5 Ways to DESTROY Intrinsic Motivation in your Students

Chad OstrowskiBlog, Class Management, Engagement, Innovation, Lesson Planning, Mastery Learning, Self-Paced Learning

5 Ways to DESTROY Intrinsic Motivation in Your Students

In this post:

  • Intrinsic motivation is a powerful tool.
  • Intrinsically motivated students are typically more able to overcome challenges
  • Here are a few ways you can destroy intrinsic motivation in your classroom:
    • Not providing students with ownership
    • Not removing fear from your classroom
    • Not being authentic
    • Not building relationships
    • Not focusing on learning

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful tool that, when harnessed, can have a powerful impact on student success. Students who build intrinsic motivation are more able to overcome challenges, can focus more readily, and will usually learn more efficiently than those that are extrinsically motivated.

Intrinsically motivated students see the benefit to growth and self improvement, and tend to enjoy the challenge and opportunity for these things to occur, while extrinsic motivation is often the result of a dangled “carrot” that, once removed, often ends the motivation to improve or work towards a given goal.

There are a lot of ways you can build intrinsic motivation for learners, but here are a few ways you might just be destroying it in your classroom.

If the feedback you're providing is focused on things that aren't thinking, learning, or the process of understanding, then students will fail to see value in them. Click To Tweet

1. Not giving students choice / ownership

It’s really hard to get students motivated when they have no control or ownership over their learning. Providing even a minimal amount of choice, autonomy, or ownership in the learning process is a great way to increase engagement and intrinsic motivation for the learner.

2. Creating fear of failure:

Fear of failure is a reason many students refuse to start working in the first place. If they think something is too difficult or complex, they will choose not to work instead of attempting with the fear of complete failure. Removing this fear from your classroom is a great first step in getting students more intrinsically motivated.

How you build the view of failure is also important. Is failure the end of learning, or just the first step? When this perception changes it can greatly improve students’ outlook on struggle and how hard they are willing to work through issues.

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3. Inauthentic feedback / false praise

Learners respond to feedback in different ways, but the feedback itself can be a huge benefit to building intrinsic motivation…or it can hurt this cause. If the feedback you’re providing is focused on things that aren’t thinking, learning, or the process of understanding, then students will fail to see value in them.

For example, if you praise a student’s completion of work, then it is only “finishing” the work that matters. If you praise the student’s creativity, thinking, or growth within the process of learning, these things have an inherent increase in value to the student.

Avoiding false praise for expected outcomes is also important. By providing praise for expected outcomes this can devalue the praise for authentic or more meaningful actions and hurt the pathways for more intrinsic motivation.

4. Not getting to know your students

Students motivation can often be directly tied to their engagement in the learning process. If you aren’t building a relationship or getting to know your students, you are starting at a disadvantage. The same topic can take on a totally different perspective for a student if it is connected to their interests.

Additionally, students are more motivated to avoid losing the praise or respect of people they trust and have some sort of connection with. Put simply: students aren’t motivated and don’t learn well from people they don’t know, like, and trust. Take the time to connect and get to know your students so you can provide more meaningful and more motivated experiences for learning.

5. Focusing too much on tasks over knowledge:

This can be a huge shift, but is a very common problem. Many educators focus so much on the task a student is doing, that the learning actually takes a back seat.  By only focusing on “did you do the work?” the focus on how they thought, how creative they may have been, or how much they persevered to overcome issues or problems, don’t get valued.

Focusing on the knowledge gained, instead of task completion, also provides a higher value on this aspect of learning. Students can begin to further appreciate knowledge over just getting work done.

So the next time you are interacting with a student, I want you to think about how that interaction might be building or possibly hurting their intrinsic motivation. Focus on providing ownership, removing fear, being authentic, building relationships, and focusing on the knowledge being gained, and you’ll continue to be awesome!


Chad Ostrowski is the co-founder of the Teach Better Team and the creator of The Grid Method, but he is a middle school science teacher at heart. He now travels the country sharing his story, working with teachers, schools, and districts to help them to reach more students.

Top header photo by Ana Carolina from Pexels.