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Four Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Intrinsic Motivation In Students

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Kathy Digsby has been teaching elementary school for a long time. She taught kindergarten for many years, then transferred to first grade. And even though she’s approaching sixty and planned to retire soon, part of her doesn’t want to leave the classroom. Recently she’s been mixing it up, injecting choice into as many areas of the classroom as she can to engage her young learners. And it’s exciting.

“I think as teachers we feel like we have to be in control of everything in order for the kids to be okay and for them to learn,” Digsby said. A classic example is the “daily five” stations students rotate through during English Language Arts time. At one table, Digsby usually works on guided reading with a small group. Every 20 minutes, kids rotate between stations where they read to themselves, work on writing, do word work, or practice a skill on the computer. When the timer goes off students rotate, whether they’re done with the task or not.

“It was frustrating for me, I can’t imagine how they felt,” Digsby said.

So she decided to inject some choice into the station-rotation. Instead of pulling text-leveled reading groups, which often caused havoc because all the lowest readers were together, she started using her reading station to focus on social studies comprehension. And she let students choose their starting station and trusted them to move onto the next station when they felt they’d finished. She also let them pick where in the room they would work and with whom.

She knew that adding this element of choice meant more students might have questions or get stuck, so she first talked with her class about what it means to coach someone. They talked about not giving away the answer because then their friend wouldn’t learn, and about how important it is to work well together.


“I saw a huge difference in the level of engagement, the voice level in the room and just the whole atmosphere in the room when we went to that choice,” Digsby said.

It was a professional development session led by her district’s language arts curriculum director, Zac Chase, that got Digsby thinking about how she could give students more choice in their work and thus boost their motivation for learning. Digsby moved to St. Vrain School District specifically because she felt the professional development there would push her to become a better teacher.

Chase gave a similar presentation on motivation along with the Executive Director of Inquiry Schools, Diana Laufenberg, at the EduCon Conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. They presented intuitive research on situational motivation that can be surprisingly hard to follow in real classrooms.

“Research shows students who believe their school work is interesting and important are cognitively engaged in trying to understand the material,” Laufenberg told the educators gathered. That also means they have intrinsic motivation, a quality many teachers complain students lack. So why aren’t all teachers ensuring every lesson plan engages students’ interests? Educators at EduCon were quick with their responses: it’s hard to tailor instruction to a diverse set of learners; it’s hard to convince learners of the long term benefits of their work when short term needs are more present; and of course, many teachers feel bound by curriculum, standards, and testing.

Chase and Laufenberg think situated motivation theory could be an approachable way for teachers to find inroads into the kind of cognitive engagement that leads to academic motivation. In a nutshell, situations can be either motivational or not. This makes intuitive sense to anyone who has watched a student struggle in class, give up easily and lack confidence only to see them practice a sport diligently, take feedback from a coach, and remain positive after a loss. That student feels motivated by their sport, but not in the classroom.

There are four common elements to motivational situations: choice, challenge, collaboration, and control.


On principle, choice is intuitive. People tend to be more interested in things they get to choose. But choice can also be unwieldy with a large group of students. Still, it’s often the easiest place to dip a toe in the water.

High school English teacher Tiffany Greenberg was frustrated that whenever she assigned her students reading for homework they’d come in the next day unprepared to discuss. That forced her to shift much of the reading into the classroom, but even then students dragged their feet.

“One of my biggest struggles was getting them to read in class,” Greenberg said. So, during a memoir unit she decided to try giving them choice over what they read. She chose shorter pieces as mentor texts and let them read their chosen books during silent reading time.

“What I loved about it was some of my kids read a book for the first time,” she said. She also let them choose how to present what they’d read, rather than forcing them to write an essay.

“Zac [Chase] encouraged me as a teacher to do less work and make the students do more work and as a product of that they would learn more,” Greenberg said.

At the end of the year, she surveyed her students and almost everyone enjoyed having that choice.

“With student choice still comes expectation and guidance,” Greenberg said. “There will still be checks and balances within class.” For example, she’s experimenting with asking students to do initial research on a new topic and only lecturing to fill in details she thinks they’ve missed in their research. There’s an element of choice there, but she’s also leveraging student autonomy, while showing them she trusts them. She also uses this as an opportunity to teach what makes a valid source.

