Every student is different. There are various external and internal factors that may affect the pace of a student’s learning.

Why then, do we expect all students to complete a certain amount of work by a certain date? And offer rewards like ice cream, when we know not all students are likely to reach the same goal?

Research around motivation can shed some light on best practices for inspiring the type of motivation that will last beyond that ice cream cone and cultivate a lifetime love of learning. And there are examples of educators from across the country who are implementing unique goal setting and tracking systems that enable all students to succeed.

Extrinsic Motivation and Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

Extrinsic motivation involves expecting a reward for completing a task. For example, every month a school offers a special breakfast for students with perfect attendance.

With intrinsic motivation, the reward is completing the task. It’s that rush of accomplishment and satisfaction of completing your goal.

Research shows that intrinsic motivation is more impactful than extrinsic motivation as far as developing good habits and cultivating deeper learning. So it’s interesting that many edtech programs focus on extrinsic rewards such as badges and customization for an avatar. Especially when research shows that these extraneous elements distract from the learning.

That’s not to say that extrinsic rewards are all negative. One study shows that when rewards were expected, intrinsic motivation decreased, but when they were unexpected, intrinsic motivation was unaffected. Incorporating some extrinsic rewards (for example, a surprise pizza party for students who achieve their goals), can complement the intrinsic rewards.

Educators Using Custom Goals in their Classrooms

These educators show us not only how differentiating goals for many levels of students is possible, but also how they’ve increased student engagement without the use of expected extrinsic rewards.

1. Custom goals can be specific to the class or specific to the individual student.


Take this goal chain from educators Kristen Ramsdale and Melissa Bate at Pickerington Local School District in Pickerington, Ohio. When a student meets a goal, they get to add a paper to the chain. When the chain hits the floor the class gets a reward and starts another chain.

Students are working on individual goals while working toward a class goal, so each student can work at their own pace and contribute to the class goal.

(Next page: 3 more ways educators are using custom goals)

About the Author:

Calli Welsch is a digital media analyst at MIND Research Institute. She loves playing board games and editing their rules, which she often talks about on twitter @CalliWelsch.