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Dear IC

Dear IC…Student Motivation

Now Accepting Your Question:

Calvin J. Stocker, Teaching Excellence Instructional Coach

Dear IC,

I have this really awesome incentive system in my classroom that has worked beautifully… until most recently. It appears that my students are losing interest in it and don’t really “care” about the incentives as much as they used to. What should I do?


Moda Vashun


Hi Moda,

When one begins any discussion on incentives in the classroom, one must first begin by considering motivations. We’ll begin with a question: “What motivates you?” Take a moment and create a list, and you will notice that your motivations vary. You may have stated that your family, significant other, or some individual who had a profound impact on you motivates your work. Or, you have a deep love for learning/improvement that is based on values instilled within you from a very young age. These motivations are intrinsic, in which your actions result in self-fulfillment or knowing you’re “doing the right thing” (think Gandhi). Maybe your motivation is money (you’re in the wrong profession), receiving awards, gaining praise, being recognized, or a potential promotion. These motivations of your actions are extrinsic, meaning your actions result in external rewards like awards, money, and praise. Your ultimate goal as an educator is likely to instill a yearning for life-long learning within your students, which will lead them on a path to success and better our society as a whole. To learn more about the specific factors that promote intrinsic motivation, check out the following webpage by Vockell at Purdue University.

Have you ever noticed that some students love to read their books, while for other students it appears to be a “chore?” Those students who crave reading new books are likely intrinsically motivated by the plots, the sensations their brains feel from plot climax, and the fulfillment they gain from finishing a book or learning a new concept. These students do not need a free pizza to motivate them to read. I’ll be honest, I loved heading to Pizza Hut with my family and proudly displaying my book tracker to the waitress, with which I had absolutely no connection to. In that particular moment I felt as though I was the King of Reading and no one, I mean no one (at least in that restaurant), was as intelligent and well-read as I was.

While intrinsic motivation is ideal, extrinsic motivation techniques/strategies are still very much a necessity in the classroom. In an ideal world, our students would be intrinsically motivated to learn all of the time in order to better humanity. As well, in an ideal world, teachers would always be intrinsically motivated to lesson plan. J It’s obvious what makes extrinsic motivations so powerful: They are typically earned within a relatively short timeframe from the action (e.g. tickets, points, money, trophies, etc.), they are tangible, can be physically enjoyed, and others can observe us enjoying them (we can show them off). There are a couple problems with extrinsic motivational devices… They typically have short-term affects (relatively) and do not have the same “resonating value” as intrinsic motivators. With that being, extrinsic motivators are a necessity and you should continue to use your current incentive systems.

My recommendation would be to continue your extrinsic motivation incentive system in your classroom, but also become versed in intrinsic motivators and how to spiral them into your daily lessons.

Specific Strategies to Motivate Your Students Intrinsically:

Personal Interest Inventory


Have your students take a personal interest survey in which they convey what interests them, motivates them, and excites them. This could be what motivates them to do well in school or what motivates them to complete their homework as quickly as possible.

Goal Setting

Set mini-goals or continuously reference the classroom goals within your lessons. We often set goals at the beginning of the year, put them on a poster, and then forget to reference them. Students want to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Create Connections/Real-World Application

Creating connections to students’ lives helps challenge their idea of what is true, builds curiosity, and gives students the ability to influence their world/reality. These connections can come in the form of questions, scenarios, or application explanations in which you inform students of how they can use this in their everyday lives.

Create Suspense by Moderating Information

Encourage students to explore more about a topic by purposely leaving them without all of the information, or building suspense by slowly releasing the information needed to fully understand a concept. Do not underestimate the power of suspense, as it can build intrinsic motivation so intense that students cannot physically control their emotions.

Allow for Choice

Allow students choice in the work that they do or the process they take. This also helps students build their conceptual knowledge of something, as they begin to understand that there are multiple approaches to many problems/outcomes. Something as simple as allowing students to choose their own assignments or focus on an example of their choosing can increase motivation in the task at hand.

Best regards,

How do you intrinsically motivate the students in your classroom? Feel free to be as specific or broad as you would like.


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