While externally motivating factors like grades and points are quantifiable and concrete, intrinsic motivation can be more difficult to get to grips with. So, how do we facilitate intrinsic motivation in relation to online distance learning in a way that does not take away from extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation occurs when someone does something because they enjoy it or find it interesting. Extrinsic motivation is when someone does something for external rewards or to avoid negative consequences.

The table below shows a comparison of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:

Motivation Goals
Intrinsic You do the activity because it’s internally rewarding. You may do it because it’s fun, enjoyable, and satisfying. Goals come from within and the outcomes satisfy your basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and related
Extrinsic You do the activity to get an external reward in return. Goals focus on an outcome and do not satisfy basic psychological needs. Goals involve external gains, such as money, fame, power, or avoiding consequences.

Everyone is different and that includes what motivates us and our perspective of rewards. Importantly, some people are more intrinsically motivated by a task while another person sees the same activity extrinsically.

Both can be effective, but research suggests that extrinsic rewards should be used sparingly because of the over-justification effect. Furthermore, extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation when used in certain situations or used too often. The rewards may lose their value when you reward behaviour that was already intrinsically motivating.

Motivation in distance learning: Finding the right key

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome with distance learning is staying motivated. Intrinsic motivation can be difficult to get to grips with compared to externally motivating factors where grades and points are quantifiable and concrete. Also, methods for motivating intrinsically can often be overlooked. However, intrinsic motivation can be extremely valuable.

Business author Dan Pink, in a 2009 TED Talk on motivation, touched on the assumptions we make about external motivation:


His research focussed on the science of human motivation, specialising in the dynamics of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

“What is alarming here is that our business operating system. Think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources. It is built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks.”

Whilst intrinsic motivation is not inherently bad, it does highlight a clear imbalance with how we might approach intrinsic motivation. Subsequently, how do we facilitate intrinsic motivation, concerning online distance learning?

Use digital technology to spark discussion

Discussion forums provide an excellent platform for students to discover the viewpoints of their peers. In addition, they also provide an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. Moreover, online communication might also remove some of the communication barriers which are present in a campus-based setting. Students may feel more comfortable communicating with their peers in an online format. They may also find it easier to connect with their tutors via email, or online chat such as MS Teams.

Sparking interest and discussion is a good way to get learners intrinsically motivated to learn about their subjects.  Also, consider utilising digital tools to their fullest and remember that you can always contact elearning@tees.ac.uk for further assistance and help.

Offer honest feedback and recognition

Direct and honest feedback is a useful method of addressing any individual problems and go a long way to supporting learning and teaching online. It is important to remember that it is not necessarily just about what we say, but about how we say it. For example, balancing honest feedback with positive recognition will help provide points of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. We still need to provide honest feedback where students are not meeting expectations. However, we can find ways that present feedback in a light that does not de-motivate them. Focus on the potential that you see in the learner rather than their mistakes and help them to reach that potential.

Embrace Gamification

Stats, numbers, or even specialist subject areas that fall into the ‘dry’ category. This is where approaches like gamification can come into play.

Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts by increasing participation, engagement, loyalty and competition. These methods can include points, leader-boards, direct competitions and stickers or badges which can touch the motivational points of many different types of learner. This is the “learn and earn” concept, which employs a variety of motivational tools, including:

  •  Challenges. These map to the learning objectives or learning goals.
  •  Levels. These map to the learning journey and as the learner transitions through each level, it signifies a step up in proficiency.
  •  Instant feedback. This helps learners know how they are faring against their learning goals. Based on this, they can adopt the necessary measures to step up their performance.
  •  Scores. These show performance and are closely aligned to offering gratification, including as a sense of accomplishment.
  •  Badges. Transition through the learning path and clearing certain levels are rewarded with badges. These reflect affirmations for their significant achievements.
  •  Leader-boards.  These are used to provide a pictorial view of overall progress, including against others. Analytics keep learners connected to the learning journey and aligned to meeting their terminal objectives.
  •  Competition. This can be leveraged effectively as it helps assess where learners stand against their peers or competing teams.
  •  Collaboration. This feature not only facilitates team-building but also enables learners to leverage the support of peers or guidance from experts to meet their goals.

It is important to note that while gamification is more extrinsically motivating in nature, it can help to motivate in learning things like stats and dry figures which are hard to make somebody care about intrinsically. Balancing external and internal motivators can help achieve the ultimate goal of acquisition and retention.


Facilitating intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is highly important for learners to acquire and retain knowledge. Intrinsic motivation will ensure that learners are stimulated and want to learn the material. If we can find ways to facilitate intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in harmony, we will see students get much more out of your curriculum and modules.

How to facilitate intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for distance learning – Did you know?

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