The word “motivation” comes from a root that means “to move,” and really, motivation is about what moves us to begin something or to persist in a situation—in this case, a learning situation. Motivation is a driving force. It can be considered an external driving force, something that motivates us from the outside, or a psychological force that compels us toward an action or a goal from the inside.
Extrinsic motivation—such as money or job security as motivators—is reward-based. We’re moved to do something or persist because we want a reward of some kind that will come from completing the task. Intrinsic motivation is different. Curiosity, love of learning, the ability to use new knowledge and apply it to one’s own goals: all of these are things that are intrinsically motivating to people. They’re motivating because they’re enjoyable, or because they satisfy an internal psychological desire.
Studies by Deci and Ryan have shown that intrinsic motivation tends to produce much deeper and more sustained engagement and learning than extrinsic motivation. And these studies have been followed up by many other studies that tend to have similar results.
Deci’s 1996 book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, includes a theory called self-determination theory, based on three categories of intrinsic motivation that the author claims are universal to all human beings. He argues that these three categories (competence, connection, and autonomy) are actually needs that all of us have to meet in our lives in order to experience our optimal potential as humans.
When all three of these needs are met, according to self-determination theory, we sustain our desire to keep learning. We sustain our desire to produce, to keep producing, be creative, give our time and energy to others, and, in general, increase and sustain our desire to live all the roles that we play in our lives to the best of our ability. But when one of these three needs is not met in some area, our motivation may suffer.
So in any learning situation, the student would, ideally, have all three needs met in order to want to sustain that learning over time without the need for the reward of money or grades or some other extrinsic motivator.
Looking at practical applications of the theory, one of the ways to think about this is that each student has a unique motivational profile of underlying desire and drives; as an instructor, getting to know students well can often make obvious what the main motivators are for particular students. Most students want to get a good grade, but it is the intrinsic motivators, such as the need to gain competence in a course or the need to have a sense of choice or a sense of directing their own learning to some degree or another, that motivates students to succeed.