What’s your why?

Shifting from Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

We live in a world that rewards frivolous behaviour with fame and fortune, so it is no wonder that some students expect their motivation to come from the outside, in the same way that reality show contestants expect to win a million dollars, simply by “showing up”.

How can we change this? What impact can we have on millennial, tech savvy students expecting instant gratification in our classrooms?

We start by reminding students (and ourselves) that motivation begins on the inside. We show students why external motivators will never sustain them. The overjustification effect is just one example of this fact.

Better yet, we tap into students’ own life experiences to ignite long-term commitment and motivation. Students often forget the feelings of joy and anticipation they felt when they first opened their acceptance letters to school.

In the midst of going to class, applying for OSAP, juggling family, work, and school demands, and paying bills, students often forget why they applied to their programs in the first place.

There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why. William Barclay

Sometimes, igniting motivation is as simple as asking students “Why?” they are at college in the first place. Why?” exercises help students get to the heart of what motivates them, guides them, keeps them going. From early morning classes to late night study sessions to unexpected academic costs to making it through final exams.


 How I incorporate “Why?” exercises into lectures:

  1. I ask students to relax, sit back, close their eyes, and take a deep breath.
  2. Next, I ask them to visualize the day they applied to college and ultimately received their acceptance letters.
  3. Finally, students are asked “Why?” they wanted to go to college in the first place – what’s their ultimate mission and motivation for getting a diploma in their chosen field.

Student answers to this simple, yet complex question of “Why?” is so varied, so unique to each student. Yet, each answer is united by the same ideal, the same belief: Hope

Students are searching for something better, to change for the better, to make the world better. They want to save lives as nurses, to design hybrid cars as engineering technologists, to help children who are abused as child & youth care workers, to inspire their own children by being college educated, to be independent and self-sufficient, to do what they love, and most of all, students yearn to make a difference in this world.


Sustaining Motivation and Commitment

Once written down, I encourage students to carry their answers (in one word, if possible) in their wallets, post them on the bathroom mirror, on their phones, in their cars, and look to their “Why?” every time they need inspiration.

Their answers remind them “Why?” they choose to study for midterms, “Why?” they choose to write research papers, “Why?” they choose to attend class rather than do something that brings instant gratification.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. Nietzsche

I believe so strongly in using “Why?” exercises that I incorporated them into my psychology textbook.

Intrinsic motivation can be taught in so many ways. During “Why?” Exercises, students teach me. They teach me that hope is enough to sustain us through the hard times. Hope is enough to push us through life’s challenges. And the most important lesson of all is that hope mixed with drive, self-determination, and hard work changes lives for the better.

Students are my reason why.


“Why?” do you do what you do?

21 thoughts on “What’s your why?

Add yours

  1. My goodness. I love this. It reminds me of a Tedtalk I watched recently on the same topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en

    I think that asking why is such a good way to not only find motivation but to remind yourself that everything you do should reinforce that ‘why.’

    Since I’m a WordPress.org user I can’t reblog your article but I’m going to link to it in a post if that’s OK with you.

    1. Of course ! I would love that. 😊

      Thanks also for sharing the link to Simon’s Ted talk. Anything & everything that can help sustain (student) motivation is critical.

      Beginning and ending are the easy parts. Perservering in the “depth of winter” is the ultimate challenge. Asking WHY throughout the journey (sometimes hourly) reminds us that we chose it in the first place. Shifts us from victim to victor mentality.

      Your feedback on this post takes it one step further. Thanks Sharon! New ideas are percolating.. ✨

  2. Great Post, Dr. Dinardo.
    A thought provoking post on Knowing our Why and something I also use with my Psychology students. I recently attended a leadership conference and one of the main speakers spoke on this topic- digging deeper into the Nine Whys. It was one of life’s tap on the shoulder moments for me. My Why is -Trust. My purpose in life is in building and fostering trusting relationships. My How is- Contribute. I do this through my work with students and community outreach work particularly with veterans. Simon Sinek’s book and videos are wonderful! Here is another one. Enjoy the day! 🙂

    1. This is wonderful information. Thanks Pepper! So many great resources. Especially your own motivations for “why you do what you do”. I am inspired. And I know your students are too. Keep shining!✨

  3. Wonderful post!! I have an insatiable need to understand why things happen. I have driven people crazy with it, lol. I think I probably over-dissect a situation. But I’m happy to read this and think, hey it’s a good thing!! So, thank you!!

  4. Excellent analysis of the Why! 😊

    I am also a disciple of Simon Sinek–His book _Start With Why_ is a well-written, inspiring, as well as evidence-based treatise on the profound importance of knowing and pursuing our Why.

    Daniel Pink has also written a similarly in-depth analysis of intrinsic motivation in _Drive_. I wonder if you have already read it, or if as an academic, this kind of lady literature does not appeal to you?

    I find that every time I read something new like this, new connections occur that further expand my understanding and ability to apply it!!

    Have a great week! 😊

    1. Great resources! Thanks for sharing! I incorporate Daniel Pink’s Drive book into my motivation lecture for intro psychology. Based on today’s post discussion, I will be adding in Simon’s work too.

      Have a wonderful week! May your May be filled with sunshine.🌷

  5. Once we figure out the Why we become unstoppable until we reach another point in our lives where we ask the same question. Life is full of Why’s as our lives constantly evolve. Some of those changes are internal and other’s are from external sources but either way answering the question Why is the only way to move forward.

  6. This is great thanks for sharing your approach for helping students find their “why”. It seems like many students have limiting why beliefs like thinking that they are in college to get a job that pays more money. How do you get students to dig past this and find deeper reasons?

  7. Your students are fortunate to have you. People like you are really working to make this world a better place, ma’am. I’ve never had this sort of thing in my school and now I’m in the college (pre-final year) pursuing my degree. But no one talks about it. Everyone is a part of the rat race. I’m not blaming, I’m stating the fact. But I truly believe that one day will come when all of the educational institutions will have this sort of activities. Thank you so much. Live well, Ma’am.

      1. Oh, you’re welcome again. One more thing, a vehicle can not run without a fuel. If we are vehicles then people like you are our fuels. Now, it is up to us to get a right direction. Because destination doesn’t matter for me. A good direction defines the character. Live fully. Thanks again, Ma’am.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: