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How Can Students Be Motivated:

A Misplaced Question?
Abstract: Great teachers understand the fundamental difference targets or goals I set for you, this will help me meet my own
between motivation and inspiration: motivation is self-focused and needs and goals” (Secretan, 14).
inspiration is other focused. Exceptional teachers guide students to
greatness by inspiring them to discover where their talents and
In an era of accountability and high-stakes testing,
passions intersect. For today’s besieged classroom teacher, the teachers are becoming adept at manipulating students’
desire to motivate students often springs from a place of self- personalities through extrinsic rewards and incentives. When
concern: “I want to change your behavior with a reward or students are extrinsically motivated, external forces often
incentive so that, if you meet the targets or goals I set for you, this determine their emotions and behaviors. When students are
will help me meet my own needs and goals.” Students are highly
motivated to perform when they first come to school. The question
inspired, however, forces within determine their emotions
is not “how can students be motivated?” but rather, “how can and behaviors. Anyone who has worked with a trusted
educators be deterred from diminishing—even destroying— mentor, for example, senses deeply that the mentor is not
student motivation and morale through their policies and seeking personal gain but is offering a heartfelt gift of caring
practices?” and service (Secretan 2005). Relatedly, Schlechty (2002)
Keywords: extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, motivation argues that the primary function of a teacher as a leader is to
“inspire others to do things that they might otherwise not do
and encourage others to go in directions they might not
otherwise pursue” (xviii).
G reat teachers understand the fundamental difference
between motivation and inspiration in the classroom:
“Motivation is self-focused; inspiration is other
Exceptional teachers guide students and colleagues to
greatness by inspiring them to discover where one’s talents
focused” (Secretan 2005, 14). Characteristically, providing and passions intersect. Specifically, teachers inspire students
motivation is something that a teacher does to a student; by channeling students’ energy and passion toward their
inspiration is something that is a result of a trusting, caring, strengths. Although students need to be clear about their
mentoring relationship with a student. Inspiration is weaknesses and what makes them afraid, they need to be
something that an extraordinary individual lives, not clearer about those personal strengths that will result “in an

Winona State University, Minnesota. Copyright

© 2007 Heldref Publications

something that he or she simply does. The image of Lance increase in performance, service, and life-satisfaction”
Armstrong streaking across the French countryside in search (Secretan 2005, 14). In a truly productive classroom, a
of his seventh straight Tour de France title inspired millions generosity of spirit, a sense of perceived interdependence,
of cancer patients by giving new meaning and hope to their and a shared reverence for the gift of learning also inspire—
lives. In The 8th Habit, Covey (2004) argues that the crucial both teacher and student.
challenge for individuals and organizations in moving from Yet, there is a pervasive institutional belief that
effectiveness to greatness is to discover one’s own voice and motivating one’s students and colleagues is an essential
to inspire others to find their’s. For the besieged classroom role of teachers and administrators as leaders. Whether it is
teacher, however, the desire to motivate students often merit pay, stickers placed on students’ papers, bonus
springs from a place of self-concern: “I want to change your points, or formal recognition ceremonies, considerable
behavior with a reward or incentive, so that, if you meet the energy and organizational resources are expended to
execute this perceived leadership task. The refrain, “how
82 The Clearing House November/December 2007

can our students and staff be motivated?” punctuates are studentcentered, active, experiential, democratic,
collegial conversations daily in diverse settings, including collaborative, and yet rigorous and challenging” (viii).
staff lounges, in-service programs, and parentteacher Katzenbach (2006) argued that pride is what ultimately
conferences. motivates individuals both in the classroom and the
Thirty years of research related to motivation and workplace to excel at what they do. Specifically, he contends
performance, however, suggests that there is only one that more than half a century of clinical and academic
problem with that question: “It is the wrong one” (Sirota, research by scholars such as Maslow, Herzberg, and
Mischkind, and Meltzer 2005, 24). Although motivation and Csikszentmihalyi points the motivational compass in one
morale are important to performance in the classroom and direction: pride in the work itself is the most powerful agent
the workplace, the query is misplaced because students, of change and performance. Moreover, pride is the most
faculty, and workers in diverse settings are already highly easily recognizable descriptor of what motivates artists,
motivated to perform well when they first come to school or musicians, athletes, executives, and students to excel at what
the workplace (Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer). they do. Compellingly, Katzenbach asserts, “the peak
Kindergarten children, for example, are typically excited and performers in life are seldom in pursuit of money or formal
enthusiastic about going to school each day. Not so, advancement except as validation of the pride they feel in
however, for many third and fourth graders. In studies, their workplace achievements” (59).
