There is research to support the following. 

In an educational environment, extrinsic motivation is more effective in changing behaviors and affecting compliance than improving learning. 

But even then, it needs to be designed for short-term goals, and the reward must be immediate.


If students are to be engaged in deep learning, we must tap into their intrinsic motivation. Additional factors provide nuances beyond our needs, but we can distill the essential elements into four. We can look at this from the perspective of game theory and education. 

  1. Autonomy. Game players prefer the ability to make choices in the most basic board games to the most complicated video games. Players choose to be the car or the iron in Monopoly. They decide to buy the property or just pass on through. Video game players select their avatars and skill sets. They often choose the path they follow and the challenges they will face. Games that incorporate these elements keep player attention much longer than ones that don’t. In education, students will attend more to things about which they care. Effective learning environments leverage this. Effective teachers, coaches, facilitators, and advisors know well that when students are given the ability to choose an area of interest from a menu of options, they stay engaged for more extended periods and dive more deeply into them.
  2. Mastery of the Meaningful. This is closely related to student autonomy. A game player will repeat a game level repeatedly when the challenge is difficult but attainable. Leveling up in the game is meaningful when mastery is possible. Games that are too easy or too difficult do not hold players’ attention as much as the “Goldilocks” games. Similarly, when students have the opportunity to become experts at a skill that matters to them, they dig deep and stay motivated. However, learning takes a backseat to compliance if the skill seems irrelevant. Like skills, gaining knowledge is impacted by the perception and expectation of a meaningful result. Students will work hard to learn concept A if they expect it will help them learn a more meaningful concept B in the future. In some cases, success on a crucial assessment will motivate students to master the meaningful.
  3. Recognition. Nearly all games are binary by design. If one wins, others must necessarily lose. Leaderboards are ubiquitous in the digital gaming world. The most addictive games present scores in ways that permit players to compare themselves to others. This is done on deliberate and strategic schedules. Game designers leverage the competitive nature of the typical player, offering opportunities to succeed and instant recognition for that success. In the educational environment, grades straddle the divide between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Many, if not most, students are grade-driven. They want the extrinsic reward of an excellent grade to recognize their success. But this doesn’t necessarily ensure learning. Cheating is usually related to the extrinsic value placed on grades. However, the intrinsic value of grades is more closely related to real learning. The students intrinsically motivated by grades want to know what grades their “competitors” earned. An “A” grade earned when the average class grade was “B” has significantly more meaning for the student. The competitive student seeking recognition will study harder and longer. 
  4. Affiliation. It is no accident that video games are designed to identify successful players with titles and levels. But it isn’t limited to the digital world. Card players will team together with players of the same skill level. The same could be said for tennis and billiards. Skill clearly attracts skill. Players infrequently choose to play with less skillful teammates. Especially when success is a shared effort. Similarly, high achieving students will choose study partners and project teammates that share their academic success levels. This usually results in deeper learning and greater academic success. 

Building a student program needs to be driven by a set of clear outcomes. This League needs to define these outcomes in thematic terms unrelated to specific actions, knowledge, and skills. Only after clarifying the outcomes can discreet, measurable objectives be identified. To those ends, the activities, projects, and learning experiences designed by the League need to incorporate these four intrinsic motivational factors. Ideally, students should choose engaging activities that are meaningful to them. They should be recognized for small and large successes. Finally, educators should build a sense of belonging and togetherness into the learning experience design. 

Equity and Inclusion

Too often, educators seek to find the highest achievers to participate in learning experiences because we expect that they will most appreciate and benefit from the designed programming. This may be entirely true. However, this frequently excludes students who have not yet demonstrated high achievement in the classroom. The statistics in Maryland alone are shocking. The bilingual LatinX student who has spoken both English and Spanish from birth is more likely to be placed in an English Language Learner (ELL) program than a magnet or honors program by a staggering factor. The white student with a standard American English accent is rarely referred to an ELL program even when their reading and writing scores are lower than the LatinX student. Similar systemic limitations impact opportunities for black, indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) students. When we add in the economic factors of students living near or below government-defined poverty levels, we have a significant population of students who are rarely given a realistic opportunity to participate in extracurricular programming. 

Inclusivity and equity should be the core values of any student programming designed by this league chapter. All students should be welcome to participate in the programming: the affluent, the disadvantaged, the privileged, and the marginalized. However, we should endeavor to include the population of students who typically don’t have these opportunities. This needs to be a deliberate and carefully crafted strategy. For example, we should consider poor students who know they will never have family-supported transportation to extracurricular activities. They may automatically tune out a broadcast message about the programming without hearing the details simply because they assume they will never have a ride home. These students need a personal appeal by an educator they trust who can explain possible solutions and then support them in utilizing the additional supports. We should pay particular attention to those who don’t always have the opportunity or encouragement to participate. We can seek detailed advice and guidance from existing WCPS professionals in the central office and the high schools.