Motivation to learn: intrinsic versus extroverted

Motivation of internal versus external education

Students come from all walks of life. They have different life experiences, different educational levels and different reasons for learning. With so much variability among students taking a course, how can educators reach the best of all? The first step is to understand the student’s motivation, internal or external, and what level of knowledge they are coming to the course with.

Internally motivated students

Internally motivated students are self-motivated. They may be interested in the subject out of curiosity. These students want to learn the story and context behind the material and they want to hear your anecdote and participate in the activity. These students are often enthusiastic and can actually help inspire other students to be more enthusiastic about the material as well.

Internally motivated students may be interested in taking the course in an effort to acquire specific knowledge towards future goals. Some examples might be learning coding to create a video game or learning a language before the big holidays. These students don’t care too much about the context or the back story, they just want to learn the material or skills. As self-motivated students, they perceive time to work on elements or problems without too much guidance, preferring a test-and-error style of learning. Fortunately, it is usually quite easy to keep both types of students motivated.

Externally inspired students

This brings us to the externally inspired students. Instead of being self-motivated to learn the material, these students have external reasons to stay on the course. The most common reason for such students to enroll in a course is that it is a necessary course for a larger goal or possibility, often leading to a compulsory training required for a degree or job. Students respond to this situation in different ways. Some people just like to learn what they need to know and go their own way. These students do not want context or anecdotes. Often, they will be happy with a list of what they need to know. They are often most motivated by the grade they will receive or generally complete the course.

Some externally motivated students may present difficulties beyond maintaining motivation. One example is a student who thinks they already know the material and therefore does not need to be in the course. These students may actually already have an extensive knowledge of the subject and will not want to go through the “child” element or hear about backstory or anecdotes. While keeping these students engaged can be challenging, they are very good at choosing the subtleties of the material, which can be a great strength. Another generally difficult type of outwardly motivated student is the person who has studied the subject long ago and needs to update their knowledge base. Students may not feel that they have something to learn and they need to make sure that the course is worth their time. These students thrive if they take the time to understand the difference between their previous knowledge and the new knowledge presented to them.

By now it may seem clear that it may be somewhat difficult to engage externally motivated students with the material. However, there are ways to help improve it. The best first step is to try to help students find the underlying inspiration. Try to help them determine if there is actually a real-world application for the material they will learn. Use examples relevant to students’ experiences to generate more interest in the subject. Challenge students to learn how this material can be helpful to them.

Student level of knowledge and motivation to learn

Obviously, students in a course will all have the same level of knowledge. However, just as your course will have students with different motivations, you will also have students with different amounts of background knowledge. Students at different levels logically need different things from an educator. Students with less background knowledge need some initial “easy win” in the classroom activity to get more guidance, a firm introduction to new material, and interest in the subject. More advanced students will want more freedom, more subtle elements, and answers to more specific, higher-level questions.

While it may seem difficult to keep students of all these types and levels happy, there are ways to reconcile these differences. First, you don’t have to make every part of the learning process compulsory for every student. Consider which parts can be done optional or independently over active class time. It allows high-level students and beginners to have an agenda on what they need to learn in order to bypass parts that may not be particularly helpful to them.

Second, find ways to make low-level background information accessible without clutter. For example, in an e-learning environment, if a lesson contains terms or ideas that may require the help of low-level students, provide the definitions by scrolling through the word without spelling everything in the lesson.

Third, give internally motivated and high-level students the opportunity to help their peers with the material. These students may have relevant experiences or anecdotes that may be helpful to other students.

Teaching students at different levels and with different motivations may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done successfully if communicated with the mind. If you consider the level and motivation of your students, you can find ways to reconcile them as much as possible throughout the course.