researchers suggest, “something or someone is decreasing From that perspective, the real work of teachers as leaders
the high levels of motivation” that students and employees is that of functioning as pride builders in the classroom.
bring with them to the classroom and workplace (Sirota, Successful teachers, for instance, spontaneously instill pride
Mischkind, and Meltzer, 25). The pertinent question for in students on a daily basis by honoring Csikszentmihalyi’s
educators and parents is not “how can students be “discovery that people are most highly energized about their
motivated?” but rather, “how can educators be deterred from work when their mix of skills closely matches their
diminishing—even destroying—student motivation and individual and teamwork challenges” (ctd. in Katzenbach
morale through their policies and practices?” (Sirota, 2006, 62). Relatedly, productive teachers are adept at getting
Mischkind, and Meltzer). students to anticipate how proud they will be when their
What can teachers and administrators do to sustain initially behavior or achievements ultimately mirror class and
high levels of morale, motivation, and performance for societal expectations. U.S. Marine Corps drill instructors, for
students and colleagues alike? First, educators must example, are masters of instilling pride in recruits on a daily
understand what students and colleagues want; then, they basis by making soldiers “anticipate how proud they will feel
must give it to them (Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer 2005). when their behavior and results conform to the implications
Researchers pinpoint three overarching factors that have the of the USMC values” (Katzenbach, 60). The motivational
most dramatic and positive impact on classroom and power of anticipation in daily life is hard to overestimate.
workplace morale: equity, achievement, and camaraderie A growing number of contemporary educators,
(Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer). Students want to be treated nonetheless, are committed to the use of tangible classroom
justly and respectfully in their classroom setting. Many rewards as a motivational strategy. Those rewards, however,
educators, for example, mistakenly apply restrictive can ultimately limit students’ ability to unleash their
policies—meant to rein in toxic behaviors of 5 percent of aspirations and excel at what is meaningful to them
their students—to the 95 percent of students who are individually and collectively. Specifically, when teachers
motivated to achieve. Not surprisingly, doing so has a and students perceive daily class work as a source of points,
negative impact on student morale and intrinsic motivation. grades, and treats—as opposed to a source of learning and
Vol. 81, No. 2 How Can Students Be Motivated? 83
Moreover, students want to take pride both in their individual deep fulfillment—they are blinded to the other reasons
accomplishments and in the achievements of their classmates students may want to excel, including an internal desire to
by engaging collaboratively in a constant reorganizing and create meaning and significance. So, what happens when
reconstructing of meaningful experiences. Dewey (1916) educators provide both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in the
framed the challenge compellingly: “The aim of education is classroom?
