Improve Student Engagement by Developing Intrinsic Motivation

Improve Student Engagement by Developing Intrinsic Motivation

Think for a moment, what motivates you to achieve goals and complete tasks? What motivates you to practice? To write lesson plans? To do the dishes? To want to be a good teacher? To keep reading this post? Some of these answers are easy, while others may be more difficult to articulate. One key component of our job as teachers is to guide our students in developing the motivation it takes to persist and excel through challenging or unappealing tasks (including practicing). However, if it can be difficult for us to pinpoint what exactly motivates ourselves, how can we even begin to know how to develop that motivation in our students?

Two Types of Motivation

Let’s start with a quick review of two basic types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation, in its most basic form, refers to completing a task in order to earn a reward or avoid a punishment. Extrinsic motivators are highly reinforcing, and work great with young students or students who are early in their development of a particular skill. The problem is that for most students the extrinsic motivation source doesn’t hold the same value over time. While the promise of a sticker for practicing line #35 of the method book may encourage the student to practice for a few weeks, eventually the sticker reward will not be enough to keep the student practicing.

Many times the reason students initially join our ensembles is due to some sort of external motivator. Take the example of a student who joins orchestra because several members of their peer group have decided to join. This is as good of a reason as any other to join the ensemble, but what happens when members of the peer group begin to lose interest in participating, or even consider dropping out of the ensemble? If the only motivational source for that student to participate is the reinforcement of being with his or her peer group, then when the peer group (an extrinsic motivator) disappears from the ensemble, so does that student.

The goal for us is to get our students hooked on what we are offering in our ensemble, so that when those external motivators fade away, as some eventually will, our students will have developed the intrinsic motivation to continue on. Students who are intrinsically motivated participate in tasks for reasons such as curiosity, challenge, and mastery, and are primarily positively reinforced by what they gain in personal growth, instead of an external reward. We will look at how getting to know our students, engagement, and student-centered approaches all play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation.

Get to Know Your Students!

Getting to know your students is the first and most important step in encouraging the growth of intrinsic motivation. We can likely all agree that every student in our ensemble is important. We know this to be true when contest is two weeks away and we are pleading with our students to match pitch and articulation within each section. But the idea that all students are important has to go beyond the function of creating a musical product.

Students come to us with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. In order to figure out what motivates students, we have to take the time to understand who each student is. One quick way to begin this process is by asking students to answer the following questions at the beginning of the school year:

  • Why did they join your ensemble?
  • What do they love about being in your ensemble?

If you are really brave you might even ask students:

  • What do you dislike about being in the ensemble?

Knowing this information gives you insight into why your students made the choice to participate in your ensemble. It can also help you to identify where students are in the development of intrinsic motivation. What’s more, it presents an opportunity for students to have a voice as part of the large ensemble.

In addition to the questions listed above, take the time to listen, show concern, ask about their interests, dreams, etc. Building these relationships with students can help us create experiences in our environments that are tailored toward student interest, allowing for more connection between the students’ worlds and the musical and extra-musical goals we have for them.


Student engagement is defined as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught.”1 This is very different from the idea of compliance in learning. With compliance, students participate in learning and complete performance tasks, but the tasks are routine and do not encourage students to make connections with the learning process. With engagement, students take ownership through active and authentic learning strategies that are determined based on students needs and goals. Students can experience engagement through several different modalities including intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social, and cultural engagement.2

Because our students can experience engagement with music in a variety of ways, this may require us to go beyond the traditional stand-on-the-podium-and-give-information approach to teaching our ensemble. The addition of small changes in our teaching approach can greatly increase student engagement in the ensemble. Examples of these kinds of powerful changes can include encouraging student discovery of concepts, intentional questioning, offering learning activities that provide opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, and integrating technology.

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Student-Centered Learning Approach

Using a student-centered teaching approach goes hand-in-hand with increasing engagement in the ensemble. The foundation of a student-centered approach is that knowledge is constructed by the student by connecting new experiences and knowledge with previous experiences and knowledge. In a student-centered approach, students have the opportunity to actively participate in the learning process, as opposed to receiving information from the teacher. This type of approach turns the teacher into a facilitator of learning experiences rather than the giver of knowledge.

One key component of the student-centered approach is the development of solid foundational skills. Having these skills can help students build confidence in their abilities. In conjunction with the teaching of foundational skills, teachers need to guide students on how to think about the development of these skills. Sharing with students the specific technical and musical goals for the ensemble – and the timeline and sequence for learning – provides transparency for the students and allows them to participate in the teaching and the learning process. When we use a student-centered approach, we are empowering students to take (safe) risks and responsibility for their learning.

Final Thoughts

Cultivating intrinsic motivation in our students is a process that requires individualized preparation and sustained effort. This can feel like a huge responsibility and an overwhelming task when you may see hundreds of students each day. However, in truly getting to know our students and inviting them to be part of the learning process, we open the doors for them to develop a motivational connection between music and their lives, that will have long-lasting effects far beyond the music classroom.


  1. The Glossary of Education Reform, “Student Engagement,”
  2. Additional information on forms of student engagement and strategies for increasing student engagement can be found at
Rebecca Tast

Rebecca Tast is an assistant professor at Texas State University, specializing in string music education. Dr. Tast teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in string pedagogy, works with the Texas State String Project, advises the Texas State University Student ASTA Chapter, and conducts the Concertante Orchestra at the annual Texas State String Camp. Prior to obtaining her Ph.D, Tast taught 6th- through 12th-grade strings and orchestra. Dr. Tast is an active clinician and adjudicator, and has presented her research at conferences for the National Association for Music Education, the American String Teachers Association, the Texas Music Educators Association, and the Kansas Music Educators Association.

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