Skip to main content

Editor's Corner

How Can We Motivate Our Science Students?

The Science Teacher—November/December 2019 (Volume 87, Issue 4)

By Ann Haley Mackenzie

Notes from the field editor

Motivating students is the age-old dilemma of educators. How do we motivate our students to be engaged with scientific material on a daily basis?

In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he differentiates between fostering intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Our science classrooms have relied heavily on extrinsic motivation for centuries because we think it works. Giving candy, homework passes, and other assorted bribes to get students to do their work does not address increasing intrinsic motivation. In fact, extrinsic rewards work best for routine tasks, like memorizing Latin and Greek roots. These rewards do not work in the long run, when students are learning to balance equations or uncovering the mysteries of muscle contraction.

Our goal as science educators is to reawaken the curiosity and creativity in our students, and promoting strategies for enhancing intrinsic motivation is the way to approach this important endeavor. Pink states, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives” (p. 71).

Pink suggests three key ways to foster intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy: providing opportunities for learners to select an area or choice of study they are inherently interested in. If you and your students are exploring Newton’s Laws, then why not provide them with the opportunity to demonstrate what they know?

Mastery: only engagement can produce mastery. As we well know, for learning to begin, we must have our students’ attention.

Purpose: our students must feel there is a purpose behind what they are doing in school. It must relate to their lives in a compelling way or it is likely to lack “stickiness.”  

How many times have your learners asked “Why are we doing this?” When this question is posed, they are in fact questioning the purpose behind why they, as busy adolescents, must be bothered with a given task. To merely answer with the statement “Because it will be on the test” does little to foster a sense of purpose in doing the work. Pink states, “The science shows that if-then rewards… not only are ineffective in many situations, but can also crush the high-level, creative and conceptual abilities that are central to current and future economic and social progress” (p. 144). 

One of the beautiful aspects of NGSS (2013) is how it makes science come alive when autonomy, mastery, and purpose come together through science learning experiences. Using personal devices—the focus of this special issue—is one way to engage our students in potentially purposeful, autonomous work that can promote mastery. 

Most of all, remember that when you are in the flow of an activity, time speeds by, and you are lost in the process and engaged in a meaningful way. We want our students to be in the flow when they are with us exploring the world of science.


NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pink, D. 2009. Drive. New York: Riverhead Books.

Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies High School

Asset 2