Three Ways to Help Students Develop Intrinsic Motivation
By Larry Ferlazzo

A recent Times article, “Motivating Students With Cash-for-Grades Incentive,” looks at efforts around the world to pay students for academic achievement. In it, Edward Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester and author of of “Why We Do What We Do,” is quoted:

“It is easy to get people to do things by paying them if you’ve got enough money and they’ve got the necessary skills,” he said. “But they will keep doing it only as long as you keep paying them. And even if they were doing it before, when you stop paying them the behavior drops to a lower level than when you started paying them. We’ve done thousands of experiments on this over 40 years and the data is incredibly robust.” “There is no evidence that paying people helps them learn — and a lot of evidence that it doesn’t,” Mr. Deci said.

Then why do parents — and governments like the United Arab Emirates — resort to paying students? “Because it’s easy,” Mr. Deci said. “It’s much harder to work with people to get them motivated from the inside.” This is not a revelation for teachers. We know that it is often easier to get students to do what we want them to do by dangling a carrot — or threatening a negative consequence. The problem with this kind of strategy is that, as Daniel Pink discusses in his TED talk, the research shows it generally works for just the short-term, and it appears to work only in generating simple actions, not in inspiring the kind of higher-order thinking skills and abilities we want our students to develop.

As Mr. Deci writes in his book, “The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ ” Here are several ways teachers can create those conditions and help students develop intrinsic motivation to learn.

Praising Effort Instead of Intelligence

Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor, has researched and written a great deal about the importance of praising effort and not intelligence. Her research shows that by praising the persistence of students and the strategies they have used to overcome an obstacle, we reinforce a “growth mindset” — one where students feel energized and knowledgeable about how to get beyond problems.

She contrasts that with a “fixed mindset” that is promoted by praising intelligence (“You’re so smart for getting that project done quickly”). Students with this kind of “fixed” perspective tend to want to look “smart,” and value that image more than learning. They tend to want to do easier work or might cheat to avoid making mistakes, because making mistakes is not part of their self-image. They believe it may make them look not smart.

Dr. Dweck has done several experiments praising one group of students for their intelligence and the other for their effort, all with similar results. In one, both groups were given I.Q. tests and then, after receiving one type of praise or the other, were asked to solve difficult puzzles. The students who were praised for their effort worked much harder at the puzzles than those praised for their intelligence, many of whom gave up in frustration. Students were then given an I.Q. test similar to the first one.

In these second tests, the students who had been praised for their effort increased their score over the first time, while the other group, those praised for intelligence, scored lower than they had originally. When trying to remember “in the moment” about what kind of feedback to give to students, it might be helpful to think of this guideline: “describe or question.”

Here are examples of praise that use this framework and will tend to develop more of a “growth” mindset:

"It’s impressive that you did two drafts of that essay. What made you want to put that extra effort into it?"

"You worked on that project for the entire period without getting distracted, just focusing on doing the best job you could. That’s great!"

"You really listened to the other questions students were asking, and clearly tried to think of an original one. That really stood out! How were you able to come up with such an interesting opening to the essay?"

To a student who might be facing behavior challenges: "You were really focused on classwork today. Can you tell me what you did or thought to help yourself not get distracted? It would give me some ideas that I could suggest to other students."

What about a student who can easily and quickly do classwork? This is what Dr. Dweck says: What about a student who gets an ‘A’ without trying? I would say, “All right, that was too easy for you. Let’s do something more challenging that you can learn from.” We don’t want to make something done quickly and easily the basis for our admiration. Explore the related New York Times Learning Network lesson "If Memory Serves" for more information on Dr. Dweck’s work.

Helping Students Understand and Develop Self-Control

One way to help students want to develop a greater capacity for self-control is to show them the longer-term advantages of doing so, and to teach effective strategies they can use to be successful. Here are two ideas that build off recent Student Opinion questions posted on The Learning Network, each of which links to Times content about the topic. The first asks "How Impulsive Are You?", and the second, "Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?" (You might also invite students to post answers to these questions via the “comments” section for each post.)

The Marshmallow Experiment

The psychologist Walter Mischel initiated the famous “marshmallow experiment” 40 years ago, and it has since been replicated by others. As the Op-Ed columnist David Brooks summarizes it:

"Around 1970, Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows. The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32."

