Can digital tools in the classroom increase intrinsic motivation in students, or do they simply serve as an extrinsic motivator to learn about the “boring subjects?” Does the gamification movement and the overabundance of new learning tools actually pose a threat to students’ natural interest in learning?

Kendra Cherry does a great job laying out the debate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — that is, being motivated by internal or external factors — in her article, “Differences Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation.”

Cherry explains: “Some experts argue that the traditional emphasis on external rewards such as grades, report cards, and gold stars undermines any existing intrinsic motivation that students might have. Others suggest that these extrinsic motivators help students feel more competent in the classroom, thus enhancing intrinsic motivation.”

We’re sure all teachers agree the utopian version of their job would see every student being intrinsically interested in every subject. A teacher’s job would be a breeze as engaged students chomp at the bit to learn every day. This, unfortunately, is not the world we live in. Extrinsic motivation is necessary, for better or worse. But that’s the question: for better, or for worse? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using rewards – digital learning tools specifically – to motivate extrinsically.

Dangers of Extrinsic Motivation

One of the main concerns of using digital products to motivate students is that the educator may inadvertently be turning play into work. This is known as the Overjustification Effect. As more and more digital products find their way into classrooms, they are bound to overlap with subject areas where many students are already intrinsically motivated. When these reward-based games start extrinsically motivating students in classes they were already naturally interested in, reward or not, they can actually do the opposite of their intended purpose – make the fun seem boring and tedious.

A famous 1973 study by psychologists Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett demonstrated this. Lepper and Nisbett gathered together a group of Kindergarten students who all enjoyed drawing — that is, they were all intrinsically motivated to draw. The psychologists then split the children into groups, telling some of them they would be given a prize for their drawings. Surprisingly, after the children received their rewards, they showed significantly less interest in drawing than before. Comparatively, the children who were told nothing and given no promises of reward continued drawing at the same frequency, seemingly happy to pursue it for its own sake.

Drawing became over justified to these students; this is the risk of extrinsic motivation. But there are important benefits to consider as well.

Benefits of Extrinsic Motivation


External rewards can cause a student to try something they never considered before and actually help them discover an intrinsic interest. An algebra mobile app, for example, can use gamification concepts to make the subject approachable. Once the student overcomes their initial apprehension and avoidance, they may discover a real passion and interest in algebra.

The phrase “game reward systems” describes the structure of rewards and incentives in a game that inspires intrinsic motivation in the player while also offering extrinsic rewards. Game reward systems can be modeled in non-game environments, like classrooms, to provide positive motivation for students to change their behavior.

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Extrinsic Motivation

So while intrinsic motivation is clearly ideal, extrinsic motivators are sometimes necessary in the classroom. And there are actually things educators can do to avoid the pitfalls of extrinsic motivation like the Overjustification Effect:

  1. Be unpredictable. Surprising a student with a reward after the fact typically does not decrease intrinsic motivation the way telling them to expect a reward would. So perhaps the next time your student does well on a test, offer a small reward just to show you appreciate their job well done.(This concept, by the way, goes all the way back to one of the first studies in reward schedules by B. F. Skinner in the 1930s. Skinner found the most effective reward schedule is a variable ratio reward. The pigeons he was studying were most likely to press a lever when there was a 50 percent chance of receiving a reward — even more than when they received a reward every time. Sorry to say, but it turns out we’re not that much different from pigeons in this respect).
  1. Positive praise, please. Every student wants to feel like they did something well. When they do, recognize them. “Researchers have found that offering positive praise and feedback when people do something better in comparison to others can improve intrinsic motivation,” Cherry says.
  2. Do not reward small, expected successes. When a student does minimal work or when they do something that is already expected of them, that might not be the best time to offer a reward or give praise. Giving a reward or praise when a student shows up on time or is respectful in class (things they should be doing anyway) could lead them to become less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.

Tips for Digital Math Products


One area of learning that’s particularly susceptible to over-extrinsic motivation is digital math products. Following the three tips above is certainly a great start, but even more can be done in the digital playground to foster intrinsic motivation in students.

Learning Theories explains how by expanding Skinner’s reward schedules. “Different reward schedules tend to produce different kinds of activity,” they explain. “Within the context of videogames, four different types of reward schedules can be described:

  1. Fixed ratio schedule: the player receives a reward after a fixed number of actions
  2. Variable ratio schedule: the player receives a reward after a random number of actions
  3. Fixed interval schedule: the player receives a reward after a fixed interval of time
  4. Variable interval schedule: the player receives a reward after a variable interval of time”

Skinner and multiple researchers since have demonstrated the power of fostering intrinsic motivation by using just one reward schedule. By using a mix of all four, digital math products and other learning tools can maximize the potential for turning extrinsic motivators into long-lasting intrinsic drivers.

So are we intrinsically extrinsic? That is, are we naturally programmed to require external motivators to get things done? Probably. After all, even the most curious, well-read people in the world still find some tasks soul-crushingly boring.

But here’s something that isn’t up for debate: extrinsic rewards such as scholarships, admissions, and jobs that follow good grades are here to stay. We’ll never live in a world where people need no motivators to do a good job and succeed. And that’s okay. Extrinsic rewards, used appropriately, are perfectly fine tools to increase motivation and productivity. And who knows, they may even introduce a student to an intrinsic desire they didn’t realize they had.

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Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Zorbit’s Math Adventure is a game-based learning program for K-3 math, created by a team of experienced teachers, educators, & game designers. The curriculum-based math activities engage young learners in rich, immersive environments that are cognitively & developmentally appropriate for their age. Aligned to all curricula within North America, Zorbit also delivers teachers a suite of tools & resources to help close learning gaps & differentiate instruction.


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