to enable individuals to continue their education and that the Designing a stimulating and productive learning
object and reward of learning is the continued capacity for environment draws on one’s beliefs about human nature, the
growth” (117). Additionally, students want to live out the nature of learning, and the passions, interests, and needs of
belief that learning is a relational event by having genuine, one’s students. Ironically, designing a successful video game
interesting, and collaborative relationships with their peers system draws on the same considerations. Admittedly,
and teachers. Importantly, students sense that any process analogies fall short because the resemblance between cases
that enhances learning has two sides: psychological and is not inexhaustible. Resemblance between the motivational
sociological (Mason 1975). In Best Practice: New Standards supports in a productive learning environment and a video
for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools, game system are clearly constrained by differences in
Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (1998) discovered an mission, resources, and legal statue. Yet, the similarities are
unrecognized consensus regarding learners’ needs for equity, striking. In truth, both academically engaging classrooms
achievement, and camaraderie: “Virtually all the and video game systems exhibit a common, unmistakable
authoritative voices in each field are calling for schools that ethos or ambiance:
Each is steeped in (a) clarity of task, (b) clear awareness of 1995). Students often perform in school, for example, to
participant roles and responsibilities, (c) choice in the receive rewards if they succeed or avoid punishment if they
selection and execution of problem-solving strategies, (d)
potentially-balanced systems of skills and challenges, and (e)
fail. Acting a certain way because one feels compelled to by
a progressive hierarchy of challenges to sustain interest. social controls characterizes extrinsic motivation. In
Moreover, each reflects (a) unambiguous feedback, (b) contrast, acting a certain way because of an internal desire
affirmation of the instructiveness of error, (c) seemingly constitutes intrinsic motivation. Research suggests that
infinite opportunities for self-improvement, (d) provision for “external motivation is more likely to create conditions of
active involvement in tasks which are rooted in the high
probability of success, (e) freedom from fear of reprisal,
compliance or defiance” and that individuals who “are
ridicule, or rejection, and (f) an overarching recognition of externally controlled are likely to stop trying once the
the need for learners to enjoy what they experience in the rewards or punishments are removed” (Kouzes and Posner
classrooms of life. (Bowman 1982, 16) 2002, 112). Researchers also suggest that self-motivated
individuals persist in working toward a meaningful goal in
Characteristically, the motivational supports of electronic diverse activities involving play, exploration, and challenge
amusement systems and academically engaging classrooms seeking, even when little likelihood of an external reward
are both extrinsically and intrinsically rewarding. At the exists. Video game players, for example, typically derive
cosmetic level, video games assault the senses with an neither material gain nor profit from their activities.
endless series of kaleidoscopic sights, sounds, and figures. Intrinsically motivated students, moreover, tend to have an
Video games provide players with an undeniable visual and overarching sense of purpose that is larger than they and goes
aural sense of momentary triumph and accomplishment. beyond their classroom teacher. Tellingly, intrinsically
Additionally, video games provide a socially uniting context motivated students confront the uncertainties of life from the
for displaying one’s evolving electronic prowess for friends inside out, as they search for what is rewarding rather than
and family. Yet, these familiar extrinsic motivational what is rewarded.
supports “fail to account fully for either the intense To be successful in school, students need to feel that they
concentration or the intoxicating sense of power that belong there, are accepted and valued, and have the skills and
arcadians experience. A more plausible explanation appears inner resources needed to be productive (Kouzes and Posner
grounded in the domain of intrinsic rewards” (Bowman 2002). Intrinsic rewards are personal gestures that deepen
1982, 14). Probing the question of what makes a classroom students’ sense of belonging, accomplishment, and efficacy.
or video activity so enjoyable that it is intrinsically Intrinsic rewards invite students to develop a deeper
rewarding, Csikzentmihalyi and Larson (1980) propose a awareness of their work and how that work contributes to a
balanced state of interaction—a flow state. In this state, larger outcome. More important, intrinsic rewards in the
students and players find themselves in a peculiar, dynamic classroom speak to the human thirst for a coherent purpose
experience: in daily classroom activities and school events. When
Flow is described as a condition in which one concentrates students sense that their work is not trivial, they become
on a task at hand to the exclusion of other internal and reenergized in discovering what is worthy of their shared
external stimuli. Action and awareness merge, so that one attention (Wheatley 1999).
