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Intrinsically Motivated

How to foster authentic student motivation and build a classroom of engaged, tenacious learners
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Adapted with permission from Digital Promise. Read the original piece here, and read more about student motivation on the Digital Promise Research Map.

Intriguing research shows that when students have intrinsic motives for learning — when they engage not for external reward but because they find the activity itself interesting and gratifying — they become more likely to attach meaning to their work, explore new topics, and persist in the face of learning challenges.

So how can educators help students develop that intrinsic motivation to learn? Christina Hinton, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the executive director of Research Schools International, has explored this question in a research partnership with St. George’s School in Rhode Island. One idea that has informed the work — conducted with Thomas Callahan, the director of the Merck-Horton Center for Teaching and Learning at St. George’s — is self-determination theory, which identifies three drivers of intrinsic motivation: autonomy in learning, relatedness, and competence.

These core principles provide a useful framework for teachers seeking to create a learning environment that supports student motivation.

Autonomy in Learning

When students have a sense of control over their learning, their intrinsic motivation improves; they are likely to persist at tedious academic tasks, and they learn to process information at a deeper level.

To support students’ autonomy, teachers can encourage them to set their own learning objectives, contribute to course material, and use learning techniques that work best for them.

One key way to support autonomy is to give students choices, Hinton says.

  • Instead of assigning students a specific book to read, allow students to select from a reading list.
  • Rather than having all students write an essay, offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding through digital and other mediums.

To balance students’ desires for both autonomy and structure, Hinton suggests optional autonomy. “I’ve learned to provide my graduate students with structure for everything, but also give them the option to opt out of that structure and learn in alternative ways that work best for them whenever they would like,” she says.

Callahan promotes autonomy by structuring his high school psychology course around the interests of his students. “I work with students to determine what we will do, how we will do it, and how it will be meaningful to them,” he says. “Students have to ‘own’ the material, so they want more.”


Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to and cared for by others. Research shows that social isolation and loneliness are linked to student anxiety, lower intellectual achievement, diminished self-control, and poorer health. But when students feel a sense of belonging, they experience more meaningful relationships, higher self-esteem, better academic performance, and improved well-being.

  • Hinton recommends the use of guided partner or group projects to help students feel connected to one another.
  • Callahan boosts relatedness by reducing the physical separation between teacher and students in the classroom. He removes his teacher’s desk and structures his classroom in a U-shape, so he can move around the circle regularly. “Students respond to that level of relatedness, because they’re not interested in being managed or told what to do. I share knowledge with them and draw knowledge from them,” Callahan says.
  • This strategy also helps students feel connected to one another by providing them with a safe environment to ask questions, discuss ideas, and take risks.


Students need to be challenged by schoolwork and know that expectations are high, but they also need a sense of competence — a feeling that they are equipped to meet these challenges and standards. Studies have shown that once students perceive themselves as competent in learning class material, they develop more intrinsic learning motives, even in the face of obstacles.

  • Teachers can cultivate competence by introducing activities that are optimally challenging.
  • Teachers can provide noncritical feedback, along with information on how to master the task.
  • For instance, Callahan asks his students to identify challenging vocabulary words they’ve encountered in their coursework. Next, he presents effective strategies for using flashcards to learn vocabulary. Students then practice in the classroom and at home, and they are tested on the strategy, rather than on whether they were able to memorize a long list of words.

“My goal is to give them the tools to be competent — not just tell them ‘nice job,’” he says. “I want to show them how to learn so that they can demonstrate competence.” 

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