In Praise of Ulterior Motives: Addressing Student Motivation in Sexuality Education

Author: Alexander Bove

As student-centered educators in diverse classrooms, we often consider learning domains and multiple intelligences (i.e. how our students learn) when designing our lessons. These are important considerations, but do we spend enough time thinking about what motivates our students to want to learn at all (or to want to engage in the sorts of health behaviors we want to encourage)? Examining the classic model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as new approaches, might allow us to broaden our approach. Motivation

The dominant late 20th Century model of educational motivation posited a binary of extrinsic and intrinsic (Lepper et al, 1997). As Covington (2000) explains:

Individuals are said to be driven to act for extrinsic reasons when they anticipate some kind of tangible payoff, such as good grades, recognition, or gold stars. These rewards are said to be extrinsic because they are unrelated to the action….By contrast, individuals are said to be intrinsically motivated when they engage in activities for their own sake. In this instance, the rewards reside in the actions themselves” (pp. 22-23).

In their meta-analysis, Lepper et al (1997) traced a decline in intrinsic motivation as students moved through middle and high school: as the extrinsic motivation of grades began to matter more and more, students seemed to be less motivated by the pure desire to learn. In this model, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are antagonistic. Calvin and Hobbes

Critics have pointed out that studies on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are problematic because what researchers observe as extrinsic motivation might have intrinsic underpinnings (Covington, 2000; Reiss, 2012). According to Covington (2000), students might be grade focused because of their desire for external rewards (or fear of punishments) or may simply view grades as a way to measure their own progress and challenge themselves. In other words, they may seem to embrace external rewards while viewing those rewards as means to their own self-efficacy. What is more likely, then, is that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are separate variables and each exists along its own spectrum. An individual student can employ both kinds of motivation simultaneously. Intrinsic candy

Newer models of motivation are less binary. Reiss (2012) rejected the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy and suggested a multifaceted theory of motivation based on 16 “universal reinforcements” (p. 154). His Reiss Motivation Profile (RMP) cataloged our needs for acceptance, honor, curiosity, social contact, and romance, along with 9 other human desires. The RMP has been applied successfully in two sexuality education-adjacent contexts: health behavior and marriage counseling. Estes et al (2011) also suggested a multivariate taxonomy of basic learner needs that included acceptance and safety, meaningful engagement, and “the opportunity to connect the new with the known” (p. 9). Both Reiss and Estes et al framed motivation in terms of learner needs, allowing for the possibility that some of those needs (i.e. acceptance and aligned assessments in the Estes model, and acceptance, order, and status in the Reiss model) were externally directed/generated while others (choice, meaningful engagement, curiosity, honor, idealism, and tranquility) originated within the learner. In other words, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations could coexist.

Thinking more deeply about learner motivation has two important consequences viz a viz sexuality education. First, we should consider students’ motivations to engage in health behaviors and, if those behaviors are dangerous or harmful, to change their behaviors. Some promising work has been done in this area using Deci & Ryan’s (2008) Self-Determination Theory (Jenkins, 2004). In addition, a study of adolescents found that online requests for sexual interactions were less welcome if the adolescent lacked an intrinsic motivation for engaging in sexual interaction (Kerstens & Stol, 2014). Other studies in health behavior motivation have emphasized the need to consider participants’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in order to achieve the best results (McBride et al, 1994). Innate psychological needsA second consideration for the sexuality educator is the kinds of class activities that can best adapt to learners’ varying potential motivations. Koch (2007) advocated group learning in sexuality education because it suited several different student motivations. Cooperative learning afforded students the opportunity to engage meaningfully, connect new concepts with existing concepts, and feel safe and accepted (i.e. it satisfied Reiss’ and Estes’ criteria). It provided extrinsic motivation via rewards for group achievement, which encouraged group cohesion and social interdependence. As an experiential learning method, “Group work enhance[d] social and emotional development through many different avenues, including developing a sense of community and altruism, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and empowerment” and thus satisfied the needs of intrinsically motivated learners (Koch, 2007, p. 54). Koch’s methodology should seem familiar to students in Widener’s Human Sexuality Education program. People in it together

Although the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as opposite ends of a binary spectrum has fallen out of favor, both types of motivation, and several others, are worth considering when we prepare our sexuality educational curricula and interventions. We must not only take our students’ varying learning styles (i.e. how they learn) into account: if we want to keep them engaged, we must also try to understand why students learn.



Covington, M. V. (2000). Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in schools: A reconciliation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(1), 22-25.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne,49(3), 182-185.

Estes, T.H., Mintz, S.L., & Gunter, M.A. (2011). Instruction: A models approach (6th ed.).  Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Jenkins, S. (2004). Gender and self-determination in sexual motivation. Dissertation Abstracts International, 64, 6330. Retrieved from

Kerstens, J., & Stol, W. (2014). Receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images: The multifaceted and dialogic nature of adolescents’ online sexual interactions. Cyberpsychology, 8(1), 1-15.

Koch, P. (2007). The what, why, and how of group learning in sexuality education. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 2(2), 51-71.

