On Motivation

We can describe motivation as “the internal processes that energize, direct, or sustain behavior” (Baumeister, 2016 in Reeve, 2016).  Often we trigger these internal processes with external stimuli, but the choice to “be motivated” is internal nonetheless.

In other words, we can’t motivate anyone. We can provide extrinsic pressures (incentives or punishments) and people decide how to act.

I would argue that all motivation is intrinsic.  Extrinsic pressures are just that: pressures, efforts at coercion.

That’s not to say that these external pressures do not matter.  Often students make effective and intelligent choices based on these carrots and sticks (Immerwahr, 2011).  Further, there are times when students simply need nudges to build what we’d call proper habits.

Pinning too much on an innate internal drive too soon in a student’s development might confusing hope with a plan.  In other words, self-regulatory strategies can and should be taught (Lucariello, et all, 2016)

But here’s the rub:  according to Daniel Pink (2011) the transactional approach is counter-productive in the long term. He says that our reward and punishment systems sends a clear signal that the work is undesirable and must be incentivized (Pink, 2011).

Pink’s argument is not new. Nearly 60 years ago (long before we started discussing the knowledge society) Douglas McGregor (1960) suggested that we could trust people to do what’s right because in the absence of policies and rules, but if we assume they won’t we’ll get what we suspect.

Pointedly, despite clear evidence to the contrary, we employ policies that cause the very behaviors our policies are designed to prevent!  

In the FYS program, we are striving to create an equilibrium zone close to McGregor and Pink. You see the evidence for this in our emphasis on social contracts, student leadership, and grading policies that reward complex thinking (vs. product production).

But we’ve also noted more than once that we’re taking an enormous risk in that many of our students are conditioned to follow rules and policies.  We have to bring them to what Berger (2014, page 81) calls Shoshin – the beginner’s mind – where rigorous learning is a delight, not something to be endured.

Easier said than done.  Telling them to reject what has made them successful to date must sound awfully threatening.

I offer what I consider to be a student centered zone where autonomous learning can flourish. Yet, a good percentage of my students appear to reject this proposition opting instead for the elusive comfort of the grade for performance transaction.

What am I to do?

I cannot presume to know their drive, and it’s likely different for each.

Here are four steps adopted from an excellent book by Kerry Patterson called Crucial Conversations.

First – I need to ask and know what it is I really want.  Do I want an autonomous student capable of thinking, or a well behaved compliant one?  If they embrace inquiry because I want them to, are we simply playing a more sophisticated version of the game?

Second – I need to recognize when my well intentioned efforts are actually harming the situation. Although I sit in my huddles and lament my student’s behavior, it’s likely that the full story of the quiet classroom has me in the frame. Can I separate my emotional investment from the objective facts?

If my students have gone quiet, perhaps it’s because I am contributing to the problem.  Am I a benevolent dictator whose message sounds more like “get on board or else”?   I suspect this is now true in my 11:00 and I must find a way to rescue this situation, and soon.

Third – I need to understand how they see and hear it.  Motivation is complex and personal…the evidence for this is right in front of us as 21 students each respond differently to what I do and say. If motivation were standard, I would see 21 identical responses to my stimuli. Cleary I don’t.

Remember – when I offer a stimulus, each student interprets and filters it through their own experiences/stories, and they make a choice on how to respond.

To some their story (and choice to remain sullen, silent, a non-participant, and afraid of speaking up) is because *I* am a bad teacher. I am the villain.  To others they are hapless victims of a cruel system – it’s not their fault and they simply had no choice but to act as they do.

And odds are they dread the sit down with you because they expect the lecture (I am guilty of this!) and the negative progress report that puts the onus on them.  In other words, I need to remember my own advice on trust and back off the well-intentioned but aggressive posture and make it safe, once again, for student choice.

Fourth:  I need to step back and realize that I can help them form a new story, one where they are in control.

There’s no magic formula for this, but the ELOs in FYS do mirror Patterson’s advice:  Stress that true autonomy demands that we work toward master in something that matters, and that we must find purpose in what we choose to do; we should do something that gives us meaning.

It’s not short work.  There’s often no immediate feedback that tells us we’re doing the right thing.  It’s why we sometimes (okay, me, and often) fall back on the extrinsic; we see immediate results.  But the immediate results come at the expense of the true goals.

Finding intrinsic motivation is about students finding a story that says, I am invested because I know this hold value.  I know it holds value because “they” aren’t making me do it.  The professor is not the villain, and I am not a helpless victim to “the system.”

I am energized to sustain and regular my own behavior.


NOTE:  This post was originally published last September.


Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

Immerwahr, J. (2011). The case for motivational grading. Teaching Philosophy, 34(4), 335-346.

Lucariello, J. M., Nastasi, B. K., Anderman, E. M., Dwyer, C., Ormiston, H., & Skiba, R. (2016). Science supports education: The behavioral research base for psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing teaching and learning: Science supports education. Mind, Brain, and Education, , n/a. doi:10.1111/mbe.12099

McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patterson, K. (2012). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pink, D.H., (2011). Drive:  the surprising truth about what motivates us.  New York: Riverbed Books.

Reeve, J. (2016). A grand theory of motivation: Why not? Motivation and Emotion, 40(1), 31-35. doi:10.1007/s11031-015-9538-2



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