Motivation in the classroom

For much of the ten years I spent as a classroom teacher, I thought that motivation came in only two flavours: extrinsic and intrinsic. I saw a binary distinction between them. Extrinsic motivation (the ‘bad’ flavour, in my mind) was all about compliance, sanctions, and rewards handed out by others; meanwhile intrinsic motivation (the supposed ‘good’ one) seemed like some kind of utopia. It seemed to be a rosy world in which my students and I would be ready for whatever challenge came our way, driven by pure interest, enjoyment, and sense of deep satisfaction in everything that we did.

Or so I thought…

Years later my wonderful colleague, Rob Coe, introduced me to self-determination theory (as part of our work on the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review). As a result, everything about my understanding of motivation changed (a somewhat regular occurrence that comes with working with Rob!).

Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2008) distinguishes between two kinds of motivation. The first is autonomous motivation, wherein an individual has a sense of volition or control—which may stem from intrinsic or extrinsic factors. The second is controlled motivation, in which an individual feels pressure (either through explicit rewards or punishment, or through internal feelings like guilt or shame) to think or behave in particular ways.

Now, as a teacher who wanted their students to enjoy my subject, I’d always thought of extrinsic motivation as somehow negative. I had interpreted Ryan and Deci’s description of it as “behaviours done for reasons other than their inherent enjoyment” (for example, for a reward, or to meet a pressing deadline; Ryan & Deci, 2020) in a rather reductive way.

Indeed, when seen through the lens of self-determination theory, the monolith that I thought of as extrinsic motivation might instead be further divided into more specific, tractable concepts.

  • External regulation: behaviours are the result of rewards and punishments that are externally imposed. (I’m motivated to drive under the speed limit because I know there are harsh punishments for exceeding it.)
  • Introjected regulation: the partial internalisation of extrinsic motivation. (I’m motivated to go to the gym first thing in the morning—not because I want to, but because I don’t want my gym buddies to judge me for skipping.)
  • Identified regulation: seeing real value in a particular activity. (I’m motivated to attend a committee meeting for a voluntary organisation because I think it leads to a good outcome.)
  • Integrated regulation: identifying with the value of an activity or task, and feeling that it aligns with interests or values. (I’m motivated to help with a mountain rescue on a rainy morning because I love the outdoors and enjoy helping others.)

As I thought more about extrinsic motivation in these four ways as part of my work for EBE’s Behaviour and Culture Programme (more information can be found here), the practical implications of these forms of regulation played out in my mind. In schools and colleges, a key aim of most teachers and leaders is to help students develop autonomous motivation and become self-actualised learners who plan, monitor, and regulate their own learning.

So, what does the evidence say on the matter of using extrinsic motivation to encourage and develop this ideal of autonomous motivation?

Three ways to promote autonomous motivation

Autonomous motivation (characterised by a feeling of volition) is promoted when individuals feel that three basic needs are met: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy refers to an individual feeling that they choose their behaviour and that it is aligned with their values and interests. For example, an interesting experiment published in 2010 compared the effects of two different approaches to homework. During one unit of work, some high school students were given two options for the homework tasks they were to undertake; the other students were given no choice. In these experimental conditions, providing students with a choice had a positive effect on their feelings of intrinsic motivation to do homework and on a sense of competence about the homework, as well as on subsequent test performance (Patall et al., 2010). Anyone who has looked after children may recognise this strategy of asking which vegetable a child would like may be more successful than asking whether the child would like vegetables or not…

Competence means feeling capable of producing desired outcomes and avoiding undesirable ones. Much has been written about using ‘desirably difficult’ (Bjork & Bjork, 2020) tasks that help students feel a sense of accomplishment. A desirably difficult task is one that is sufficiently challenging for a student at their current state of knowledge, understanding, or skill. It may be different for every individual—for instance, a desirably difficult challenge for a poorly organised student might be to get to class on time with the correct equipment. As such, if a teacher wants to support students’ feelings of competence using this approach, ensuring that tasks are ‘pitched’ at the appropriate ‘challenge point’ is paramount.

Relatedness means feeling connected with, and mutually supported by, other people. Such relatedness can emerge when students feel that their teachers genuinely like them, respect them and value them as individuals (Bao & Lam, 2008; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009); simply taking steps to get to know students as individuals, or to help them know and connect with others (peers or teammates, for example), can be powerful.

Clearly, there is neither a single nor simple recipe for supporting students to develop such feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. But any teacher who wishes to help improve their students’ extrinsic motivation can do well simply by using these as a starting point for consideration. The evidence shows these three factors are linked to increasing students’ motivation—which can itself be a powerful (and positive!) thing. As we might expect, students who are motivated to study, learn, engage, and succeed are more likely to do so (Coe et al., 2020); we shouldn’t shy away from the idea of extrinsic motivation (as I did all those years ago!), but see the value in it and feel empowered to use it to support students.



Bao, X., & Lam, S. (2008). Who makes the choice? Rethinking the role of autonomy and relatedness in Chinese children’s motivation. Child Development, 79(2), 269–283.

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(4), 475–479.

Coe, R., Rauch, C.J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). The Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182–185.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133–144.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896.

  • Julia

    Thanks for these insides. They are very valuable to me.

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