Empowering Students to be Intrinsically Motivated



Concrete strategies to promote intrinsic motivation and student agency

Three psychological needs which teachers must address in order to foster student motivation and agency as they do the rigorous work expected of them in the classroom are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Self-Determination Theory, widely considered to be a leading theory of human motivation, provides important insights into the ways teachers can foster intrinsic motivation and drive within their students. The role of teachers as facilitators of student-led learning becomes one of empowerment, curation, and community building by which teachers put into place technology, resources, and supports that promote independence and interdependence. 

The following nine strategies for teaching and learning—three for each psychological need—are foundational ingredients of the “…natural processes of self-motivation and healthy psychological development,” necessary for intrinsic motivation and well-being among students. (Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L., 2000).


Student Autonomy 

1.     Goal setting and reflection – From the onset of a particular unit of instruction, teachers can empower students to own their learning by working with them to set personalized goals. Ask students to connect their learning in class to personal motivations, interests, or future aspirations. Then work with them to develop a set of S.M.A.R.T. goals by which to measure their own achievement. Identify points throughout the unit for students to stop and connect back to their original goals through guided reflections and self-assessment. At the end of a unit, integrate student self-evaluation as a meaningful part of the assessment process. 

2.     Choice – A best practice in differentiated instruction is the availability of multiple means of learning and expression. Provide students with options in the activities they complete through the use of learning centers or stations throughout the classroom. Additionally, permit students to demonstrate their learning through a menu-style list of activity options to measure student proficiency. If you are required to use a more traditional assessment as per school or district policies, consider adding this open-ended assessment as a complementary component of the assessment process. 

3.     Projects and task-based learning – One way to combine both of the aforementioned strategies into one pedagogical approach is to offer students the chance to learn as autonomous agents within the context of a long-term project or task. Approach learning from the perspective of inquiry, exploration, and investigation by asking students to use creative problem solving to respond to relevant issues they face in their communities or the world at large by leveraging the skills and content they learn in class.   

Student Competence

1.     Formative assessment – Formative assessment is a critically important tool in the student-centered classroom. The use of ongoing small assessments to determine students’ progress and performance during the process of learning aids teachers in responding to student needs and deficiencies as they arise. Rather than prescriptively design instruction based on pre-make curriculum or textbooks, teachers can ascertain student growth areas in order to tailor instruction to promote fast growth toward achievement goals. Be cautious to create a classroom culture of growth in order to remind students that their performance on such formative assessments is not a means of penalizing them for errors, but rather a means of determining how best to meet their needs and help them achieve their goals.  

2.     Curation of resources – In the digital age of learning, teachers are neither the disseminators of knowledge nor the sole means of modeling skills and behaviors students must develop in class. Rather, teachers are called to help students engage with relevant and beneficial resources which match their needs, backgrounds, interests. Blended-learning environments provide students with a plethora of resources ranging from audiovisual texts from Khan Academy, BrainPop, or EdPuzzle to written resources from Scholastic, NewsELA, or Reading A-Z. Teachers who use formative assessment to determine student needs—in addition to building relationships of trust with students in order to determine their interests—connect learners with the resources that most benefit them in achieving the standards of a course. Gone are the days of a one-text-fits-all classroom. 

3.     Small-group targeted instruction – One way to combine both of the aforementioned strategies is to facilitate personalized learning and support through small-group homogeneous learning opportunities. Armed with formative-assessment data and appropriate resources, teachers responsively design differentiated learning activities that drill down to the core needs students bring to the classroom in order to meet students where they are. Sample activities that teachers might facilitate in small groups include guided reading (famously modeled by Jan Richardson), NearPod interactive mini lessons, and student-led Socratic Discussions.  

Student Relatedness 

1.     Student-made norms – Classrooms in which intrinsic motivation drives student work are safe and inclusive communities in which all stakeholders take part in the development of classroom norms and expectations. From the start of the school year, work with students to develop a set of student-led norms and expectations of behavior and interaction which will serve to guide classroom management. Place students into small groups where they can come up with a set of three to five of the most important classroom norms and expectations; then, have each group share out their norms with the rest of the class. Hold a classroom vote on the final set of norms, being careful to limit the selection to three to five statements which are positively framed (i.e. what students are expected to do, and not what they expected not to do) and universally applicable to most classroom circumstances. 

2.     Student-led routines – Learners thrive in spaces where they play an active role in the creation and maintenance of systems of structure. As powerful and capable human beings, students can be trusted to take leading roles in the execution of classroom routines. K-12 classrooms in which students actively participate in the running and organization of the learning environment create bonds between students and for the classroom community as a unit. Research indicates that students are driven to contribute meaningfully to the communities to which they belong. 

3.     Cooperative tasks – One way to combine both of the aforementioned strategies is to offer learning opportunities in which students each play a unique role in a group project or task. The Jigsaw Technique is a quintessential example of cooperative learning in action: The teacher divides a day’s lesson into multiple individual segments and creates heterogeneous student groups. One student from each group leaves to join a separate group of students who become “experts” in one segment of the lesson. After a period of learning and collaboration in expert groups, students return to their original heterogeneous groups where they teach the rest of their team the skills or concepts they gleaned within expert groups. In this way, students each play a crucial role in the learning process through their responsibility for a specific element of learning.


Teachers who leverage goal setting and reflection, choice in learning, and projects support student autonomy by creating learning environments wherein students are emboldened to lead and direct their learning. Teachers who engage in formative assessment, resource curation, and small-group targeted instruction support student competence by empowering them with the knowledge, tools, and skills they need to achieve their own goals and creatively solve problems. Teachers who trust students to participate in the creation of norms and expectations, lead classroom routines, and cooperatively contribute to the learning of their peers support student relatedness by building a community of engaged participants in the learning process.

The effort teachers put into supporting these three psychological needs will lead to a classroom culture of achievement and deep engagement where students are invested in learning on their own terms and motivated to attain the success they deserve.

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.
Professional Development Officer, Moreland University

Additional Reading