How do you motivate your students to learn more about science? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

Imagine that the bell rings to end your science class and you hear groans from your students. “Do we have to leave?” “This is so great” “Can’t we just stay here?” Well maybe that happens to you from time to time, but in my teaching experience, I admit that it was a rare occurrence. If you think about the activities that interest you and fully absorb your attention – skiing in deep powder, listening to your favourite music, reading that page-turner novel, playing with your granddaughter – why can’t a science activity produce a similar response?

The question of what makes students want to learn science has intrigued me throughout my educational career. It seems to me that learning about the natural world that surrounds us should be of intrinsic interest to everyone, and learning about it in school should be fascinating for all students. But this doesn’t seem to the case. Enrolment in high school optional science courses around the world is declining and students increasingly drop science courses as soon as they can. They find it difficult and boring and, surprisingly, they find it unrelated to their lives! In one study comparing the attitudes of students in different countries, Terry Lyons found that students frequently reported being turned off by “the transmissive pedagogy, decontextualized content, and unnecessary difficulty of school science.” (Lyons, 2006). In other words, they say it’s too hard, doesn’t involve them and is meaningless to them.

Intrinsic Motivation – Flow Theory:

We would all like our students to be intrinsically motivated to learn science – in other words to want to do science for its own sake and have a genuine interest in it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian/Croatian psychologist developed the theory of Flow – an explanation of intrinsic motivation. A highly influential University of Chicago professor, his ideas have influenced people from President Bill Clinton to the winning Super Bowl coach of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys. Flow describes people’s state of “complete absorption in the present moment” when they are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). They are in control of their actions and pursue the activity for its own sake, not in pursuit of a reward or to avoid a punishment. Some of the conditions for Flow are: “perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch but do not overmatch existing skills”, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress being made.”( p. 195).   People “in Flow” would be observed to be focused on an active task, unselfconscious and in control. They may comment about the surprisingly fast passage of time while doing the activity. Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us called this Type I (I for Intrinsic) behavior. By this he refers to intrinsic motivation characterized by autonomy (control over the project), mastery (the desire to continually improve it), and purpose (doing something that has personal meaning).

Extrinsic Motivation

The opposite of Flow or Type I behavior is motivation by punishment and reward, often referred to as extrinsic behavior. Though this is a common practice in education, this behavior more often undermines motivation and engagement on the part of students and tends to reduce learning and understanding (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2005; Kohn, 1999; Pink, 2011). Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, argues that using rewards – points, stickers, extra play time, etc – to motivate students is just as damaging to learning as imposing punishments – detentions, loss of points, reprimands, etc. As soon as the reward or punishment is removed, he points out, the motivation for doing the activity disappears. Corroborating this, in an meta-analysis of 128 studies, Deci, Koestner, & Ryan found that rewards of all types significantly undermined intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

So how do we get our students intrinsically motivated to learn science? The research discussed above would indicate that the project or activity has to have the following characteristics:

  • a clear purpose.
  • personal meaning to students.
  • some degree of student control over it.
  • an appropriate level of challenge – difficult enough to keep them interested, not too challenging to create frustration, and not too easy to bore them.
  • continuous and immediate feedback.

Skilled science teachers learn by their own experience, workshops with other professionals, and discussions with colleagues. They struggle with balancing their desire to intrinsically motivate their students, with the requirement to cover the concepts needed to meet the requirements of the curriculum. I’d love to hear how you do this with your students.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow Theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lyons, T. (2006). Different Countries, Same Science Classes: Students’ experiences of school science in their own words. International Journal of Science Education, 28(6), 591-613.

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.