“I feel like they just grasp the concepts so much more,” she said. “And my students are vocal about being tired sitting here listening to a teacher speak all the time.”

Often teachers fear choice because they don’t trust students will choose wisely. Or they worry that it will lead to an out-of-control classroom. And while those fears may be valid, trying it comes with an upside too.

“The more proscribed I come as far as choice, the less I know what a kid would do with choice, and the less I know about their actual ability level,” Chase said. And, if every kid makes the same thing, the kid who struggles will stick out to everyone in the class. But if every kid can choose to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways, it’s not only more engaging for them, but the differences aren’t so obvious. The teacher still knows how much thinking is on display, but classmates may not.


“We always try to take out the challenge," Laufenberg said. "But when we do that we’re removing a major factor of what makes something interesting." It can be hard to judge when the challenge is just right, but Chase and Laufenberg advise teachers to assume kids are more competent than we think. It won’t help to let a child struggle too much, but entertain the idea that they can handle more challenge than you might think.

“And if you want that as a school leader, treat your teachers that way,” Chase said. “Assume competence.”

One way teachers can remind themselves of students’ capabilities is to visit the grade above the one they teach. Chances are some of the students will be familiar and seeing the growth they’ve made in one year can be inspiring.

Chase acknowledges that often teachers’ tendency to scaffold too much comes from a caring place, but whenever he hears a teacher say that a student “can’t do that,” he replies, “that’s why we’re here.”


In recent years there’s be a lot of discussion of collaboration as a skill kids will need for the future workforce. And while that may be true, collaboration is also motivating. Kids are social beings and learn a lot about the world and academics from talking to one another.

Kathy Digsby, the first grade teacher in St. Vrain School District, has been trying to work collaborative structures into more of her teaching. She often starts by asking students to discuss in pairs and then has two pairs team up and work together.

In one assignment, Digsby asked the groups to design a good or service to help teachers gain back their lunch hour. “To hear that discussion and that collaboration amongst them, even though they’re six or seven-years-old, about how they’re going to get it to stand and what the structure was going to look like, was so beneficial for them as well as for myself,” she said.

She’s also noticed how smaller moments of collaboration can lift up students. In her classroom, a gifted boy is close friends with another boy who struggles to access a lot of the content. But his friend often chatters about things he’s learning, helping to seed prior knowledge.

In the past when students worked together, Digsby was concerned about one telling the other the answers. “I just had that mindset,” she said. “But then I was like, 'wait a minute, if I teach them to coach each other they can learn so much more from their friends along with myself'.”

Chase and Laufenberg offered some other simple ways to work collaboration into the classroom. Teachers could require that two classmates sign off on any assignment before it can be turned into the teacher, for example.

“If you had two other students in your classroom activate their skills, in this case as readers and writers, to sign off on the thing before you looked at it, and then said both of you are wrong, go help this person fix it,” Chase said. That would hold friends accountable for their peers’ work. “That is what interdependence is.”

Another idea, require students to quote one another in their reflections after turning in an assignment. That promotes autonomy, interest, and gives students control over who they collaborate with and how.


One way middle school math and science teacher Keith Kennison empowers his students to take control over their learning is by teaching them to question.

“If students are the ones generating questions that’s huge,” Kennison said. “If they’re exploring something I can help guide them.”

He finds that choice, challenge, collaboration and control are woven closely together in his classroom. He spends time at the beginning of the year talking about how math is a social endeavor and that “anything that’s worthwhile that we’re exploring is going to be challenging. And when you’re exploring those ideas you should expect roadblocks.”

Students don’t always believe him at first, but he helps them discover themselves as learners using thinking maps. They discuss how mathematicians make connections to things they already know, plan how they’ll attack a new concept, and evaluate their own work. Kennison asks his students to design their own thinking maps.

“I spend a lot of time helping kids think about what sort of thinking goes into tackling anything worthwhile,” he said. It’s a slow and gradual process, but over the course of the year he weans them off asking him to help the minute they reach a roadblock, and they learn to lean on their peers to help figure out what they don’t know.


“It’s an uncomfortable class,” Kennison said “No one wants to wrestle with not knowing. But my job is to give them just the right amount of uncomfortableness."

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