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The importance of Intrinsic Motivation in adult learning

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In the opinion of Ryan and Deci, “humans have grown to be curious, active, and deeply social beings, driven by intrinsic tendencies to understand and master both our inner and outer worlds” (Ryan & Deci, 2017). This motto has become the great challenge of educators working with adult learners in recent years, to a greater extent due to the irruption of the global health crisis caused by covid 19.

As a consequence of this exceptional situation in which the teaching-learning process has moved to an online scenario, in many cases, the intrinsic motivation of adult learners has been greatly affected by the use of digital platforms such as Zoom or Google Meets, in which the learner often loses focus during the session. 

In addition to teacher-related variables or those from the context and classroom interaction that can influence the teaching-learning process, there are a number of student-related variables such as cognitive and motivational factors. Cognitive factors imply the intellectual potential of the student, and involve the previous knowledge available to the person, his or her intellectual capacity and the student’s cognitive styles (Sampascual, 2007). However, as Chomsky (1988) stated in his maxim “the truth of the matter is that approximately 99 percent of teaching is getting learners interested in the material” (p. 181), motivation, understood as “the force that drives and orients the activity of individuals to achieve a goal” (Sampascual, 2007, p.286) plays an increasingly important role when it comes to learning something new.

According to Lambert and Gardner (1972) there are two types of motivation: 

Intrinsic motivation occurs when learning is performed by internal elements. It involves doing something because it is both interesting and deeply satisfying. We perform such activities for the positive feelings they create, and they typically lead to optimal performances (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

Extrinsic motivation happens when the reason for learning is determined by external factors such as avoiding punishment or obtaining a reward. 

Bueno (2017) emphasizes that one of the factors contributing to motivation is the search for novelty, linked to the need to have to overcome obstacles and accept challenges. In this sense Bruner (1966, as cited in Sampascual, 2007) argues that it is due to intrinsic motivation that learning is maintained and prolonged over time, and that this is possible to achieve taking into account the innate curiosity of humans. 

Dr. Jeremy Sutton (2021), Ph.D in the Psychology and Physiology of Human Endurance, claims that in order to increase intrinsic motivation, we should engage learners according to their basic psychological needs. Pink (2018) suggests that in any teaching environment (school, home, youth group, etc.), content is more crucial than the volume of work, and we should ask ourselves:

  • Am I providing students with a degree of autonomy regarding when and how they do their work?
  • Is this task engaging, novel, and encouraging mastery (competence)?
    Or, is it unthinking, bland, and learning by rote?
  • Do the students understand the relevance or purpose of this piece of work?

As trainers, our work should focus on stimulating these intrinsic motives as an engine for learning and a stimulus to maintain curiosity for further life-long learning.


Bueno i Torrens, D. (2017). Neurociencia para educadores. Todo lo que los educadores siempre han querido saber sobre el cerebro de sus alumnos y nunca nadie se ha atrevido a explicárselo de manera comprensible y útil. Octaedro.

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and Problems of Knowledge (p. 181). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology49(1), 14–23

Gardner, R.C. y Lambert W.E. (1972). Attitudes and Motivation. London: Newbury House. Gardner, R.C. (2007). Motivation and Second Language Acquisition. University of Western Ontario: Ontario.

Pink, D. H. (2018). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books.

Sampascual, G. (Ed.). (2007). Psicología de la Educación Tomos I y II. Madrid: UNED.Sutton, J. (2021). How to increase intrinsic motivation (according to science). Positive Psychology.

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