Is Intrinsic Motivation Essential to School Success?

Flickr/ r. nial bradshaw cc license

Flickr/ r. nial bradshaw cc license

Studies have proven the power of intrinsic motivation: With it, kids are more likely to be creative, set goals, and much, much more. It makes sense that intrinsic motivation should also help children do better in the school subjects that interest them. If you like writing, you’ll be a better writer and if you like math, you’ll be better at math…right? This is part of the justification for programs that encourage kids to study the things they’re drawn to (and let me admit right now that I’m one of these parents — I want my 9- and 7-year-olds to explore their passions!).

We’re so certain that intrinsic motivation increases achievement that it almost seems like a waste of time to study it. But that’s what a team of researchers from Quebec did. Their study of 1,478 Canadian kids is now on early view at the journal Child Development.

The data comes from something called the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, which measured a whole bunch of family, personality, education and achievement stuff from age 5 months to 15 years. Mining this data, the researchers used answers from the Elementary School Motivation Scale to measure kids’ intrinsic motivation for mathematics (questions like “I like mathematics” and “mathematics interests me a lot”). Then they compared intrinsic motivation to kids’ scores on math assessments in grades 1, 2 and 4.

Surprise, surprise: Kids who were intrinsically motivated were better at math. But the important part was which was the chicken and which was the egg. It wasn’t that intrinsic motivation led to higher math scores. In fact, it was the other way around: Kids with higher math scores ended up liking it more. (Economists would call math achievement the “lagging indicator”.)

Again, “achievement in mathematics was found to systematically predict later intrinsic motivation in mathematics over time. However, there was no evidence for the reverse; intrinsic motivation for mathematics did not predict later (or changes in) achievement in mathematics,” the authors write.

The authors offer a couple possible explanations for this mind-bogglingly counterintuitive finding. Maybe elementary school is so tightly regimented that everyone is forced into the same work whether or not they like the subject matter and so there’s no gain for kids intrinsically drawn to math or loss for kids who would rather skip it? Maybe the assessments rewarded “quantity” of math skills over “quality” of math skills, meaning that intrinsic motivation still might help kids out-perform their bribed or bullied classmates on trickier problems?

But if you want to take the study at face value, “The present findings could mean that interventions in education that try to increase intrinsic motivation may not be the best approach in the early school years.”

I have to admit, this advice goes counter to pretty much everything I believe in parenting. But it’s also a pretty solid finding. If intrinsic motivation doesn’t create competence, does intrinsic motivation matter? Care to discuss?


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2 Responses to Is Intrinsic Motivation Essential to School Success?

  1. Laura Kinsale says:

    It makes total sense to me. The success at math (being “good” at it) is the reward. If you find something rewarding in the instant you are doing it, i.e., you like to read because the story unfolding in the instant is rewarding; you like to multiply 9×7 because the correct answer is instantly available to you, then it will become intrinsically rewarding. The only difference between instrinsic and extrinsic rewards is the instantaneous timing of reward at the early learning of the behavior. Then it become shaped to longer reward intervals, as challenge and effort to reach a reward are added and start to become rewarding IN THEMSELVES. An internal sense of “I got it” happens long before any teacher or praise can. It will be more powerful. This is then shaped by natural learning processes (success/success/failure/sucess) to create drive in a certain behavioral direction. Well, maybe I’m not explaining well, sorry! But timing and shaping seem to be overlooked in human behavior studies a lot.

  2. Jj says:

    Think about what creates motivation. Reward. Or better yet, random intermittent reward. Success is rewarding in itself, so the reward schedule for a kid talented in math will be higher, whereas for the kid who isn’t “getting it” for whatever reason (maybe it’s not being taught to that individual in a way they comprehend, or maybe they lack an underlying skill) will repeatedly face the unpleasant pressure of trying and not succeeding. This will quickly lead to avoidance of the pressure situation and kill motivation to try. I don’t know what the programs to increase intrinsic motivation consist of, but if they don’t set up an effective challenge/reward ratio then they won’t create motivation.

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