Some people are intrinsically motivated to learn – they embrace learning and seek out opportunities to improve their skills and knowledge. Others need more structure and encouragement.

It’s important to know which are which, because your training strategies will be different for each of them.

A recent research study has identified a quick way to assess a learner’s intrinsic motivation: Offer low-stakes or no-stakes training work – for example, a study quiz, or supplemental reading assignments.

Those with high intrinsic motivation are more likely to do this kind of work whether or not it “counts.” They learn for learning’s sake.

The research
To gain deeper insights into the role of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations, researchers studied two groups of people: Americans born between 1980 and 1984, and U.S. military recruits.

To test intrinsic motivation, the researchers looked at something called a “coded speed test.”

The test-taker has to decode a message using an answer key. The test is tedious and requires concentration. Since prior knowledge doesn’t matter, the exam mostly tests effort.

The recruits took the test as part of a series of entrance exams. So for them, it was a high-stakes activity.

The researchers also administered the test to the “general Americans.” For this group, the test wasn’t important at all.

Two key findings emerged:

1. Extrinsic motivation was more powerful than intrinsic motivation. Even though the “general Americans” were more educated as a group than the military recruits, the recruits did better on the test. Researchers attributed this to the motivational difference – the recruits worked harder because it mattered.

2. Among the “general Americans,” the test did a good job of identifying people with high intrinsic motivation. Those who put in more effort on this lowstakes activity showed other evidence of high intrinsic motivation – for example, they had significantly higher earnings 23 years later, compared with those who didn’t do well on the test.

Implications for trainers
Here’s how you might apply these findings to your training efforts:

Use low-stakes assignments to assess intrinsic motivation. When you see who does and doesn’t put in extra effort when it’s optional, you’ll know who’s going to need more attention and follow-up from you and who will learn without a lot of supervision.

Give intrinsically motivated learners a bigger role. You are always looking for small-group leaders and those who can kick off a discussion or activity. Intrinsically motivated learners want to do more, so they’ll probably do well in this role and enjoy it.

But don’t overlook the power of extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation only gets you so far. For example, you’d like to think people would embrace safety training because they don’t want to get hurt. Some will, but others need to see more concrete consequences – for example, if they flunk the safety quiz, they have to retake the training.

Segal, C. (2011). Working when no one is watching:
Motivation, test scores, and economic success.
Department of Economics, University of Zurich.

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