Motivation plays a vital role in every language learner’s life, but not all incentives are created equal. In fact, it is rather important to tell the difference between at least two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. What that difference is and what role it plays in language learning is the topic of today’s blog post.

Extrinsic motivation

While both types of motivation drive a learner’s activity, extrinsic motivation works by promising the student external rewards. This is very often used in a traditional classroom where grades, praise, and rewards are the main motivators to drive students to do better.

Extrinsic motivation comes in handy when the task you want to complete is not in itself rewarding to you. In these cases, you might even set up a system to reward yourself “in return” for completing a particular action. For example, when you “allow” yourself a candy bar after clearing your inbox or working an unfulfilling job for the paycheck are both cases where activity only takes place because of an external reward.

The good thing about this type of motivation is that you can use rewards to get people to complete any type of unpleasant task.

Intrinsic motivation

In the case of intrinsic motivation, the incentive for an activity comes from the activity itself, completely regardless of the reward or punishment. Think about reading a very pleasant book, where the reading is its own reward. This type of motivation guides all activity we find inherently pleasurable.

While we associate intrinsic motivation with nice leisurely activities, there is an increasing movement in education attempting to turn the entire process of learning into an intrinsically motivating activity. This would mean finally having learners who study because they find it interesting and challenging, as opposed to in exchange for better grades.

Naturally, intrinsic motivation is a more positive driving force for any activity, as you do not view the activity itself as an obstacle to overcome, but rather actively choose to spend your time engaged in it.

Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation in education

Sparking intrinsic motivation in students is the holy grail to many great teachers. While it is hard to achieve in a school system that relies very heavily on extrinsic motivation, there are some strategies that any teacher can put to use in their classroom.

Emphasising the process over results, encouraging your students to make mistakes and learn from them, and putting less pressure on them to achieve higher grades are all a part of the long list of activities that you can put to use in your own classroom.


Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation serve a particular purpose. You can use extrinsic motivation to get yourself or your students to push through a negative experience only for the sake of a reward, and there are certainly points in life this type of motivation will come in very handy. As a rule, however, educators are moving away from extrinsic and towards intrinsic motivation, encouraging learners to find the reward in the activity of learning itself. This approach has many positive effects, including increased learner engagement, more creativity, and taking on bigger challenges.

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