The Importance of Intrinsic Student Motivation and What to Consider When Selecting Educational Technologies


Elizabeth R. Kazakoff, PhD, Senior Researcher, Publications Manager, Lexia Learning

Student motivation in the classroom is of critical concern for many educators because students who are motivated by, and deeply engaged in, their own learning adapt better to a classroom environment and perform considerably higher academically than unmotivated and unengaged peers (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004).

Over the last thirty-five years, learning environments that foster motivation compared to environments that undermine motivation have been widely examined in the fields of education and psychology. While the field of motivation in classroom settings is rich with research, the application and understanding of motivational research in the realm of educational technologies is less prominent. As classrooms continue to rely more heavily on instructional models that blend a standard curriculum with digital platforms, a critical and thoughtful examination of the application of educational technologies in the classroom, and the ways in which digital tools may enhance or undermine student motivation, are important to understand.

The purpose of this white paper is to highlight well-researched methods of supporting students’ intrinsic motivation in educational settings, and apply that research to selecting and using educational technologies.


Motivation Frameworks

Researchers have identified reliable patterns of beliefs and behaviors that guide student engagement and can help shape instructional practices in the classroom (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Kaplan & Maehr, 2007; Ryan & Deci, 2000). These frameworks of motivation are helpful in understanding student engagement in educational settings, and include self-determination theory, attribution theory, and goal orientation theory. Understanding theories of motivation helps shift focus from primarily examining the content of curriculum in the classroom to considering how concepts are taught in ways that are relevant and engaging.

Across frameworks of motivation, researchers generally agree that learning is most productive when students are self-regulated and challenge-seeking (Bruner, 1962; Clifford, 1990; Reeve, 2009). A meta-analysis of over 100 studies on using incentives as motivation found intrinsic motivation is associated with greater levels of effort, satisfaction, and learning while incentive rewards (extrinsic motivators) dampen an individual’s intrinsic motivation, particularly for otherwise interesting tasks (Deci et al., 1999).

When synthesizing research on motivation, three principal characteristics emerge as fundamental to intrinsic motivation and positive achievement outcomes. These characteristics include students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning (Ames, 1992; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Kaplan, Middleton, Urdan, & Migdley, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000).


Autonomy is the need for internal sense of control and agency; the ability to self-direct behavior and independently pursue goals, interests, and desires. Research has shown that the structure of tasks, the nature of teacher feedback, and the extent to which learning opportunities foster autonomy compared to limiting independence, can impact engagement in tasks and development of academic skills.


Competence relates to students’ needs to feel effective, capable, and successful at tackling learning challenges. The feedback students receive about the purpose of an activity, and the role of failure on the path to success, can have a significant impact on their own personal theories about how intelligence works and the rationale for their successes.


Relatedness/meaning pertains to the notion that learning experiences need to be placed into the contexts of a student’s community, personal goals, interests, or connect to a larger body of knowledge, in order to be salient. Engagement among students is increased when meaningful connections are made between schoolwork, the student’s world outside of school, and the student’s personal and academic goals (Assor et al., 2002).

Contrary to these three tenets of motivation, educators and parents often use external motivators, such as rewards and punishments, to coerce desired behaviors (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). Although these solutions may be effective in the short-term, they often undermine students’ long-term intrinsic motivation for learning (Deci, 1971; Kohn, 1993). Extrinsic incentives (e.g., badges) often populate educational technologies, but there are better approaches to engaging students that can maximize students’ intrinsic motivation, support their persistence with challenging tasks, and encourage the development of a healthy mindset about learning.


Selecting an Educational Technology Program

Choosing the appropriate educational technology program for students can have a tremendous impact on supporting intrinsic motivation. Given that intrinsic motivation supports lifelong learning, here are nine questions— based on the three concepts of autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning—to ask when evaluating digital programs that claim to support motivation.

