Developing Intrinsic Motivation with Choice

According to, the word “intrinsic” is an adjective that means “belonging to a thing by its very nature.” Some synonyms for intrinsic are: essential, built-in, constitutional, inherent, integral, inner, internal. This naturally puts us at a disadvantage when trying to develop intrinsic motivation in our students, because we are on the outside. The challenge is to find pathways from the outside to help students become more motivated within themselves.

academic choice activityWe all want our students to love school and to enjoy the process of learning. We seem to always be searching for ways to encourage our students to put forth their best efforts in everything we ask them to do. We desperately want each student to be self-motivated to learn and to follow the rules, and we employ a variety of strategies to promote rule-following behavior and high academic achievement. We often become teachers because we loved school ourselves, so it can be difficult for us to understand why some students don’t. Teachers can have excellent classroom management and still struggle with engaging and motivating all the students in their care. We know that to grow academically and socially, children need us to recognize and encourage their strengths and positive efforts. What is the best way to offer recognition and encouragement that will help develop intrinsic motivation in all our students?

Essential First Step

Our first step in encouraging a student to become more intrinsically motivated is to create the optimal environment that provides interesting, gratifying, personally meaningful learning experiences. When students feel a sense of purpose in their work, they are more likely to investigate and expand into new areas of learning and to persevere when faced with challenges. Limiting the amount of “teacher talk” by asking more questions allows students to actively work on solving problems and finding answers, giving them a greater sense of control.

Providing Choices

Giving students choice is also critical to increasing engagement, ultimately leading to the development of intrinsic motivation. We offer many different kinds of choices during the school day, such as where to sit and read in the classroom, to work with a partner or alone, to use markers or colored pencils. These choices give students a degree of control over their daily life at school, contributing to their sense of autonomy.

Academic Choice

In addition to these types of choices, we can provide students with choices in their learning with a strategy called Academic Choice. Students become highly engaged and productive when they have choices in what or how they are learning. They’re likely to think more deeply and creatively, work with more persistence, and use a wider range of academic skills and strategies.
Academic Choice is a powerful three-part strategy for motivating students’ learning that involves planning, working, and reflecting. When we use Academic Choice, we present the goal of the lesson or activity, then give students a list of options for what to learn and/or how to go about their learning in order to reach the defined goal. Finally, the lesson ends with reflection so students can consider their work and the choices they made. This three-part structure mirrors the natural learning cycle, which involves setting goals, enacting on those goals, and then reflecting on what was learned.


Students with intrinsic motivation will engage in activities because they want to, not because the teacher told them to. Creating an optimal learning environment and providing regular opportunities for choice throughout the school day allows students to work with a sense of competence, autonomy, and satisfaction. The structure of Academic Choice helps students practice valuable skills for lifelong learning, such as how to make wise choices, how to follow through on those choices, and how to adjust and adapt when needed. All of these factors together contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation.



Written by Kristen Vincent, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher
Tags: Academic Choice, Engaging Academics

4 Replies to “Developing Intrinsic Motivation with Choice”

  • Hi Kristin,
    I’ve been wanting to provide my students with more academic choice in my classroom, so thanks for explaining the cycle used when providing academic choice. Remote learning has actually supported me in beginning this process, because we are using choice boards with our students. It’s been great seeing what my students are choosing and has really helped me learn more about how my students want to learn. The use of academic choice is definitely something that I hope to bring to my classroom once we are back in schools.

  • Hi Kristin,
    I think this is a great article and especially with these times, students feel like they are bogged down by work and school rules. Students don’t feel ownership in their class, school or content because it is already selected for them. To get students to work, you might need to give them an alternative option that is more pleasing to them. We realized in our health department that daily choice of activities allowed students the freedom to study what they wanted and at their own pace. It also provided an opportunity for those who have not turned in a lot of work to be able to work at their own pace and not feel so far behind on assignments.

  • I have been trained in Responsive Classroom and have found success. Wondering if there are any videos/articles highlighting academic choices in kindergarten?

  • This article has given me a great and simple explanation about developing intrinsic motivation with young learners, the importance of choice, and the positive effects on the learning process. Thank you. (ELT teacher from Hungary)

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