I’ve seen a few posts recently commenting on motivating people to learn. The gist of the conversation went something like this – “Extrinsic motivation doesn’t work, intrinsic motivation is the only effective way people are encouraged to learn”. Seeing this set me thinking. Is it really an either/or issue? Polarised viewpoints tend to make me uneasy at the best of times as life is rarely lived in a world of absolutes, and it makes me particularly uncomfortable when it relates to something as personal as motivation..
Before going any further, let’s define what we’re talking about here. Intrinsic motivation is,
“based in people’s inherent tendency to be proactive, to interact with the world in an attempt to have an effect, and to feel a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, when people are at their healthiest, they are curious, eager to take on challenges, partial to novelty, engaged with interesting tasks or stimuli, and ready to learn. All of these are manifestations of intrinsic motivation” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/intrinsic-motivation).
In other words, intrinsic motivation drives an individual to perform an activity for internal reasons that are personally satisfying.
Extrinsic motivation on the other hand can be described as,
“that which drives someone to perform an activity either to receive an external reward or to avoid an external punishment. An example of extrinsic motivation is when someone writes poems to sell them.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5364176/)
So, by that definition, extrinsic motivation could be almost anything – securing a job; earning a salary; improving one’s standard of living; advancing in a career etc.
But if, as the argument goes, extrinsic motivation doesn’t work, why do regulators set down CPD requirements whilst stating that professionals should be expected to be intrinsically motivated? Why do the majority of job postings on networks like LinkedIn ask for a Degree/professional qualification or some other product of formal education? Why do so many young people sign up for, and complete, tertiary education or apprenticeships?
Thinking about your own career/life, has all of your learning throughout your life/career been either completely extrinsically motivated or completely intrinsically motivated? Consider this: how often has your employer valued and actively supported learning you wanted to do simply because you wanted to do it – not because it was directly related to your job role or the needs of the organisation/business?
So, I come back to, is this really an either/or issue? I’d argue that it’s most likely to be context specific and subject to personal experiences and so on. How many of us as children wanted to go to school to learn? Or, wanted to go to university purely for the joy of learning as an end in itself?
I’m willing to hazard a guess that our motivation to engage in school or college/university was not intrinsic (at least not initially) but was motivated by extrinsic factors. I’m also willing to guess that a different times throughout our lives and careers in specific sets of circumstances we all, as learners, flit between being extrinsically motivated and being intrinsically motivated. So, I’d argue that motivation is best viewed as a spectrum with 100% extrinsic motivation at one end and 100% intrinsic motivation at the other and everything in between shading from one to the other.
Probably the most common expression of extrinsic motivation being used as a driver for learning and development the corporate training world is compliance training. in my experience, one of the more damaging consequences of an over emphasis on this is that it almost conditions learners to respond in a minimalistic way – they do only what needs to be done to “tick the box”.
“We ought to look at the damage caused when we create compliance training for legal purposes that unintentionally sends messages that the organisation is just covering its [back]” (Dr Will Thalheimer “The Learning Transfer Evaluation Model: Sending Messages to Enable Learning Effectiveness”, p.25)
However, there are strategies we can adopt to try and break leaners out of that pattern of behaviour. As L&D professionals, we can play a part in helping learners adapt and modify their range of responses and attitudes to learning. Saga Briggs’ post – “Ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students”, suggests a range of strategies to develop intrinsic motivation in learners (several of which we employ in the digital learning resources and services we’ve developed). None of the strategies she suggests offers a quick fix but, if you are prepared to see this as a long term goal and are able to stick to the plan, I believe there is much that can be achieved.
Over the past few years of implementing strategies like those suggested in Briggs’ article, we been able to achieve significant shifts in learners moving from learning what they are told to learn, to what they want to learn. We’ve gathered feedback from employers about witnessing these changes in their staff and from learners seeking out new learning challenges. But, they are still a (sizeable) minority.
During the COVID pandemic we saw a massive surge in use of our learning resources and services. One of the key themes we were able to identify from the learner data, was that there was a substantial portion of the audience who struggled with our reflective learning and assessment approach.
It was clear from their submissions that this could be further divided into those wanting to simply ‘tick the box’ (as they had become accustomed to elsewhere) and those who were unfamiliar with reflective learning and who needed support to make best use of our resources. We recognise that both groups are at different places on the extrinsic-intrinsic spectrum, so the question for us then became, “How can we move them along the spectrum and also support them to get more out of their learning?”. So, we are planning to increase the range of opportunities we provide in the area of learning to learn for our workforce – using strategies similar to those in Briggs’ article.
We recognise that we need to support a shift in attitude to learning. But, we also recognise that there are aspects of that that are beyond our sphere of influence. However, one of the key elements of our strategy which has had an impact in this is our focus on placing the learner in control of their learning: learner accounts on our key systems to give credit for learning and record, track and report on learning are owned by the individual learner – not their employer, college/university or us as the workforce regulator. This factor alone, has been key in achieving the shift mentioned above: from learning what you are required to learn, to learning what you want to learn.
We know we have a very long way to go, and also know that there will be a percentage of the workforce who may never be intrinsically motivated to learn, but at the very least we can aspire to recognise that there will be occasions when their position on the extrinsic-intrinsic motivation spectrum will fluctuate and support them to get more out their learning than simply ‘ticking the box’.