Self-Motivation: How Can I Teach it to My Students?

This article was originally posted in our July 2017 Newsletter, by Tom Gottschalk, COO, Medical Educator

When I began doing my research for this month’s article, I opened the old google machine and asked it about self-motivation. This is what it spat out.

“Wake up with determination, and go to bed with satisfaction.”
“It is better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand as a sheep”
“Do something today, that your future self will thank you for.”

And then Bam, craziness happened. Two days later Oprah calls me with questions about my new surfing workout videos, my amazing success as a medical educator, and how I became a renowned inspirational writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket. You on the other hand might be stuck with asking yourself the same questions I would have asked myself before my internet search. Why are today’s learners so unmotivated? What can I do to make a difference by changing that behavior? A noble and worthy question to be answered, in my humble opinion.

Let’s look at the situation with the end in mind first. Why do you really care if a student is motivated to learn? It is their problem, not yours. Right? Wrong, the answer should be clearer. Motivated students are easier to teach! They value the return on investment of giving you, and educational content, attention plus they actively participate in the acquisition of knowledge. Picture yourself as a professional coach of adult spelling bee contestants or draft recruits to war. How small is the audience or willful participants? What is the inspiration for them to be there? Where will they be in two weeks from the first day of training? And most importantly, what is their motivation? Intrinsic or extrinsic?

Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is an inner voice, drive, and desire to succeed. Picture marathon runners at 5 a.m. in January lacing up their sneakers prepping for a race in May. A nursing student who has always had a dream to help sick children because of a family tragedy. These candidates have a fuel from within that moves them forward. Naturally, these are perceived as the good ones because they show up early and work late on their own. All they require occasionally is a quick refill (of fuel) during trying times or stumbling. Educators also love intrinsically motivated persons within a class because they are low maintenance when it comes to discipline. But don’t overlook the best part. I believe, along with others, that the energetic push from within them can be contagious to those that inherently lack the fire in the belly feeling for learning.

Extrinsic Motivation
The other motivation category is called extrinsic. Best understood as externally moved to do things. It could be fame, vanity, or money. Along with a requirement to keep a job or acquire the easy living lifestyle. This is the one that I believe I aligned with myself with. Based on my perception that I try and live by a duty ethics model, I tend to attend classes that will make me better at a task so I can get more done and maybe someday get a breather. In other words, I work to meet my responsibilities to my family, coworkers and friends and want a shortcut. I do not feel that I wake up in the morning with a “work until your idols become your rival” plan in my head like artist/musician Drake speaks of.

Below are some suggestions on how to work within the reality of those who are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated while in the real world or educational setting.

Assess the motivation of your students with a survey tool that has them answering the questions that point you to knowing more about them. What makes them tick. The carrot or the stick?

Establish and demonstrate examples of the highest ethical behavior among everyone involved. This means that talking up front about the expectation that everyone will give their best and call out each other when they see an example of someone falling short. This in my opinion is critical advice. Do not fear confrontation and expect accountability from top to bottom like survival training or military boot camp. Set the bar higher than the minimum and trust the majority will rise to the occasion, not fall short.

Passionately show how learning relates to getting better at what they do and directly connects to success. Give positive and negative examples of what happens when students excel, just meet the minimums, or fall even shorter than that.

And finally, publicly praise and privately correct to keep the learning environment safe. Motivate your students to reach out and try to “grab the gold ring”, knowing that they may fail sometimes.

Do you have a good practice or source other than google that maximizes potential based on self-motivation? I would love to hear about. Call or email me anytime with your thoughts at or call 616.818.7877 ext. 2121.