Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Motivation: That Is The Question

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Motivation: That Is The Question
Summary: If you consider the levels and motivations of your learners, you can find ways to accommodate as many of them as possible throughout a course.

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Learning Motivation

Learners come from all walks of life. They have different life experiences, different educational levels, and different reasons for learning. With so much variability in the learners who may be taking a course, how can educators best reach everyone? The first step is to understand learner motivations, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, and what level of knowledge they are coming into the course with.

Intrinsically Motivated Learners

Intrinsically motivated learners are self-motivated. They may be interested in the topic out of their own sense of curiosity. These learners want to learn the backstories and context of the material, and they want to hear your anecdotes and participate in activities. These learners are often enthusiastic and can actually help motivate other learners to be more enthusiastic about the material as well.

Intrinsically motivated learners may also be interested in taking the course in an effort to gain specific knowledge toward a future goal. Some examples of this could be learning coding to build a video game or learning a language before a big vacation. These learners don’t care much for the context or backstory, they just want to learn the material or the skill. As self-motivated learners, they appreciate the time to work on the material or problems on their own without too much guidance, preferring a trial-and-error style of learning. Luckily, it’s generally pretty easy to keep both kinds of intrinsically motivated learners engaged.

Extrinsically Motivated Learners

This brings us to extrinsically motivated learners. Rather than being self-motivated to learn the material, these learners have external reasons for being in the course. The most common reason for these types of learners to be enrolled in a course is that it is a required course for a larger goal or prospect, often in progress toward a degree or a mandatory training required by a job. Learners respond to this situation in different ways. Some prefer to just learn what they need to know and be on their way. These learners don’t want context or anecdotes. Often, they’d be happy with just a list of what they need to know. They are often most motivated purely by the grade they will receive or the completion of the course in general.

Some externally motivated learners may present difficulties beyond keeping motivation up. One example is a learner who feels they already know the material and so they don’t need to be in the course. These learners may in fact have a breadth of knowledge on the subject already and will not want to go through the "beginner" material or hear about backstory or anecdotes. While it can be challenging to keep these learners engaged, they are very good at picking up on nuances in the material, which can be a great strength. Another more typically difficult type of externally motivated learner is the one who studied the subject long ago and needs to update their knowledge base. The learners may not feel that they have anything to learn and may need to be convinced that the course is worth their time. These learners thrive when given time to make sense of the differences between their previous knowledge and the new knowledge being presented to them.

By now it may seem obvious that it can be a bit more difficult to keep extrinsically motivated learners engaged with the material. However, there are ways to help ameliorate this. The best first step is to try to help learners find intrinsic motivation. Try to help them determine whether there is, in fact, a real-world application for the material they’ll be learning. Use examples that are relevant to the learners’ experiences in order to build more interest in the topic. Challenge the learners to tell you how this material may be helpful to them.

Learner Knowledge Levels And Learning Motivation

Ostensibly, learners in a course will all be at the same knowledge level. However, as you will have learners with different motivations in your course, so too will you have learners with different amounts of background knowledge. Learners at different levels logically need different things from an educator. Learners with less background knowledge need more guidance, solid introductions to new material, and some early "easy wins" in class activities to get them interested in the topic. More advanced learners will want more independence, more nuanced material, and answers to more specific, higher-level questions.

While it may seem difficult to keep all of these types and levels of learners happy, there are some ways to accommodate these differences. First, you don’t need to make every part of the learning process mandatory for every learner. Consider which parts can be optional or done independently rather than during active class time. This allows higher-level learners and learners who have an agenda about what they need to learn to bypass parts that won’t be particularly helpful to them.

Second, find ways to make lower-level background information accessible without making it clunky. For example, in an eLearning environment, if a reading has terms or concepts that lower-level learners may need assistance with, make those definitions available by scrolling over the term, rather than spelling everything out in the reading itself.

Third, give intrinsically motivated and higher-level learners opportunities to help their peers with the material. These learners may have relevant experiences or anecdotes that may be helpful to the other learners.

Teaching to learners at different levels and with different motivations may feel like a daunting task, but it can be done successfully if approached mindfully. If you consider the levels and motivations of your learners, you can find ways to accommodate as many of them as possible throughout the course.