Lepper, M. R., Sethi, S., Dialdin, D., & Drake, M. (1997). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A developmental perspective. In S. S. Luthar, J. A. Burack, D. Cicchetti, J. R. Weisz (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 23-50). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

McBride, C. M., Curry, S. J., Stephens, R. S., Wells, E. A., Roffman, R. A., & Hawkins, J. (1994). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for change in cigarette smokers, marijuana smokers, and cocaine users. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 8(4), 243-250.

Reiss, S. (2012). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Teaching of Psychology, 39(2), 152-156.


7 responses to “In Praise of Ulterior Motives: Addressing Student Motivation in Sexuality Education

  1. Alex,

    Nice job! Really great point that you raised: though learning styles are important, finding out what triggers the learner’s motivation is what keeps learners engaged. When you described extrinsic and intrinsic as motivations that exist on a spectrum that can also occur simultaneously—I was curious to ask—do you think that particular activities can stimulate more of the extrinsic qualities in a naturally intrinsic learner, and vice versa? I also appreciated that you included the multifaceted approach to motivation: in regard to sexual development, curiosity is what fuels a child’s desire to learn about their bodies and the bodies of others through exploration and play.

    I found the part where you discussed group learning activities as a way of addressing the intrinsicly/extrinsicly-motivated learner in sexuality education particularly interesting, and I never thought about it in that way before. But it totally makes sense: group activity motivates development, growth, empowerment, and achievement. So thank you for writing this!:)


    • I’m not sure I have in mind particular exercises/activities that work across motivation profiles, but I often do try to frame activities and exercises in both ways to my classes: this is a way to earn points but it should also be fun/useful for its own sake. I tend to make that explicit. Lately, my entire andragogy has been based on near-total transparency about my motives, methods, etc. This seems to appeal to all kinds of learners.

  2. I laughed in the beginning of your blog post when you wrote about the dichotomous nature of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The limiting nature of dichotomies almost seems like an inside joke within the human sexuality profession!

    Until now, I have used a business marketing framework to understand my students/participants’ motivations, and so I really appreciate you giving me another tool to use to understand them. Because really, isn’t the whole point of being an educator to educate? If we don’t utilize our students’ motivations, they will not be engaged. I personally do not want to attempt to educate a room full of zoned out students. Finding motivations is a great first step to any workshop or lesson! Thanks Alex

  3. This makes me think of including students opinion in creating learning objectives and goals for the class. This way, both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be addressed. The students can acknowledge that they want good grades or a boost on their resume, but they can also address improving confidence (be it in the classroom or in their sexual relationships) or self-expression. Although it’s important to know what will motivates students, sometimes they might be aware of it themselves. I was a master of 5-minutes-before-class memorization just to regurgitate it to get a decent grade. Was I necessarily motivated by grades? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I learned anything from my motivation. Extracurricular activities and events on the other hand had me pouring over making the perfect flyer and making sure decorations matched and everyone would attend. I was motivated certainly, but my awareness of it was lost on me at the time. If schools don’t provide a place to reflect on intrinsic, I think the measurable world of extrinsic will take over.

  4. This is a very valid point! As a therapist we work with our clients to figure out what they want to work on in their therapy together and go from there. If I came in and said well this is what you are going to work on I guarantee not much will be accomplished in our sessions. Why is this not the same when we educate? I understand there are limitation if we are teaching in certain populations and grade levels but we can still hear the audiences voice, understand where they are coming from, and what is motivating them to be in your classroom. If we do not understand these points how will we actually give them knowledge versus just a grade to add under their belts. I found this post enlightening and refreshing.

  5. Great post and discussion. Alex, based on how I read what you’ve shared, it seems that there is no difference in quality of learning when motivation is more extrinsic or more intrinsic, as long as the educator knows what’s motivating their students, and uses that information wisely. Isn’t it true, however, that Adult Learning Theory/Andragogy emphasises the importance of tapping into learners’ intrinsic motivations, specifically? For example, it would seem to me that knowing why adult students are present in a class in the first place would be more useful to me if I want to maximize the learning, vs just knowing they want good grades. As in, even if they’re required to take the class, like in a workplace sexual harassment prevention training, or a required high school sex ed situation, don’t we as educators want to tap into something that would in fact spark intrinsic motivation to learn the material, if what we want is for them to actually learn it (rather than find whatever way they can to get by with just a passing grade)? The Kersten & Stol paper you cited seems to be touching on this exact idea, but in a discussion about the usefulness of knowing learner motivations, I just thought I’d advocate for self-determination and intrinsic motivation as being especially useful in my personal experience, and also Adult Learning Theory. I think this is also why I’m drawn to the Reiss Motivation Profile. It encourages us to dig deeper into being aware of what we all ultimately need as social beings, and I think that kind of awareness can really enhance our ability to inspire intrinsic motivation in our students. Thanks. Enjoyed reading 🙂

  6. I really dug reading this, especially since I find motivation to be such an interesting topic. Many individuals had great comments, so I don’t want to be redundant. However, one additional thing I was thinking about was possibly beginning a class (or at some point early on while working with group of students) with an exercise that taps into what motivations they have within the topic or course. Similar to how we did an exercise in our methods class looking at our learning styles, I think it would be useful for us as educators to collect information about the students motivations to further our effectiveness over the course of working with the group. I do like the example of how Koch used group learning to accomplish this, but I wonder if it would be useful for students to intentionally examine their motivations as well, while also giving the educator a better read of the students’ needs.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.