The Science of Learning: Internalization of Motivation

From my previous articles, it is obvious that intrinsic motivation is what we want to foster in our learners. We can reinforce intrinsic motivation in learners, but it takes effort to do it right. With reinforcement for learners, we can maintain intrinsic motivation in learners, in spite of the opposition from the system (system – I hate that word because it means no one is responsible, and everyone is helpless to change anything). There are two types of internalization of motivation that have been identified, introjection and integration. Introjection involves the internalization of a value or regulatory process, but not accepting it as your own. With integration, the values or processes are internalized and assimilated into our core sense of self.

Introjection is an internally regulated behavior, but the reasons for the internal regulation might be more extrinsic than intrinsic. An example might be someone doing homework “because they think they will feel guilty if they don’t”, or “I will work hard in university so I can get a better job”. Both are considered internal as far as the regulation of behavior goes, but the internalization rests on an extrinsic motivator. Introjection has been linked with a more maladaptive approach to coping with failure, as well as heightened school anxieties. Parents and teachers have rated children with introjected motivations as trying hard to succeed, however, there is a better way.

Integration involves truly internalizing the motivations to do well as a core part of a person’s being. Working hard is the precursor to doing well – the end. There isn’t any other reason added, simply succeeding at the task is motivation enough. Reinforcing that approach to learning has been demonstrated as a way for a learner’s motivation to be integrated as a part of themselves. Working at, and accomplishing something for the simple reason of succeeding is a much more healthy approach to learning than using extrinsic motivations. Learners who integrate their motivations enjoy school more and cope better with setbacks.

What can we do to support healthy intrinsic motivations – especially when introducing new tasks? A good rationale for learning, presented in a manner that the learner can understand, and that has relevance to the life they are living now, is crucial. Extolling the benefits of the future to a seventeen-year-old is a hard sell, and makes integration difficult. Another factor that has been shown to make a difference is to acknowledge a person’s feelings about the learning. It might be boring, meaningless, and hard, and sympathetically acknowledging that, while encouraging perseverance, can help a learner internalize their motivation to learn it. Finally, and this is difficult given class sizes in today’s world, providing choice in the way something is learned can make all the difference in the world.

When it comes to choice, Stephen Heppell related an experience he had that is worth sharing here. He founded the Not School in the UK. The Not School was an educational program for children (mainly teenagers) who have been permanently excluded from the educational system. I’m telling this from memory, so some of the details might not be right. He told us about a young man who was not interested in learning anything. However, he had an obsession with medieval warfare and weapons. Building on that interest, the tutor worked with the young man to formulate a curriculum that involved medieval weapons.

Stephen told us about one of the units that involved spears. How much can you learn about spears? Well, with a bit of creativity, you can go a long way with a spear. For example, when you throw a spear, what are the muscles involved? How do those muscles work? What kind of force can you generate with those particular muscles? What are the physical limitations to throwing? In another area of learning, what are the physics involved in a throw? Gravity, wind, terrain? How can you calculate the distance of the throw, given the weight of the spear, the aerodynamics, the musculature of the thrower? What is the force of the impact? The questions can go on and on. As I remember it, the young man aced the standardized tests in calculus, physics and advanced anatomy and physiology (if there is even such a thing) because he was learning all of those subjects in relation to what he wanted to know. The power of tapping into intrinsic motivation. Too bad the formal system we currently work in is about suppressing intrinsic motivation.

We are built to learn. We seek out learning opportunities as we develop. In normal circumstances, we learn a language, develop significant motor skills, and develop an understanding of how we fit in a complex social environment in very few years. And then we (usually excitedly) enter formal education, and our desire to learn is reduced, and often extinguished, through the application of extrinsic rewards. The formal education system moves us from hungering after learning to working for grades or a qualification. We are left hollow in our pursuit of learning.


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