Opinion | Intrinsic motivation is key to surviving courses

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Imagine two typical JMU students both caught in the soul-crushing grind of April. Both have five tests, two projects, a quiz and a 20-page research paper to complete within the next three weeks. They can’t remember what day or year it is and have begun injecting caffeine into their bloodstreams through an IV drip. They’ve been calculating how much work they can complete in the remaining days before finals week and how to adjust their schedules in order to waste as little time as possible on “necessities” such as sleeping. The world is beginning to look suspiciously similar to a surrealist painting. The voice of God is telling them to eat something other than saltine crackers and 5-Hour Energy, but they’re deaf to his words.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “The American Crisis.” “Hell is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” 

Paine was referring to the experience of the American Continental Army during the winter of 1776, but his words transcend time and space. He could’ve easily been describing the final weeks of the spring semester at JMU and his call to conquer Hell itself exhibits the sort of resilient and motivated mentality students need in such times.

Motivation can be extrinsic, meaning it comes from external circumstances, or it can be intrinsic, in which case the source of motivation comes from within the individual. Both are necessary to some degree, but intrinsic motivation can be more valuable to leading a successful and fulfilling life, or surviving April. 

Extrinsic motivation serves one well when the weather is nice, the work is fairly easy, they have a reasonable amount of time on their hands and a tangible reward is in sight. 

However, it’s intrinsic motivation that helps people succeed when all the odds are against them. It’s intrinsic motivation that keeps people going when the winter in Valley Forge is bitterly cold and the British Redcoats and their Hessian henchman are about to win the war. Nobody knows what their semester grades will look like when the dust settles, but everyone knows they won’t have time to study for finals because they have so many other projects.

Referring back to our two JMU students who are weighed down by the same amount of work during the height of April, it may become evident how important intrinsic motivation is. Imagine that the first student thrives on external encouragement and praise, can only cope with a fairly manageable workload and is motivated by their fear of academic probation or another punishment. Imagine how they’d react once classes get significantly more difficult and their good grades suddenly appear less attainable. This student would be likely to put off assignments, insist that it’s unfair for them to have to work so hard and would be satisfied with barely passing. Contrast this with the second student, internally motivated by an insatiable desire to learn and internally driven to work through difficulties in order to do so, not for the sake of avoiding punishment, but out of a desire to grow. Even if the situations these students face are identical, the difference in their mindset and motivation could make a huge difference in how they perform and feel.

Instilling intrinsic motivation can be a lengthy process, but it leads to more long-lasting and self-sustaining progress, better retainment of information and a more enjoyable experience. This is largely because being intrinsically motivated makes work more meaningful while leading to more creative and personal development. 

Extrinsic motivation simply isn’t sufficient for any sort of creative or knowledge-seeking endeavor. When people assign a deeper purpose to their work rather than use immediate external rewards as their means of motivation, they’re able to genuinely enjoy doing it and feel a sense of personal fulfillment from doing well.

Instructors and students can help create an environment in which intrinsic motivation is mainstream by encouraging independent research, allowing students to pursue topics of interest within the scope of a class and placing less emphasis on grades. Of course, in order for this sort of constructive environment to exist, the responsibility is ultimately on students to be active learners who are inquisitive about the world. 

By seeing their growth and success as part of something larger than themselves, visualizing their goals and following their own curiosity rather than studying out of fear, students can begin to reap the benefits of intrinsic motivation. 

Sophia Cabana is a freshman history major. Contact Sophia at

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