Teachers can have students read Mr. Brooks’s piece, “Marshmallows and Public Policy,” or they can read “Don’t! The Secret of Self-Control”, an article about the experiment by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker. Students might also watch this short and humorous TED talk that shows a marshmallow test in action. After reviewing what the articles say about strategies to reinforce self-control, you might ask students to brainstorm times they wanted to do something they knew was wrong, inappropriate or not in their long-term best interests — whether in school, at home, with friends or elsewhere.

When have they successfully delayed gratification? What happened as a result? Invite them to choose one situation in which it is hard to exert self-control, and draw a cartoon depicting it on one half of a piece of paper. Then, on the other half, have them draw what they can do instead, perhaps including a “thought bubble” detailing how they could divert themselves from losing control. They can share these posters in pairs, small groups or even with the whole class, and the posters might be hung on the wall as reminders. Another option? Create a mini-marshmallow test in class, or challenge your students to design a similar test for their peers.

Replenishing Self-Control

The Learning Network’s Student Opinion question, "Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?", discusses the research of Dr. Roy Baumeister and his finding that the mental energy involved in making decisions and exerting self-control can be a limited resource that needs to be replenished as it gets depleted. Other researchers have used Dr. Baumeister’s discoveries to explore ways to help people increase their self-control, including using self-affirmation exercises and remembering better times.

I share these findings with my classes, and have developed short “reflection cards” on cardstock that I give to students when they are having difficulties. I ask them to leave the room and return when they have written responses to these two requests printed on the card:

1. Please write at least three sentences about a time (or times) you have felt successful and happy.

2. Please write at least three sentences about something that is important to you (friends, family, sports, etc.) and why it is important.

I’ve never thought that asking students to write why they were misbehaving was particularly useful, especially right “in the moment.” Often they don’t have a clue! But I have found that invariably students return to the classroom in a much better frame of mind after they complete the card. In fact, it’s not unusual for students — before a situation reaches a point requiring my intervention — to go to my desk where the cards are kept, take one and bring it back to their seat where they will fill it out and give it to me later.

A number of students over the years have told me that they now remember to silently ask themselves those questions when they are feeling tempted to do something they might regret. It is just another tool they can use to distract themselves.

Assigning a 15-Minute Writing Activity on Values to Build Confidence

Researchers have found that doing a simple 15-minute writing activity three to five times during a school year at important transitional times, like the beginning and end of the year, or right before a final exam, can result in long-lasting academic benefits, especially to students experiencing academic challenges. They concluded that having students write about values that are important to them develops resiliency and reminds them that “their entire self-worth was not riding on a single test result.”

Researchers have found that having a greater sense of self-worth leads people to work harder and get less discouraged by setbacks. Here is my summary of the three-part exercise the researchers did:

1. Students are given a list of “values,” which can change each time the activity is done. For instance, creativity, religious values, sense of humor, family, etc. They are asked to circle (or write down if the list is on an overhead) the one that is most important to them.

2. They are then asked to think about a specific time when the circled value was important and write a few sentences about it: When was that time? Why was it important to you then?

3. Finally, students are given three phrases: “This value has influenced my life.” “In general, I try to live up to this value.” “This value is an important part of who I am.” They are asked to write one of five ratings next to each one — Very Strongly Agree, Strongly Agree, Agree, Strongly Disagree, or Very Strongly Disagree

Students can then share their responses in small groups or with the entire class.


I was a community organizer for 19 years before becoming a high school teacher nine years ago. The ideas in this post are just a few ways that we might move from what organizers call “irritation” — challenging people to act on our goals — to “agitation” — challenging them to act on their goals. The main way to help students develop this kind of intrinsic motivation, of course, is to have teachers take the time to learn the interests, hopes and dreams of their students. Through this relationship-building process, we can help our students connect what is happening in class each day with their self-interests. And perhaps we can develop the mutual trust needed to help us successfully challenge our students, and help students challenge us, to stretch and expand what we see as our interests, hopes and dreams.

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. He writes a blog for educators, and a teacher advice column for Education Week Teacher. Portions of this column are excerpts from his latest book,“Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges.” His previous guest post at The Learning Network was “English Language Learners and the Power of Personal Stories.”


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