simply does what is to be done without a critical, dualistic The art of good teaching, therefore, lies in designing
perspective on one’s actions. Goals tend to be clear, means
are coordinated to the goals, and feedback to one’s systems and incentives in such a way that students will
performance is immediate and unambiguous. In such a naturally do the right thing for themselves and for the
situation, a person has a strong feeling of control—or common good. Admittedly, motivating one’s students is as
personal causation—yet, paradoxically, ego involvement is simple as the components of the human body and as complex
low or nonexistent, so that one experiences a sense of
as the spirit. At issue, then, is how educators can design
transcendence of self, sometimes a feeling of union with the
environment. The passage of time appears to be distorted: schools and classrooms so that students are intrinsically
Some events seem to take a disproportionately long time, but motivated to be their best. The classroom-tested approaches
in general, hours seem to pass by in minutes. (64) that follow represent neither a theoretical framework nor an
emergent motivational paradigm. Rather, they represent an
Although some researchers argue that intrinsic and
exposition of the insights and practices of classroom
extrinsic rewards are negatively related and may impede one
practitioners in response to the question, “is it possible for
another (Deci and Flaste 1995; Deci, Koestner, and Ryan
effective teachers to use both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards
1999; Kohn 1993), there is arguably room for both intrinsic
in personal, thoughtful, and complementary ways?”
and extrinsic rewards in a caring, engaged classroom in
which students respond productively to a variety of
Say thank you. Emotion deepens learning. Saying thank you
incentives. Admittedly, in many instances, rewards in the
reveals a teacher’s genuine care and respect for students and
classroom have conflicting effects and can be experienced as
their work. Simple, sincere gratitude makes students feel
controlling (undercutting the learner’s need for autonomy) or
noticed, recognized, and appreciated. For students, a thank
as informational (satisfying the learner’s need for
you not only serves as a form of encouragement to sustain
competence). In daily practice, however, effective teachers
performance but also deepens trust by shortening the
can learn to use both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in
symbolic distance between teacher and student. Research
personal, thoughtful, and complementary ways to heighten
suggests that conveying appreciation for a task well done
students’ academic engagement.
with an occasional unexpected thank you enhances students’
Researchers in human motivation contrast two
intrinsic motivation and keeps them alert and interested in
motivational states—extrinsic and intrinsic (Deci and Flaste
84 The Clearing House November/December 2007

what the teacher and their peers have to say (Deci, Koestner, teacher knew I could do it.” Such feedback also shows
and Ryan 1999). students that, much like learning to ride a bicycle, trial and
error are an inevitable part of a steep learning curve. More
Recognize students’ actions. Noticing students’ actions that important, research shows that teachers’ “best opportunity to
make a difference in attaining class or individual goals helps reinforce or change behavior is very close to the time that the
learners understand how to achieve a high standard. behavior occurs” (Allen and Allen 2004, 32). Timely
Moreover, providing specific examples helps students build feedback, therefore, is a natural and necessary part of
a cognitive map that they can draw on when facing similar learning.
challenges or situations in the future. Public recognition or Goals without feedback and feedback without goals,
praise signals to other students that their contributions also however, have only a negligible effect on student motivation
will be noticed and appreciated. (Bandura and Cervone 1983). Oral and written feedback
Research suggests that recognition given informationally helps students become self-corrective as they pursue goals.
has a more positive effect on intrinsic motivation than It also helps them feel interconnected as they reach out for
recognition given in a controlling manner (Deci, Koestner, encouragement and assistance in building their capabilities.
Vol. 81, No. 2 How Can Students Be Motivated? 85
and Ryan 1999). Students can interpret classroom rewards as In short, “the art of balance is essential to effective feedback”
controllers of their behavior or as indicators of their (Allen and Allen 2004, 24). That is, suggestions for
competence. When rewards are given in a controlling improvement must be balanced with compliments. Allen and
manner, those rewards thwart students’ needs for autonomy Allen’s 2 + 2 feedback system, for example, has two equally
and undermine intrinsic motivation. As much as students resonant objectives: “First, recognize successes so that they
value the intrinsic satisfaction of genuine accomplishment, can be reinforced and repeated, and second, encourage
they also value noncontrolling extrinsic symbols of success, improvement in areas that are most in need of change” (26).
such as a choice in how to approach tasks and projects (Deci, The intent in the classroom is to make complimenting and
Koestner, and Ryan). Choice deepens students’ perceived encouraging one another informationally the norm. In
self-determination and competence. The best kind of contrast, teaching by primarily correcting problems without
recognition publicly and informationally celebrates the effort informationally complimenting successes is not balanced
and determination it took for a student to excel in a project feedback. Moreover, to enhance credibility and trust,
or activity and sustains intrinsic motivation. Specifically, teachers’ “compliments should not be used simply as a
informational recognition satisfies the student’s need for prelude to suggestions for improvement” (Allen and Allen,
competence. In short, if educators use tangible rewards in the 26).
