Is your student an extrinsic or intrinsic learner? And how to bring out the best in each to overcome the other

So how can we bridge the gap between students who only do as they’re told and those who learn only what they find interesting?

As students rise through secondary schools, teacher expectations and demands can either tax or reward student learning and behavioral types, in this case, the extrinsically versus intrinsically motivated student:

Extrinsic learners strive to meet teacher expectations as explicitly as possible while intrinsic learners engage learning for its own sake.

Learning Styles & Theory

Educational theory emphasizes three core learning “styles” or “modalities”:  1) Visual; 2) Kinesthetic/Tactile; 3) Auditory. Other theories address cognitive processes and “experiential” learning styles such as abstract v. concrete and experiential v. reflective.

Insofar as teachers can deliver lessons to meet these various student learning styles, that’s great. They call it “differentiated instruction,” and I am entirely dubious as to its general worth. Teachers will teach the way they teach best, and school-wide “systems” will merely regress teaching effectiveness to the mean by ameliorating the poor and smothering the good teaching.

But here’s the problem: if the student either doesn’t feel like doing it or doesn’t understand it, no manner of differentiated instruction will make a difference. Every little trick, such as group or activity work, student-centered learning, etc. , won’t change student approach toward the work itself, which is a prerequisite to applying differentiated instruction in the first place .

(Btw, a constant danger in group work that we hear frequently from kids in the A+ Club is that it tends towards the lowest common denominator of the group or is driven by one or two members only. Understanding that effective group work doesn’t do that, but we don’t always see it.)

I found it useful as a teacher to approach my class not as a set of different learning types but instead as either intrinsic or extrinsic learners. The distinction enabled me to leverage the best of both worlds by trying to entice the extrinsic learners with ideas and engage the intrinsic learners into finding meaning in the process towards it.

Extrinsic Learners

Extrinsic learners will take on whatever is asked of them. Extrinsic learners strive to satisfy the directive regardless of its worth. On the up side, these learners are willing to follow teacher expectations and thereby will allow themselves to benefit from them.

On the down side,  extrinsic learners are more concerned with the process of directives than with their meaning. That is, they will “dot the I’s and cross the T’s” whether it’s useful or not. They do it because they were told to not because they have found an inherent value in the learning.

Intrinsic Learnings

Intrinsic learners are motivated by what is inherently interesting to them and will seek extension and application of that learning beyond teacher expectations. They engage learning through curiosity and challenge — so long as they find it meaningful.

That’s the rub: intrinsic learners find it difficult to engage in irrelevant or task oriented lessons. Worse, when process is required for success, i.e., practice or memorization, they quickly lose interest and their intrinsic motivations dissolve.

What it means for parents and teachers

Overall,  and given that secondary school emphasizes process over product (i.e, doing homework over learning, memorizing over learning), extrinsic learners generally perform better grades-wise than intrinsic learners across the secondary school experience. Intrinsic learners  will excel in specific subjects or topics, or, if they figure out the process side of middle and high school, they will excel across the board.

However, where each faces difficulty, in my experience, intrinsic learners stumble in the 9th grade while extrinsic learners hit their turbulence in the 10th and 11th grades.

The 9th grade emphasizes independent action over content, which rewards the extrinsic learners, while the 10th grade moves deeper into content and concepts, which rewards the intrinsic learners. By 12th grade, well, they are what they are, and it’s a matter for the extrinsic types to study more thoughtfully and for the intrinsic types to study at all.

Bridging the Extrinsic/Intrinsic Gap

If you’re with me on the difficulty to bring the positives of the one to overcome the negatives of the other, then you also agree that “differentiated instruction” and every other pedagogical strategy doesn’t stand much chance against kids who aren’t able to extend learning on their own or those who don’t find meaning in it.

As always, educational solutions must begin and end with the individual student. My approach, which we use at the A+ Club, is to empower individual students with individual problem solving techniques. Some of our premises include:

  • All students want success.
  • We never assume that a system, school, or teacher will fulfill individual student needs.
  • We do assume that individual students can control their relationships with systems, schools, and teachers.
  • Academic success is dependent upon student ownership.

Student Academic Ownership

If the extrinsically motivated student struggles with an assignment that is unclear or demands independent action outside of teacher definitions, success will come from helping that child go beyond teacher constructs and taking on the learning unto itself.

If the intrinsically motivated student struggles with an assignment that is irrelevant or tedious, success will come from helping that student identify the connection between the aversive task and the larger learning that will follow its fulfillment.

Whether intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, in both cases the challenge for the student is PURPOSE and RELEVANCY.

Since the extrinsic learner is motivated by direct teacher instruction, going beyond teacher guidance to independent learning may be confusing and uncomfortable: what am I supposed to do? how am is supposed to study this, the teacher didn’t say? 

Since the intrinsic learner is not motivated by external teacher guidance, following instructions, filing in the blanks, and process will be difficult, boring and aversive. We will hear from these students:  why do I have to do this? what’s this teacher’s problem, anyway? 

In these situations, we an build purpose and relevancy for both the intrinsic and extrinsic learners by:

  1. Identifying larger teacher expectations in general principles such as might be found in a syllabus (such as SWBAT: Student Will Be Able To…) and applying those expectations to specific assignments or study strategies for 1) moving the extrinsic learner into independent territory; and 2) encouraging the intrinsic learner to engage process.
  2. Building connections between assignments so as to find larger purpose in an exercise and to carry that learning forward meaningfully across the semester or year (example: Hamlet may have lessons and learning that the student had enjoyed more in another work).
  3. Since we enjoy more what we are good at, finding and applying student Prior Knowledge about the topic: what do you already know about? and developing questions to approach it thoughtfully: what about… why does… how does…?

The Bridge from Intrinsic to Extrinsic

Intrinsic and extrinsic learners approach  academic ownership from opposite sides: the one owns what is individually interesting while the other only owns what is directly instructed.

If we can frame the correction not as a matter of student deficiency or difficulty and instead as problem solving we are not just helping a student through a particular situation, we are building academic ownership and independence because problem solving requires breaking a situation apart and figuring out how to get through it. Doing so requires identification of purpose — and, thereby, meaning.

EXTRINSIC TO  INTRINSIC: We won’t always be able to help the intrinsic learner find an aversive task or lesson relevant, but we can build a general purpose that can be applied towards ownership of the externally-directed pieces: it’s important not because it is being asked of you but because it fits in to your larger goals. Sometimes it takes faith in the lesson and the teacher, and maybe, just maybe the intrinsic learner can find the inherently interesting parts of any task or lesson.

INTRINSIC TO EXTRINSIC: When a student strives to meet every external expectation, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of those expectations as opposed to just doing it because of being told. We can, however, help the extrinsic learner by seeking meaning in a lesson or task unto itself: guidance to question, connect, apply, and evaluate tasks and lessons will flush out inherent meaning in them and help the extrinsic learner to see the lesson on his or her own terms and not just on those of the teacher.

There’s no particular advantage of the Intrinsic over the Extrinsic learner, or vice versa, as each has benefits and challenges depending on the situation. We can, as parents and teachers, help each identify those biases, their advantages and challenges and to work through them according to an optimal individual approach.

There’s nothing “differentiated” in it, just a matter of consistently and positively maximizing available student learning styles and attitudes.

– Michael