Skip to main content

Motivating carrots and sticks

A student at a desk with books and a laptop

Motivation is one of those topics that is so important to learning and passing exams that we will constantly keep coming back to it. That's because if you can master motivation when studying, you study longer, more frequently and become more focused.

I have always liked the simple idea that if you want to motivate someone to do something then you give a reward (a carrot), or a punishment (a stick). You will probably have used carrot and stick techniques on yourself. For instance “If I answer these exam questions by the weekend I will have Sunday off” or “if I don't answer these exam questions by the weekend then I won't have Sunday off”.

Is a stick and carrot too simplistic?

In his book 'Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us', Daniel H Pink (a former speech writer for Al Gore) argues that there are three motivational systems:

  1. Survival: motivated to eat, drink and reproduce
  2. Seek reward and avoid punishment: the so called carrot and stick
  3. Intrinsic motivation: the idea that motivation comes from within not from external stimuli

These are not mutually exclusive, you are still motivated to eat, drink and reproduce whilst carrots and sticks will also work. So what are these intrinsic motivators?

Type X and Type I

Type X behaviour is fuelled more by extrinsic desire, how much money will I get, I don't want to have to work Sunday, this fits with carrot and stick. Type I behaviour requires intrinsic motivation and is concerned with the satisfaction gained from an activity.

Pink argues that extrinsic motivation works better for algorithmic/routine tasks that require little cognitive processing. But if you have to think, understand, create then intrinsic motivation is more effective. Got it…

And the point is…

Studying and learning require a huge amount of cognitive processing (as a type I behaviour) so, rather than using carrot and stick motivators, you would be better using intrinsic ones.

Pink explains that intrinsic motivators can be broken into Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy – This can be achieved by making your own decisions as to how you study, rather than listening to others or being rewarded for doing it. It's about taking ownership.
  • Mastery -This is a mind set and involves believing that what you are learning is not something in isolation, but contributing to a greater and longer term skill set.
  • Purpose – This links nicely back to goals. You must feel that what you are learning has some value and purpose possibly beyond simply passing the exam, so consider how it may help you do your job better!

Motivation can be difficult to understand, personally I feel that it does come from within (intrinsic), it's my desire to do something not someone else's and so the argument that you should not use carrot and stick (extrinsic) type rewards makes a whole lot of sense.

Have a think about what drives you to do something, is it perfection, ambition or something else? How have you motivated yourself to study or learn effectively in the past?


Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial, has been involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years. He is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.