The War Against Extrinsic Motivation
In 1999, Alfie Kohn, an education writer described by Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades,” published an article in High School Magazine titled “From Degrading to De-Grading.” It listed many arguments against grades, but its first is the most repeated: “Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.” As Kohn explained: “One of the most well-researched findings in the field of motivational psychology is that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest.”
Kohn is referring to the voluminous research on the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The former describes motivation that comes from rewards or punishments outside the task, like studying to achieve a good grade. The latter describes motivation for the task itself, like practicing the guitar simply because you enjoy practicing the guitar. The popular understanding of these motivations, as demonstrated by Kohn’s conclusions about grades and learning, is that when you do something for an extrinsic reward, you lose your interest for the subject.
And this presents a problem for students…
It would be great, of course, if students could find intrinsic motivation for all academic work, but this is a pipe dream. As you move through high school and into college, work becomes demanding. Few can summon an intrinsic interest in reviewing 200 pages of AP history notes or memorizing organic chemistry equations: these are hard tasks, which require the unpleasant mental strain of hard focus. In other words, a large percentage of student work will remain extrinsically motivated — we do it to for the grade and the interesting options a good GPA attracts, or to build the expertise needed for a remarkable life.
If the fears of Kohn are true, then this spells disaster for our Romantic Scholar project. How can we make school the foundation of an interesting life if the work required is destined to become something we lose interest in?
Fortunately, this popular understanding of motivation is woefully dated. The past thirty years of social psychology research has identified many different types of extrinsic motivation, and it clearly shows that doing something for an external reward does not necessarily doom you to losing interest.
In this post, I want to draw from this research to hack the psychology of student motivation: providing you with concrete strategies for embracing even the most demanding academic challenges.