Information Age Education
   Issue Number 177
January, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Joy in Learning:
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”
Variation of a proverb, "curiosity killed the cat".

A human infant has innate (built in) survival mechanisms. Driven by its survival instincts and curiosity, a human infant makes use of its external and internal senses, its cognitive capabilities, and its physical abilities to survive and to learn. These survival instincts and curiosity are a type of intrinsic motivation.

Human babies have a long childhood in which they need to be cared for and nurtured in order to survive and to grow toward a functional and productive adulthood. Caregivers provide feedback, rewards, and punishments to help guild a child’s learning. I like to think of the environment provided by child caregivers as a type of extrinsic motivation. That is, humans create this external environment and strongly encourage children to adapt to it. Good parenting provides an appropriate balance between a child’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

As a child matures, its learning continues to be driven by a combination of innate drives and the extrinsic motivation of its environment. Gradually, however, the child begins to have an increasing control over some aspects of its environment. It develops a cognitive ability to consciously decide what to explore and to understand what it explores. It develops the physical abilities needed do the exploration. The child’s motivational drives expand from their innate beginnings to include conscious and physical intrinsic motivations.

Thus, we all grow up in a world that includes intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Both home and school environments provide excellent examples of instances when a child’s intrinsic motivation can conflict with external motivation drives/forces. In brief summary, “joy” in these situations occurs when the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are aligned.

Three Key Research-based Ideas

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s article, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, provides an excellent introduction to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Here are three key ideas quoted from this research paper:
  1. When we talk about motivation in schools, we are generally talking about whether students are motivated to learn. Researchers measure “motivation to learn” by the degree to which students are committed to thinking through problems and working through challenges to master a concept or gain a new skill. This goes beyond student enjoyment of an activity, as students must persist through obstacles.

  2. We experience intrinsic motivation when we find ourselves seeking answers to a question that intrigues us or pushing ourselves to work hard to master a skill. Extrinsic motivation is when we work for an external reward or to avoid an external punishment provided by someone else.

  3. [If] our goal is to build life-long, independent learners, it is important to be aware of the dangers of extrinsic rewards and punishments, and to use them sparingly and carefully as a means to build intrinsic motivation in only those individual students who may need it. Indeed, instilling intrinsic motivation is a longer process that may use some external rewards but really focuses on self-improvement and helps students to shift from doing something for a reward or for a teacher or parent to doing something for themselves. [Bold added for emphasis.]
The bold section in #1 above is often stated as, “No pain, no gain.” A high level of knowledge and skill can be gained in an area, but this typically requires considerable extended effort.

Intrinsic Motivation and the Joy of Flow

For me, shutting out the outside world and being deeply involved in a game, problem-solving task, or reading a good book provides an example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. … The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

One state that Csikszentmihalyi researched was that of the autotelic personality. The autotelic personality is one in which a person performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals. [Bold added for emphasis.]

I see no inherent reason why all students should not experience flow in a variety of learning activities that contribute to their getting a good education.

Improving Education

Many of us are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to improve our educational systems. We consider the characteristics and overall quality of our current informal and formal educational systems, ways to make them better, and how to achieve the goal of making them better.

My experience is that people tend to pose overly simplistic “solutions” and then argue that these solutions should be widely implemented. I am reminded of the quote:

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” (Henry Louis “H.L.” Mencken; American journalist, essayist, editor; 1880–1956.)

Here is my modification of Mencken’s statement:

Every human problem has an easy solution—neat, plausible, and wrong—and/or likely impossible to implement. (David Moursund.)

Our educational system is huge and tends to be quite resistant to change. Moreover, we experience conflicts within our own minds and with other people on such basic issues as what constitutes a better educational system and how to get from our present situation to a desired goal.

This Joy of Learning sequence of IAE Newsletters is exploring an educational change that is applicable to our entire educational system, as well as to the education of each individual student. The proposal is simple enough: Design education so that it brings increased joy to learners.

The underlying assumption is that with more joy in education, students will be more intrinsically motivated and this will lead to their obtaining a better education. This is a researchable assumption. For example, my previous IAE Newsletter explores possible roles of games in education (Moursund, December, 2015). Considerable research supports the use of games as a means of bringing a type of joy or pleasure, and that many people are intrinsically motivated by the games they play. Moreover, considerable research exists on how to increase the intrinsic motivation of games.

I recently encountered the term gamification in a book I was reading. I had not seen this word before, so I was interested in finding out how widely it is used. My Google search of the term gamification of education produced nearly 3 million results. Proponents of this approach to improving education might be well served by reading my modification of the quote from Mencken given above. I strongly believe that appropriate use of games and the research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of games can be a useful aid to improving our educational system. However, this alone will not begin to give us the educational system our children need and deserve for their futures in our complex and rapidly changing world.

Final Remarks

What we can do to help improve education is to provide students with interesting, meaningful, and enjoyable introductions to a very wide variety of topics and discipline areas in which it is possible to gain considerable knowledge, skills, and satisfaction. When a student shows some signs of developing intrinsic motivation in one of these areas, we can both foster the growth of this intrinsic motivation and use the situation as a vehicle to help the student learn to learn, to become a more independent self-sufficient learner, and to gain confidence in his or her abilities to learn.

Future articles in this series will provide explanations of the neurobiological systems that mediate the play/games and intrinsic/extrinsic concepts introduced in this newsletter.


Moursund, D. (December, 2015). Joy in learning and playing games. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 1/9/2016 from

Ryan, M.R., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Retrieved 12/14/2015 from

Smith. J.M. (9/3/2013). Homeschooling continues to grow! U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 1/9/2016 from


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See

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