Intrinsic Motivation: Sherry Crow Telling the Story of Lifelong Learners



Questions start as soon as they enter the room – everything from “how high is the moon?” to “How many kinds of bugs are there?” Some may walk shyly, while others run, but all are eager to find the treasure they know is on those shelves.

Kindergartners introduced to the school library see a place of wonder and unlimited possibilities. They can’t wait to open the books, watch the videos, turn on the computers, and ask the librarian to help them unlock all that magic.

Flash forward a few years, though, and most of those same children will no longer run through the library doors. Some may still have questions, but now they’re not so eager to ask. Faced with school research projects or a list of books they have to read, they’re no longer interested in finding magic, just in finding what they need to get good grades.

It’s a story Sherry R. Crow watched unfold many times, until she decided to change the ending.

“I kept thinking about motivation and why some children keep that passion for learning that they had when they walked in the door at 5 years of age, but others don’t. And I saw that happening because as a librarian I could see them through those years,” she said.

An associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s College of Education, Crow has focused her research on intrinsic motivation, which she defines in one article as “the impetus behind doing something for its inherent satisfaction.” She’s studied the reasons why some students are able to keep their passion for learning alive.

Crow’s research, beginning with her 2009 dissertation for Emporia State University, has spawned eight published articles and presentations at regional, national and international conferences. Her work offers answers for the question of what creates intrinsic motivation, and ideas about how school librarians can foster that love of learning.

At UNK, her School Librarian Graduate Program has national recognition. Through her articles, two textbooks and her teaching, Crow has helped rewrite the job for many school librarians. Her work has earned her honors, including the 2010 Presidential Award from the Nebraska Educational Media Association, Outstanding Teaching and Outstanding Scholarship awards from her college.

Sherry Crow’s research has included work across the world, including a June trip working with Ugandan orphans.

Crow advocates for a student-centered approach. Whether designing their own lessons or collaborating with teachers on the classroom curriculum, librarians should look for ways to encourage students’ creativity, get them actively solving problems and give them more control over their learning experiences.

That means making the library a place for fun. A place for play.

From the “Twilight” poster on her office wall to the “Wizard of Oz” figurines at the bottom of her bookcase, Crow remains steeped in the young adult literature that sparked the passion for learning she’s never lost.

“I had an early, early love of literature, especially children’s and young adult, even as a child, even as a young adult,” she said. “That is kind of what grabbed me in the beginning.”

She began storytelling while still in high school and became the children’s librarian at the Hays Public Library in Hays, Kan. Her first job as a school librarian came in the early 1990s.

Crow entered the profession at a pivotal time. Technological advances were changing how educators used libraries and what they asked librarians to do. Sometimes, that meant focusing on technology and research instead of more traditional activities, such as reading stories to students.

Crow chose a different approach.

“As I was starting in school libraries, the whole notion of pulling together collaborative units with teachers was becoming popular,” she said. “You become involved in classrooms with teachers, contributing what you as a library professional can do to their classroom, to the projects they’re working with the kids. You actually design them with them. And I always incorporated a storytelling element when it was even remotely connected.”

Crow’s storytelling doll – a traditional Southwest artifact – became a familiar and popular sight at her school in Vernon Hills, Ill.

“I would put the doll on the chalk tray. When they would come in and see her, they would say ‘Oh, we’re going to get a story today.’”

With about 750 third- and fourth-graders in the school, Crow honed her skills and her knowledge of how children learn.

“I learned how to tell stories to various types of children, with different attention spans, cultural differences,” she said, such as Korean children who didn’t look her in the eye. Not out of disrespect, but as a sign of respect. “I learned so much about children, about their listening, about the storytelling they enjoy.”


Though she’d been working in libraries since 1978, the seed for Crow’s formal research was planted in the early 2000s while working for a school in Colorado Springs, Colo. Not only did she notice the sharp drop-off in student interest around third grade, she saw a different problem emerge while moonlighting on the reference desk at a public library.

“Parents were coming in with these lists, and they were looking for books at these levels,” Crow said. When she followed her training and asked the children about what they liked to read, the parents would quickly shut her down.

“They’d say ‘no, you don’t understand, we need a book from this list.’ And so it became a hunt for the books on the list. And so you found one, the kid checked it out, and they went away. There was no student centeredness, there was no ‘what do you like, what are you interested in?’ And I thought, ‘what craziness is this?’”

Crow was experiencing the Accelerated Reading Program, which has since been adopted by many American schools. In it, books are assigned point totals based on their level of difficulty. Students read and take tests to earn the AR points and meet goals set by their teachers.

