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  • Writer's pictureChad Morris

Why intrinsic motivation in education is not a silver bullet

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

It’s easy to power through educational content like you’re Sonic the Hedgehog when you’re intrinsically motivated. Whether it’s because the content is enjoyable, it’s optimally challenging, or it tickles your curiosity, you’re driven to keep learning because it’s internally fulfilling. And like Sonic spinning through loops, you’ll be cycling through a positive feedback loop of your own:

A feedback loop in which intrinsic motivation creates engagement in learning. That leads to routine practise, creating clear results and a sense of achievement. That produces sustained intrinsic motivation to learn.

As one of the purest forms of engagement in education, intrinsic motivation is clearly important to successful learning outcomes. But is it a silver bullet? Not for the kinds of werewolves many students run into in their studies.

The limitations of intrinsic motivation

Because intrinsic motivation relies on a positive mindset, it can be affected by any number of stressors inside and outside the classroom, such as:

  • Educational anxiety

  • Stalling in a particular area of study

  • Disinterest in a new task or subject matter

  • The pressures of everyday life

Anxiety in particular is a growing concern in the classroom, which does to intrinsic motivation what water does to cotton candy. Among US teens, 70% say anxiety and depression is a major problem among their peers, and 61% rank academic pressure highest on their list of stressors, according to a 2018 Pew survey.

The added emotional strain from these stressors can impact your engagement in learning, causing the loop above to cycle backwards. It becomes harder to stay focused, practise is less frequent and effective, results are obfuscated, and achievement is lessened, demotivating you even further.

And that’s for those who are lucky enough to be intrinsically motivated to learn. The internal gratification you get from learning falls on a spectrum, and for some – even at the high end – it may not be enough to solely rely on to achieve your learning goals. That’s not a moral failing. There are many people who don’t enjoy exercising but still do it because it’s important for good health. It just means a solution is needed to bridge the gap.

Educational gaming has entered the chat

Educational gaming can effectively supplement your learning strategy as an extrinsic motivator by reducing the emotional stressors that threaten intrinsic motivation.

For instance, anxiety can be very disruptive to concentration and ultimately learning, and social pressure related to academics is a common trigger in the classroom. Educational games can help build a student’s confidence by getting them to engage with educational content in a private, low-pressure environment. In time, this foundation can help students feel comfortable expressing themselves around others.

Similarly, no two students learn at the same pace. Eventually your progress will be interrupted when you don’t grasp a concept right away. The best thing you can do at this moment is spend extra time mastering the concept, but this can be very discouraging – nobody wants to feel like they’re struggling. That's in part why students tend to move on despite a tenuous understanding. This is when the game aspect really shines:

  1. You’re having fun playing the game, so you don’t mind spending extra time on a difficult concept.

  2. The game creates other avenues for progression, which maintains a sense of momentum.

  3. It helps you feel comfortable learning at your own pace.

And if you're weighed down by the stress of everyday life, an immersive educational game can be an easy way to practise while winding down. Or if you are someone who is disinterested with a new subject or who struggles to find intrinsic motivation in the first place, the enjoyment from the game can help keep you indirectly engaged in the learning process. Given enough time, you may discover parts of the educational content that motivate you when you would have otherwise withdrawn.

In resolving these emotional stressors through educational gaming, you as a student are less susceptible to a loss of intrinsic motivation, positioning you for long-term motivation and success.

But wait, aren’t extrinsic motivators bad?

Short answer: yes, mostly. Extrinsic motivators are divisive (and for good reason) because of the more notorious forms like:

  • Praise and prestige (e.g. grades, awards, etc.)

  • Cheap gamification (badges, streaks, etc.)

  • Monetary incentives

  • Fear of punishment

These are counterproductive because they make learning transactional. There is no joy in the process, you’re doing work and receiving compensation for it. It’s a job. That framing damages intrinsic motivation in the long run. But despite being an extrinsic motivator, we would argue that educational games like Lingo Legend are not transactional and serve an important role within a broader learning strategy. The level of integration between the game and education content creates an engaging, unified learning experience that can foster the joy of learning at times when the learner needs additional support.

So what does this all mean?

At the end of the day, the more intrinsically motivated you are to learn something, the greater the odds that you'll actually achieve your goals. But for many, keeping that motivation high at all times can be extremely challenging. Supplementary tools like educational gaming that provide extrinsic motivation without being transactional can reduce anxiety, build confidence, and help you make progress even when you don't feel up to it, which in turn can reinforce your intrinsic motivation for the subject.

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