Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: How They Affect Students’ Grades

Motivation plays a huge role in how students learn and perform in school. However, failing to understand what actually motivates students and not engaging them properly can have the opposite effect. Therefore, it’s important to understand that motivation is a complex concept. In fact, psychologists identify two different kinds: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Understanding them can help parents and teachers organize the learning process in a way that best supports the students’ needs and interests. Consequently, that can positively affect their performance and learning outcomes.

What Is the Difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

While both affect students’ ability to remain engaged in the learning process and achieve, different factors affect intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to an individual’s personal interests, satisfaction, and enjoyment. The factors affecting it are internal. Therefore, a person learns the learning’s sake without expecting anything such as grades or praise in return.

Instead, they are guided by something deeper. This could be a passion for the subject, curiosity, love of challenges, and more. People may not even be able to identify the reason for their intrinsic motivation. This can be especially common with younger children who are not yet able to effectively process abstract concepts,

So, if a child states that they like something “just because” or they can’t explain why they like something, they are likely internally motivated.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation depends on external factors. It’s doing something to gain a reward or avoid adverse outcomes.

In the learning setting, this manifests as, for instance, studying for an exam to get a good grade or stopping unwanted behavior to avoid punishment.

Which Should You Focus On?

While extrinsic motivation can produce short term-results, that’s, essentially, all it can do. Research shows that the results of extrinsic motivation are weak and can even be detrimental in the long-term.

Certain psychologists even indicate that excessively focusing on external motivators can create dependencies. While occasional rewards can give an extra boost of motivation, it’s important not to rely on them all the time. Constantly getting rewards for accomplishments may stand in the way of children being able to develop into independent learners and consequently – workers.

Thus, children learn to approach tasks or assignments with an attitude of “What’s in it for me?” Always expecting a reward also prevents students from being able to set and achieve goals unless external motivators are present, a.k.a., they’re getting something in return.

In addition to the above, excessive focus on extrinsic motivation can negatively affect children’s self-esteem.

For instance, if you reward your child with a toy or a sweet treat each time they get a good grade, they’ll start perceiving the reward as validation. At first, it can be validation for their efforts on a specific task, but over time it can develop into a validation of their worthiness or their parents’ love.

That can lead to children basing their worthiness and self-esteem on external validation. Children’s happiness and well as their ability to complete tasks and stay productive when that validation is absent can significantly suffer too.

Emphasize Intrinsic Motivation

Therefore, leveraging students’ intrinsic motivation should be the primary focus of parents and educators. Intrinsic motivation has been repeatedly linked to:

  • improved results,
  • increased interest in learning,
  • a greater ratio of successfully accomplished goals, as well as
  • more autonomy.

A study by a group of Swiss and French university professors looked at the effects of standard grades, high grades and no grades on the students’ motivation and interest in learning.

They found that extrinsic motivators, in this specific case – higher grades, can give a short boost in interest and motivation. Yet, they lose their effectiveness overtime.

Curiously, the researchers also discovered that having no external motivators (no grades) can also have as much positive effect on interest and motivation as higher grades. How come? Intrinsic motivation.

What we found particularly interesting about this study was that the standard grading system had the worst effect on students’ motivation and interest in the learning process. This perfectly explains the success of Finland’s education model.

In Finland, the first stages of the education system are based on unstructured play. Educators emphasize building, creating, and developing students’ creativity and imagination. Standardized testing is very limited and only done when students are older.

As a result of such an approach, Finnish students have some of the highest high school graduation rates and college attendance rates.

Is Extrinsic Motivation Always Bad?

Not necessarily. In certain situations, extrinsic motivators can be beneficial. It can give the boost necessary to get over a hurdle, for instance, if the task is very difficult or unpleasant. Sometimes, it can even help break the inertia with challenging tasks and help develop intrinsic motivation over time.

The key to not overdoing it lies in finding the right balance.