Characteristics of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Before examining the characteristics of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation it will be helpful to differentiate these forms of motivation from interest.  Interest refers to the liking and willful engagement in an activity (Schraw & Lehman, 2001). And the difference between personal interest, which is a relatively-stable personal disposition toward a specific topic or domain, and situational interest, which represents a temporary and situationally specific attention to a topic (Urdan & Turner, 2005)

Interest is not a type of motivation but rather an influence on motivation. Students who are interested in learning about a topic or improving their skills in a domain should display motivated behaviors, such as choice of the activity, effort, persistence, and achievement.

While it may seem that personal interest and intrinsic motivation bear some similarity to one another, personal and situational interest are not inherently linked with either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Students may be personally or situationally interested in a topic for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons. Although a goal of educators may be to develop students’ interest and intrinsic motivation in learning, in fact there are many reasons underlying students’ interests and not all of them reflect intrinsic motives.

It is tempting to think of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as two ends of a continuum such that the higher the intrinsic motivation, the lower the extrinsic motivation; however, there is no automatic relation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005). For any given activity, an individual may be high on both, low on both, medium on both, high on one and medium on the other, and so forth. It is more accurate to think of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as separate continuums, each ranging from high to low.

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are time and context dependent. They characterize people at a given point in time in relation to a particular activity. The same activity can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivating for different people. Jon’s English class is extrinsically motivating for Todd but intrinsically motivating for Lelia. As another example, assume that Scott and Rhonda play the banjo. Scott’s intrinsic motivation is high because he plays for enjoyment, whereas his extrinsic motivation is low. In contrast, Rhonda’s extrinsic motivation is high because she plays largely as a means to the end of playing well enough to earn money in a Dixieland band. Rarely does she play for intrinsic reasons.

Because intrinsic motivation is contextual, it can change over time. Many things that young children find interesting (e.g., Sesame Street) gradually lose their appeal as children become older. Sudden changes in level of intrinsic motivation are not uncommon. Scott may become extrinsically motivated to play the banjo well if he experiences financial problems and decides to play the banjo to earn money. Doing something because one wants to can easily become doing it because one needs to.

Aside from the fun that people have while engaging in activities they enjoy, we can ask whether intrinsic motivation bears any relation to learning. Do students learn better when they enjoy the content, or can they learn just as well if their goal is to please the teacher, earn good grades, or stay out of trouble with parents? We can all remember times when we were intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to learn. Students can learn for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons. Nonetheless, working on a task for intrinsic reasons is not only more enjoyable, there also is evidence that across grade levels, intrinsic motivation relates positively to learning, achievement, and perceptions of competence, and negatively to anxiety (Gottfried, 1985, 1990; Lepper et al., 2005).

These benefits presumably occur because students who are intrinsically motivated engage in activities that enhance learning: They attend to instruction, rehearse new information, organize knowledge and relate it to what they already know, and apply skills and knowledge in different contexts. They also experience a sense of self-efficacy for learning and are not burdened down with anxiety. In turn, learning promotes intrinsic motivation. As students develop skills, they perceive their progress and feel more efficacious about learning. Heightened self-efficacy and positive outcome expectations raise intrinsic motivation and lead to further learning (Bandura, 1986, 1993).

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