classroom, they incur a professional obligation to be mindful
about the intrinsic motivation and task persistence of the Aid students in finding meaning. Getting students to work
students they reward. productively is a key responsibility in a teacher’s
professional life. Rather than focus on what it is the student
Foster positive expectations. Inviting students to take the is to do or how the student is to do it, the exemplary teacher
lead in setting their own goals develops positive student focuses on why the meaningful work is to be done (Collins
expectations. It instills a belief in students that they can go 2001). Adept classroom teachers recognize that a student’s
beyond what they once thought possible. Efforts to foster that commitment to learning is a product of confidence,
belief show students that their teacher has confidence in their autonomy, and motivation. Self-assured students sense that
ability to shape their own destiny. For example, teachers who they have the ability to complete a project without significant
use a Socratic method of leading students through a series of supervision. In addition, autonomously motivated students
questions allow students “to find their own way to the feel driven to do their best in completing a particular task or
answers and bolsters their confidence in decision making” project. A student could, however, exude confidence in his
(Kouzes and Posner 2002, 343). Research suggests that or her abilities but still lack enthusiasm for tackling an
students act in ways that are consistent with teachers’ assigned task. Without teacher support, the subsequent
expectations of them. Adept teachers are aware that disillusionment could undercut a student’s committed
reinforcing processes, such as the Pygmalion effect (self- performance (Zigarmi et al. 2005).
fulfilling prophecy), can amplify small actions into larger
consequences for students (Merton 1968). Effective teachers, Put a human face on opportunities. Classroom stories create
therefore, purposefully help students shatter belief barriers a readiness for responsibility. They put challenges in a real-
and self-doubts. In a moment of disarming honesty, if a life context. Stories make achievements visible to others and
teacher can genuinely support a student in making a “true enable students to share in the lessons learned. When
commitment not to lead a little life, then most other things teachers share stories with a class, the stories provide
will fall into place” (Redmond, Tribbett, and Kasanoff 2004, inspiration and direction to students facing complex,
13). challenging situations. A story is “not only easier to
remember and recall than a set of facts, it translates more
Provide precise feedback incrementally. This helps students quickly into action” (Kouzes and Posner 2002, 363.) In his
sense their progress in reaching their goals and lessens stress research about how individuals make decisions in emergency
and anxiety. Purposeful feedback functions as recognition, conditions, Klein (1998) discovered that the rational model
allowing students to sense that “I can do it” and that “the of decision making gives way to intuition, metaphors,
analogies, and stories. For students, well-told stories reach motivation: provision of choice, unexpected and task-
inside them and pull them along. noncontingent rewards (unrelated to the target activity),
rewards given informationally rather than in a controlling
Show values as a source of self-motivation. Values are manner, and emphasizing the interesting or challenging
“deep-seated beliefs about the world and how it operates” aspects of a task (Deci, Koestner, and Ryan 1999).
(Freiberg and Freiberg 1997, 146). Values are the emotional Ultimately, great teaching is something that one lives; it is
rules that govern students’ attitudes, choices, and behavior in not something that one does through rewards and incentives.
the classroom. Contextually, values are the foundation of By focusing on the talents, passions, and natural curiosities
rules that make a classroom work. Intrinsically motivated of one’s students, teachers inspire students to share with the
behavior is a purposeful action that is intimately connected world the “music that lies inside them” (Secretan 2005, 14).
to one’s core beliefs. Encouraging students to rediscover and
honor the beliefs that form the basis of their relationships, REFERENCES
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Finally, for caring, competent, contemporary educators
who are committed to the use of tangible classroom rewards
as a motivational strategy, the issue is how to teach and
reward in ways that do not discourage capable students.
Research has shown that there are conditions in which
extrinsic rewards do not necessarily undercut intrinsic