A Longitudinal Approach to Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation:
The Middle School Transition
Senior Thesis 2005: Summary of Findings
Background and Purpose
The focus of this study was on students’ motivation for academic activities. In particular, we
were interested in the contrast between intrinsic motivation (i.e., engaging in a behavior as an
end in itself) and extrinsic motivation (i.e., engaging in a behavior as a means to an end).
Intrinsic motivation, relative to extrinsic motivation, is associated with a host of adaptive
behaviors, such as challenge seeking, involvement in school, and high academic performance.
However, previous research has shown that students’ levels of intrinsic – but not extrinsic –
motivation dissipate as they progress through the elementary and middle school years.
One concern about previous research is that is has been “cross-sectional,” meaning that it is
based on a comparison of different children at each grade level. So, it is possible that the
findings are due to specific differences between particular groups of children. To account for
this possibility, we studied how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation might change within the same
children as they progressed from elementary to middle school. We predicted that intrinsic
motivation would decrease and that extrinsic motivation would roughly stay the same as children
Research also has suggested that there is a disparity between the needs of children transitioning
to middle school and their social environment such that this “mismatch” drives students’
decreasing levels of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, the second goal of this study was to
investigate how changing from elementary school to middle school affected both intrinsic and
extrinsic motivation. We investigated differences between children who attended K-8th grade
schools and those who attended K-5th then 6th-8th grade schools. We expected that the decline in
intrinsic motivation might be more pronounced for children who transitioned to a new middle
school compared to children who remained in a K-8 school.
68 students filled out a survey on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation twice: once in elementary
school (shortly after completing 4th or 5th grade) and once between 18-30 months later when they
were in middle school. The survey asked students to indicate the extent to which intrinsic and
extrinsic reasons accounted for their academic actions in the classroom by asking them to
indicate how much each of several statements was “like them” on a scale of 1 (not like me at all)
to 5 (exactly like me.) The intrinsic motivation scale included statements about a preference for
challenge, a curiosity for learning, and a desire to independently master academic skills. The
extrinsic motivation scale included statements about a preference for easy work, a desire to
please the teacher, and a dependence on the teacher for the completion of academic work.
Did intrinsic motivation decrease from elementary to middle school?
Yes. Students were significantly less curious and less interested in mastery and challenge
regarding their academic activities in middle school compared to elementary school.
Did extrinsic motivation stay the same from elementary to middle school?
No. Students were less dependent on their teacher and had less of a desire to please their
teacher, but had a greater desire for easy work in middle school.
Did switching schools make a difference in how much intrinsic motivation
decreased from elementary to middle school?
No. There were no differences in the degree of change between students who went to K-
8th grade schools and students who went to K-5th grade and 6th-8th grade schools.
This study replicated the developmental decrease in intrinsic motivation found in previous
research, but revealed varied patterns of change in extrinsic motivation. There was no effect of
transitioning to a new school. Future research should examine the effects of school transitions
using these measures with a larger sample size than that used in the present study.
How do we explain the developmental decrease in intrinsic motivation? Factors such as
decreasing perceived autonomy, decreasing perceived competence, heavily performance-based
academic goals, and reduced opportunities for close relationships with teachers may play a role.
Some of our current research is examining potential causes of the decrease in intrinsic motivation
with a large sample of 3rd- through 8th-grade students. By identifying these factors, we hope to
pinpoint areas for intervention that would help keep students deeply engaged with their academic
work well beyond the middle school years.