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Intrinsic Motivation

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 5, 2014

The very best form of motivation comes from within. Anyone observing healthy and well-attached infants knows that children are naturally curious and interested in learning, exploring, and mastering challenges. Youngsters with less innate talent but who gain satisfaction from engaging in tasks with responsibility, creativity, and effort can equal the performance of students with IQs 20 points higher. Persistence and task orientation make very significant contributions to achievement, sometimes over twice that made by IQ. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in tracking the occupational success of mid-1960s Asian American high school graduates who were of average intelligence. Nevertheless, disproportionate to their numbers, they were working in high-level managerial, professional, and technical positions usually occupied by individuals testing above the 90th percentile on IQ tests. These people benefited from being raised by families that valued education above all else and instilled this drive in their children.

Students with learning disabilities who, despite competing against the odds, have maintained high internal motivation also can achieve significantly beyond the expectations set by their intellectual or information-processing weaknesses. Unfortunately, when such a student's high motivation results in grade-level achievement, the fact that the child has a learning disability may be missed altogether. Ironically, the child's motivation can mask his or her constant struggle, frustration, and effort to keep up.

The very best support for internal motivation is the family. When children see their parents and other family members work hard to achieve, they tend to do likewise. And after a while, they don't need hugs, praise, or treats for doing well. Achievement has become a highly valued motivator in its own right.

To be intrinsically motivated to achieve an objective, the child needs to be interested in the task. But interest isn't enough. A sense of competence ("I can do this"), autonomy ("I am making the decision to do this"), and relatedness ("I feel secure and supported in doing this") supports this intrinsic motivation. In other words, the higher Serena's feelings of competence and the more she sees her family and school as supporting independence in learning and behavior, the higher Serena's achievement is likely to be. This process begins by taking pride in even the smallest of victories. It is important to recognize and reward moves in the right direction—not to expect perfection.

For teachers, there is no better way to build intrinsic motivation than by creating rewarding learning experiences that capitalize on students' strengths; encouraging students' talents; building identification and satisfaction by incorporating meaningful ethnic, cultural, and native-language material into the curriculum; and accommodating to a child's weaknesses so that the regular curriculum becomes more accessible. Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor comment:

Schools have the responsibility not only to help individuals overcome learning problems but also to facilitate ongoing development and provide opportunities for creative growth through enrichment activity. The fact that a person has a problem learning to read doesn't alter the fact that he or she can learn a variety of other things—and undoubtedly wants to. To find the time for remediation, it may be tempting to set aside enrichment and even some developmental learning opportunities; to do so, however, deprives individuals of other important experiences. It may also negatively affect their attitude toward the school, toward the teacher, and toward overcoming their problems. At the very least, school programs that overstress problem remediation risk becoming tedious and disheartening. (1986, p.604)

Students' abilities and talents need just as much nurturing as their learning weaknesses require help. It is on the foundation of these abilities, not on their disabilities, that students will build their future work and interpersonal lives.

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