1. Does the program have intuitive controls?
A student should be able to work independently and navigate the program on his/her own without requiring adult assistance. If a student needs to consult with a teacher or peer on program navigation, that likely undermines both the student’s sense of autonomy and the benefit of integrating a digital tool into the classroom for individual work. (Autonomy)

2. Does the program provide the students with choices for his/her learning path?
Students are more motivated to continue in a program when they feel like they are in control of their own pace and progress. A program that offers a choice of activities more actively engages a student in his or her own learning than a program that forces all students down a prescribed pedagogical path. (Autonomy)

3. Does the program provide adaptive scaffolded support to allow each student to work to his/her own ability level?
Without proper scaffolding at the student’s ability level, the student may be forced through the program too quickly, leading to frustration, or too slowly, leading to boredom. (Autonomy and Competence)

4. Is the program personalized?
Beyond simply saying “Hi, Student,” the program should provide enough feedback to support the student in monitoring his/her own goals and progress. Each student should have a way to monitor what has been completed and what still needs to be achieved, based on their own personal progress. An example of this is a personalized student dashboard. (Autonomy and Competence)

5. Is there a cohesive narrative or backstory to ground the student in the “world” of the program?
It should be clear to the student where he/she has been and where he/she is going within the program. The activities in the program should follow a predictable structure or pattern to minimize confusion or a sense of being lost or disoriented. (Relatedness/Meaning)

6. Is there a way to share and celebrate success with peers and parents?
Acknowledging student achievement with teachers and peers helps connect students to others with shared experiences and build a community of support around the use of a program. (Relatedness/Meaning)

7. Is it clear to the student that their work online relates to their world offline?
One of the strongest characteristics that dictates the degree to which students are motivated is their perceived value of a goal to their own lives. For example, understanding that the completion of program activities are components of a larger learning goal is far more motivating than completing an isolated activity for the sake of busy work or because “the teacher said so.” (Relatedness/Meaning)

8. Are the characters/storylines/features interesting enough to engage students in the the program?
The background features of the program should be memorable and draw the student in without being so distracting that they take away from the learning objective and cause students to click on items or images unrelated to the task. On the opposing side, if features are far too bland, students may find other areas of the computer/tablet to interact with instead of the educational program. (Relatedness/Meaning)

9. Does the program provide actionable data to the student/teacher or parent/child?
Data from program use should be able to support meaningful discussions of progress, judge effectiveness of the program, and account for time spent using the program. (All)


While there are many motivational frameworks, this paper highlighted three principal characteristics fundamental to intrinsic motivation and positive achievement outcomes: autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning. When selecting an educational technology program, not only must educators ensure it is pedagogically sound, they must also confirm it adheres to these three tenets of motivation to ensure students will want to use it.

The proliferation of new educational technology products to support learning provides a number of options for students, teachers, and parents. While the program you choose does not need to possess every feature in order to be deemed motivational, educational technology should be rich in elements that support intrinsic motivation, rather than “chocolate covered broccoli” which simply sweetens the learning with a sugar coating of badges and stickers. Keeping the nine questions listed previously in mind, and remembering the tenets of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, can help parents and educators navigate the digital landscape to find educational technology tools that are engaging and effective in generating authentic learning, not just providing edutainment.


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  • Kaplan, A., Middleton, M., Urdan, T. & Midgley, C. (2002). Achievement goals and goal structures. In C. Midgley (Ed.). Goals, Goal Structures, and Patterns of Adaptive Learning (pp. 21 -50). New York: Psychology Press.

  • Kohn, A. (1993). Why incentive plans cannot work. Harvard Business Review, 71(5).

  • Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.

  • Reeve, J. (2009). Why teachers adopt a controlling motivating style toward students and how they can become more autonomy supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159-175.

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  • Turner, J. C., Warzon, K. B., & Christensen, A. (2011). Motivating mathematics learning changes in teachers’ practices and beliefs during a nine-month collaboration. American Educational Research Journal, 48(3), 718-762.


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