Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic control and motivation

Have you noticed how there are people who seem to “happen to the world” and others who have the “world happen to them”? People who are proactive and engaged, or others who are passive and alienated? 


People who happen to the world are the ones who make their own choices about their lives, learning and everything.  Isn’t that how things should be?  People being active and make decisions about their future, and shaping their own thinking. How about people with the passive approach to life, people who let the world happen to them? What is their learning like?


Psychologists use the term “locus of control” to describe whether people believe that they can control the items and actions of their own lives. Intrinsic control means that I am responsible for my own life. Extrinsic control means that someone else decides for me, and I need those others to come and save me from hard situations.


But, it also means that my achievements are controlled by external factors concentrated to explanations like “It’s about luck”, “This is too hard”, and “I don’t know xyz”- the last one being super funny as there is more information at the reach of our fingertips than ever before. And after teaching for a few years you have pretty much heard them all.


My favourite one is: “S/he made me do it”. Really? Did s/he now? And how, exactly?


Why this long intro, you may ask. Well, much of our academic success depends on what we believe about ourselves and education, and the interactions of the two. Do we believe in fixed (static intelligence and talent) or growth mindset (developing intelligence)? Researchers strongly recommend the latter one:

 “Encouraging a malleable (growth) mindset may help to sustain children's intrinsic motivation, thereby enhancing both academic success and life-long learning”[1].


Learning motivation can be externalized in the very similar way as the locus of control.  One of the things I have learned from my experiences in education is that people, who are active participants in their own learning, also achieve much better results. Intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing something because we like to do it) is a much stronger motivator for learning than extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing something because of a reward, or avoiding punishment by doing it)[2]. Every child born to this world likes learning, which is also a survival skill, and thus a necessity. Somewhere along the way we lose that enjoyment of learning, and start to do things because others ask or mandate us to do them.  


To foster intrinsic motivation and control in our students we need one more thing to fall into the right place: self-efficacy. This is a concept created by professor Bandura[3], and it is very different from just having high self-esteem, or being confident about our skills or knowledge.  Self-efficacy also includes our belief about having an effect in our own learning, which is exactly why providing students with choices is essential for good education.


American Psychology Association also agrees with this: 

”Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning.” [4]


One part of using students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is providing them with open-ended questions, both in classroom but also during assessment.  This, of course, presents the requirement for testing being designed as performance assessments instead of objective (i.e. multiple-choice) exams. Memorizing pieces of information is less motivating than understanding entities. Why does it surprise us then, if students resort to their extrinsic learning motivation when presented less meaningful tasks?


Even scarier it gets when young students are required to focus on tasks that are neither interesting nor meaningful for them, and then they are labeled according to their achievements in those tasks. Often students underperform in these assessments.  This lowers not only their learning motivation, but also their belief of having an effect on their own learning. Why would we want to teach students to become passive and alienated of their own learning and life?


If you stop and think I am sure you can categorize your friends/students/coworkers into those two categories, people who are active in making their choices, and those who let their life happen to them. How could we empower them all to be proactive and engaged?



[1] Haimovitz, K., Wormington, S. V., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Dangerous mindsets: How beliefs about intelligence predict motivational change. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(6), 747-752.

[2] Hidi, S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Motivating the academically unmotivated: A critical issue for the   21st century. Review of educational research, 70(2), 151-179.

 [3] Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.


Intrinsic motivation and student autonomy

This is a simplified picture of student autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Our knowledge and beliefs are references to the life we live, so living and learning cannot be separated from each other, no matter how old - or young - the students are.  The picture below shows the two dimensions of learning dispositions our students have.  


Nobody can be located only in one end of the axis, but moves between the extremes, depending on the task or challenge perceived. The texts in the corners just summarize some qualities and behaviours students display when approaching the end of the axis. 

Thinking of a student in up left corner - combining autonomy and intrinsic motivation- they may not be easy to teach, because they have so strong perceptions and opinions of their own, and want to do things their own way. Up right corner shows characteristics of autonomous but only passing oriented students - they don't want to reflect; they just want to get their tasks done and move on.

Students with little confidence but a high need to learn (low left corner) are the ones who most often will be successful - if they are assured there is help for them available. I am most concerned about dependent students with very extrinsic motivation - a reward very far in the future (graduation) may not  be enough to help them get through school.


Students' learning depends on their internal academic self-concept, i.e. their own beliefs about their competence as learners.  We really need to communicate this, loud and clear, to our students who may have horrible previous experiences of education.

And, of course, as  intrinsically motivated students are much more likely to be successful in their studies than those with extrinsic motivation. Depending on the feedbacks tudents reeive they may move right or left (or up and down) on the axis. How could we help more students become autonomous and intrinsically motivated learners?