandmothers – have these needs met, they are more engaged and willing to learn; they have the skills and tools needed to succeed; and they enjoy the thrill and excitement they experienced as young children learning at their parent’s knee. Simply stated, they are motivated.

Please note that there are many ways to motivate, but that intrinsic motivation, sparking that natural, internal motivation inside each student, will make your students recognize their love of learning and their need to meet these four psychological needs!


Church, E.B. (2003). Building community in the classroom. Retrieved July 24, 2015 from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/building-community-classroom

Reeves, D.B. (2004). Motivating unmotivated students. ASCD Express Ideas from the Field . Retrieved July 24, 2005 from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol5/504-reeves.aspx

Sullo, B. (2007). Activating the Desire to Learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zhan, Q. (2014). Teaching with Enthusiasm: Engaging Students, Sparking Curiosity, and Jumpstarting Motivation. Communication Current, V9, I1, February 2014.