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Ask a REL Response

Promoting students' intrinsic motivation — August 2019


Could you provide research on promoting students' intrinsic motivation?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on practices to promote students’ intrinsic motivation. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Evans, M., & Boucher, A. R. (2015, June). Optimizing the power of choice: Supporting student autonomy to foster motivation and engagement in learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(2), 87–91. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Choice plays a critical role in promoting students’ intrinsic motivation and deep engagement in learning. Across a range of academic outcomes and student populations, positive impacts have been seen when student autonomy is promoted through meaningful and personally relevant choice. This article presents a theoretical perspective on the motivational role of choice in learning, based on self-determination theory. Theoretical principles and current research on student motivation and engagement are described. Conditions under which choice promotes students’ intrinsic motivation are then presented.”

Field, K. (2017, June). Debating our way toward stronger thinking. Gifted Child Today, 40(3), 144–153. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Teachers often find it challenging to incorporate higher order thinking skills in ways that both inspire student interest and allow for meaningful differentiation. Structured debate is an activity that can facilitate all of these goals. This article explains, in detail, how debates can be structured to promote a variety of critical thinking skills and intrinsic motivation to learn. Concrete suggestions are provided for how to design a high-quality debate and how to avoid pitfalls that allow students to evade higher level thinking.”

Froiland, J. M., Oros, E., Smith, L., & Hirchert, T. (2012). Intrinsic motivation to learn: The nexus between psychological health and academic success. Contemporary School Psychology, 16, 91–100. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Intrinsic motivation (IM) to learn, if cultivated, can lead to many academic and social/emotional improvements among K–12 students. This article discusses intrinsic motivation to learn as it relates to Self Determination Theory and the trouble with relying solely on extrinsic motivators. The academic benefits of IM in the specific subject areas of reading and mathematics are reviewed, as well as various psychological benefits (e.g., enhanced persistence, prosocial behavior and happiness). Science-based methods of fostering IM in students are considered, especially enhancing children’s environments through elevating teacher and parental autonomy support. Suggestions for integrating intrinsic motivation with behavioral interventions are also provided.”

Hagay, G., & Baram-Tsabari, A. (2015, September). A strategy for incorporating students’ interests into the high school science classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 949–978. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Many students feel the curriculum is detached from their lives and interests. Indeed, about half the questions asked by high school biology students are not addressed by the curriculum. This study presents a strategy to incorporate students’ curiosity questions into the curriculum as a way to reduce the disparity between students’ interests and curricular requirements. We examined how five high school teachers incorporate their students’ questions into their teaching and students’ perspectives on and experience of learning this way. In all classes, students were invited to anonymously write down their questions on the next topics to be learned and hand them in to the teacher, who mapped the questions into the required curriculum and planned teaching to address these questions. Teachers were given a freehand concerning how the questions were to be answered. This resulted in five different pedagogies ranging from teacher-centered to students-centered and different levels to which students’ voices affected the lesson content. There was no commonality between the level of adaptation of teaching content to include students’ voice and the choice of student-centered pedagogies. The three basic needs identified by the Self-Determination Theory were addressed, hence potentially increasing students’ intrinsic motivation. It enabled almost all the students to ask questions and influence lesson content; in some cases, an unintended outcome of improving teacher-student and peer to peer relations was observed. We suggest a practical, accessible, and flexible way to integrate students’ existing interests in science with disciplinary science learning, governed by the respect for their autonomy and needs. If the curriculum does not provide for personal queries, teachers can make this possible by incorporating students’ questions into the curriculum and negotiating a shared shadow curriculum.”

Midwest Comprehensive Center at American Institutes for Research. (2018). Student goal setting: An evidence-based practice. Washington, DC: Author. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The act of goal setting is a desired competency area for students associated with the ‘learning-to-learn’ skills students need to engage in deeper learning (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2013). The act of goal setting, therefore, is a practice that educators can use to help fuel students’ learning-to-learn skills, such as a sense of agency, intrinsic motivation, and capacity to manage their own learning. As an educational practice, teachers interested in promoting learning-to-learn skills ask students to engage in goal setting within group advisories, during one-to-one advising sessions, and as an integral component of the students’ personalized learning plans. This resource focuses on one practice area—student goal setting. This resource includes a brief summary of the research, highlights promising goal-setting practices, and provides the results of a research evidence review that indicates that there is promising (Tier III) evidence for the practice of student goal setting.”

Rowell, L., & Hong, E. (2013). Academic motivation: Concepts, strategies, and counseling approaches. Professional School Counseling, 16(3), 158–171. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Motivation is an important foundation of academic development in students. This article discusses academic motivation; its various component concepts in areas such as beliefs, goals, and values; and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It also presents major, widely studied theoretical perspectives of academic motivation and briefly illustrates strategies for increasing academic motivation. The article addresses the importance of the school counselor’s role in student academic development and describes preventive (classroom guidance) and remedial (small-group counseling intervention and individual counseling intervention) approaches that school counselors can utilize for promoting academic motivation.”

Sanacore, J. (2008). Turning reluctant learners into inspired learners. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 82(1),40–44. Abstract available at and full text available for a fee at

From the abstract: “Motivation is a key factor in promoting academic success, and intrinsic motivation is especially important for developing autonomous learners. Reluctant learners, in particular, benefit from intrinsic motivation that makes learning relevant to their lives. In this article, the author describes commonalities of reluctant learners and presents definitions and frameworks for understanding motivation. The author also suggests a variety of strategies and activities for turning reluctant learners into inspired learners.”

Wehmeyer, M. L., Shogren, K. A., Toste, J. R., & Mahal, S. (2017). Self-determined learning to motivate struggling learners in reading and writing. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(5), 295–303. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Promoting self-determined learning through student-directed learning strategies has been documented to promote more positive school-related outcomes for upper elementary grade learners with disabilities and other students who are struggling. These strategies are typically introduced in multicomponent interventions combining several student-directed learning strategies such as self-monitoring, self-evaluation, antecedent cue regulation, and self-instruction. Such interventions have established efficacy in promoting a wide array of academic outcomes. Students’ motivation is consistently related to academic achievement, but it has been found to change over time, with intrinsic motivation’s having marked decreases into the later elementary years and into middle school. This article reviews the literature on the impact of promoting self-determination and self-determined learning strategies that can be used to promote more positive reading and writing outcomes to enable students to become autonomous learners.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“Best practices” OR “strategies”) AND “intrinsic motivation”]; [(“promoting” OR “encouraging”) AND “intrinsic motivation”]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.