Intrinsic Motivation among Regular, Special, and Alternative Education High School Students

Article excerpt


This study examined motivationally related variables among three types of high school students. In particular, students' perceptions of competence, control, parental autonomy support, teacher autonomy support, peer autonomy support, and academic coping were investigated. Two hundred fifty-one juniors and seniors (104 regular education, 93 alternative education, and 54 special education) from a large Southern California school district participated. Significant group differences were found on measures of perceived competence, academic coping, and parental autonomy support. Specifically, regular education students had a higher level of self-reported academic competence than did special education students. Further, regular education and special education students reported that their parents were more involved in their lives as compared with alternative education students. Finally, regular education students reported a higher level of academic anxiety than did special education and alternative education students; however, regular education students had the highest level of positive coping. The implications of these findings are discussed.


The organismic conceptualization of motivation, evolving from ethology, drive theory, and operant and attributional theory, views people as active regulators of their behavior. Behavior is seen not simply as a response to a stimulus, nor only as an attempt to fulfill internal and often unconscious drives. Rather, behavior depends on such factors as perceived competence and autonomy.

White (1959), Harter (1981), and Deci and Ryan (1985) are among those who have suggested that behavior primarily originates from the need to feel effective (i.e., competence) and the need to master the environment independently (i.e., autonomy). As Deci and Ryan (1985) noted, intrinsic motivation is primarily influenced by the competence one feels in mastering a task and the perceived freedom in defining and picking the task. In addition, environmental factors, such as the influence of parents and teachers, are considered crucial in the development and maintenance of intrinsic motivation.

The present study utilized Deci and Ryan's (1985) organismic theory of intrinsic motivation. Specifically, this theory postulates that the human being prefers to act in a competent manner to reach goals and fulfill needs. Competence pertains to the volitional control of outcomes and involves two steps. First, the person knows the specific behaviors that result in successful outcomes, and second, the person feels able to execute such behaviors. This internal drive to be competent, or effective, develops as the person explores his or her environment--even seeking out challenges--and continually learns and adapts.

Individuals concomitantly desire autonomy. Children are dependent on significant adults to provide social contexts that promote autonomy. For example, parents can progressively reduce external control and allow more freedom of choice.

Education and Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation has been associated with numerous aspects of the academic experience. Students who are intrinsically motivated may pursue a task for its inherent pleasure (Naccarato, 1988). They focus on the task rather than the self, hence learning is generally a pleasurable experience rather than merely a means to an end (e.g., grades). Further, students who are encouraged to develop intrinsic motivation in their early years continue to be intrinsically motivated in subsequent education, thus providing the basis for achievement motivation in later years (Gottfried, 1983). In addition, intrinsically motivated students who complete a task have better conceptual understanding of that task relative to externally motivated peers (Gottfried, 1985). For instance, students who endorse extrinsic reasons for competence do less well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a measure of conceptual knowledge used for college entrance. …


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