Fostering intrinsic motivation in secondary school science through inquiry-based learning enhances student autonomy and engagement. Crucial for academic achievement.

Fostering secondary school science students’ intrinsic motivation by inquiry-based learning

Fostering intrinsic motivation in secondary school science through inquiry-based learning enhances student autonomy and engagement.

The humanistic tradition, highlighted by seminal figures in the field, underlines a natural propensity among individuals to seek out learning and exploration opportunities. This inclination, termed intrinsic motivation, is driven purely by the enjoyment or interest in these activities, independent of external pressures or specific objectives. Within the framework of self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation is positioned at one end of a spectrum of motivations. This spectrum spans from a lack of motivation through various levels of extrinsic motivation, where actions are influenced by external rewards or objectives, to the self-driven nature of intrinsic motivation.  

Intrinsic motivation is a critical element in human behaviour, driving individuals to engage fully in activities for the sheer joy or interest they provide, without external incentives. This concept is particularly vital in education, where it has been linked to student well-being and academic achievement across various disciplines. Studies have shown that when individuals undertake activities for their inherent satisfaction, they are likely to excel and experience enhanced well-being.

Basic psychological need support fosters intrinsic motivation

However, there is a stark contrast between this ideal and the reality in many educational settings worldwide, where students often attend school out of obligation rather than interest, highlighting a widespread lack of intrinsic motivation for learning. Self-determination theory offers a solution by emphasizing tools for educators to support intrinsic motivation in school. It states that each human has basic psychological (as opposed to physiological) needs: the need for (1) autonomy, associated with volition and willingness; (2) competence, associated with mastery and effectiveness; and (3) relatedness, associated with connectedness to others.

Support of these needs results in motivation becoming more internal (or autonomous) and fosters intrinsic motivation. When these needs are met, motivation becomes more internalised, fostering intrinsic motivation, whereas their frustration can significantly hinder it. 

So, how can a teacher use this? Which type of pedagogy could support the basic psychological needs of students? Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a pedagogical approach where students actively participate in a research cycle, conducting investigations by themselves. This method has gained support within science education, showing a generally positive impact on student learning. IBL promotes autonomy as students formulate their own questions, competence through engaging at their skill level, and relatedness by working in groups.

Credit. Midjourney

Despite its benefits, the open nature of IBL, with a strong focus on student autonomy, can sometimes challenge students’ sense of competence. The vast array of choices in IBL tasks may overwhelm students, highlighting the need for a careful balance between fostering autonomy and ensuring competence. This balance is crucial to maximise the educational benefits of IBL.

What strategy can I use to foster my students’ intrinsic motivation? Analysis of actual student interview quotes led us to our support strategy: listening to students’ needs proved to be the key to supporting their basic psychological needs and foster their intrinsic motivation.

Ralph Meulenbroeks

The study investigates the impact of guided inquiry-based learning (IBL) on the intrinsic motivation of secondary school students during physics practicals focused on ionizing radiation.

Our research question, experiment, and results

The research question is: To what extent is secondary students’ intrinsic motivation for a physics practical fostered by guided inquiry-based learning?

We set out to answer these questions in an experiment consisting of three parts. In the first exploratory part, 38 secondary school physics students were interviewed in seven focus groups immediately after performing IBL experiments on ionizing radiation. The students generally appreciated the level of autonomy but expressed their need for support in two main areas: the inquiry process and non-salient tasks, mainly operating the equipment. 

Based on these outcomes, we redesigned the learning materials related to the practicals. We provided additional support through revised worksheets, giving hints and tips in terms of the research process and videos, and facilitating the use of the equipment, such as the (mildly) radioactive sources, Geiger-Müller counters, and high-voltage power supplies.

In the third and final part, a quasi-experiment with a control group was carried out amongst a group of 10-12 grade students from a total of seven secondary schools. One experimental group received a revised worksheet and a support video on the use of the equipment (88 students); the other only received the worksheet (67 students), relying on a booklet to support them in using the equipment. A third sample performing the same practical on the basis of a step-by-step instruction sheet (thus basically obviating any student initiative or inquiry) was used as a control group (87 students).

Students were randomly assigned to one of the groups, and they reported on their intrinsic motivation for this type of practical just before and after performing the practical using a well-known questionnaire, the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory. After careful comparison and analysis of the scores, the results showed significantly larger gains in intrinsic motivation for the IBL groups as compared with the control group. The IBL group, with the additional videos, demonstrated the biggest increase (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The descriptive statistics (average gains post-pre and standard deviations) in the form of a bar graph (*: p < 0.05; **: p< 0.01; ***: p< 0.001. GIBL: Guided IBL. DI: direct instruction worksheet (control group).
Credit. Author


So, what does this all mean for educators? Why is this result so important?  Supporting students’ sense of competence without limiting their autonomy is crucial in educational settings. This balance is achieved through carefully designed worksheets and instructional videos that guide without being overly prescriptive. Worksheets that prompt students to formulate research questions within a set time frame and provide templates for data recording without specifying details encourage autonomy while offering direction. This approach allows educators to tailor support to specific needs, such as understanding the process and managing tasks not directly related to the core learning objectives.

Science educators are encouraged to design worksheets that stimulate inquiry by posing open-ended questions rather than dictating every step of the experiment. Additionally, for practicals requiring complex equipment, short instructional videos can be invaluable. These resources help students navigate the practical aspects of their experiments, ensuring they remain engaged and autonomous while feeling competent and supported in their learning journey.

As a final observation, note that the analysis of the actual student quotes led us to our support strategy: listening to students’ needs proved to be the key to supporting their basic psychological needs and fostering their intrinsic motivation.


Journal reference

Meulenbroeks, R., van Rijn, R., & Reijerkerk, M. (2023). Fostering Secondary School Science Students’ Intrinsic Motivation by Inquiry-based Learning. Research in Science Education, 1-20.

Ralph Meulenbroeks is a physicist and associate professor of science education at the Freudenthal Institute at Utrecht University. His fields of interest include inquiry-based learning, digital tools in science teaching, student well-being, and motivation.

Rob van Rijn works as a practical lecturer at the Ionizing Radiation Practical (IRP) at Utrecht University. In this capacity, he has been involved in research focused on inquiry-based learning (IBL) and self-determination theory for more than a decade.

Martijn Reijerkerk is a biology teacher in Amsterdam. After researching inquiry-based learning (IBL) and self-determination theory during his master's, he aims to implement these fields of study in the classroom.