It’s an example of a program that can kill students’ love of learning, Crow said, because it promises prizes for students who reach their goals. The result is that students begin reading for the prizes rather than reading for their own satisfaction.

It’s also an example of the type of motivation schools have fallen into as they’ve adapted to the national demand for greater accountability and standardization, embodied in 2001’s No Child Left Behind legislation.

“We were getting away from the student-centered approach,” Crow said, “and that was a travesty in my opinion.”

Concerned by these trends, Crow decided to find a better way to motivate students. That led her to a doctorate, and to her dissertation. While studies had been done on intrinsic motivation related to libraries – most notably by two professors from Syracuse University in New York – no one had yet asked children what they needed.

“No one had gone back to actually study the children and their reactions and the experiences they had had that were connected to their intrinsic information seeking,” Crow said. “So mine was more research of children, and their perspectives.”

Crow surveyed fifth-graders at a Colorado school, found 21 who had strong intrinsic motivation, and interviewed them about their experiences. She found that those lifelong learners had four common experiences when they took on learning projects: a chance to play, a point-of-passion experience, an anchor relationship, and non-competitive interaction with others.

As outlined in Crow’s article for the journal “School Libraries Worldwide,” the study found that lifelong learners were not only enthusiastic about play, they connected it to information-seeking activities and saw the library as a place of enjoyment.

The common point-of-passion experiences, or events that sparked an interest the students later pursued, was a surprising result for Crow. She said almost all of her subjects had this experience at the age of 5 or 6. These events were related to her third finding, the anchor relationship.

After finding out about her subjects’ point-of-passion experiences, Crow said, she would ask them what happened next. All of them told her about people in their lives who identified their new interest and encouraged it; these were their anchor relationships.

The most surprising finding for Crow, though, was the non-competitive nature her subjects shared.

“It was hilarious when I started to pick that (non-competitiveness) up. Because there were children involved in sports and I said ‘so, you like running. Tell me why you run.’ And the little girl who was involved in running said ‘Well, I like the feel of wind in my hair.’”

One of the boys was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Crow asked why he liked to watch the games, and he said, “because my dad likes it. We watch together, and I really like the big star on the field.” What he knew about the players wasn’t their yards-per-carry or even their win-loss record, but how one grew up in a foster home and gave money to foster kids.”

Sherry Crow, left, and one of her former students, Mary Roesler, who is now the librarian at Kenwood Elementary in Kearney.

In recent publications, Crow has focused on how librarians can incorporate the principles of intrinsic motivation into their schools’ curriculum. One key component is designing assignments that allow students some control and autonomy. That can be as simple as giving them greater choices in topics, or allowing them to choose whether they want to work individually or in groups.

Other components include introducing more activities that can create those point-of-passion experiences and noticing those events when they happen. Librarians can sometimes become the anchor relationship for students, Crow said, by identifying and encouraging their interests. They can also alert parents or grandparents to such experiences.

Response to her research from the library science profession, Crow said, has been mixed.

“Some were relieved and happy to hear this data. Finally, somebody is talking sense that what we’ve done in the past is what we should be doing always. That we should be inspiring and stimulating curiosity and allowing children to be creative. Giving them more play time, incorporating play into our teaching, and library environments,” she said.

But others worried how Crow’s approach would help them achieve the standards and test scores they needed. While she understands the source of their worry, Crow sees two problems with that argument: first, that a librarian’s goal should be to create lifelong learners, rather than to meet test score standards; and second, that getting kids excited about learning should improve their performance, anyway.

“If the kids are engaged, the scores go up.”


Crow is also spreading the news of intrinsic motivation to the next generation of librarians. She’s authored two textbooks on information literacy and has shaped UNK’s School Librarian Graduate Program. That program was nationally recognized by the American Association of School Librarians, and National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in 2013. It was an achievement she’d worked toward since coming to UNK in 2006.

“When I came here, our program was needing work,” she said, to integrate the profession’s changing standards and practices. That meant adding classes and adding more real-world collaboration opportunities to the curriculum. Crow also incorporated intrinsic motivation principles into the classes.

Crow-WEB-6One example is in Crow’s Storytelling in the School Library and Classroom course. It includes a project that has students take an assignment they’ve used in class, and find a way to incorporate storytelling. In another course, students design a motivational program for a school.

She is also the chair of the AASL’s coordinating committee, and president of both the Nebraska School Librarians Association and the Nebraska Library Commissioners.

Despite the demands of teaching and service, Crow hasn’t stopped questioning, learning and writing. She has several articles awaiting publication that focus on differentiated learning, which has been a recent emphasis for the college.

“A lot of what I’m learning in that (research) stream are the same things I learned in the intrinsic motivation research,” said Crow, which is that educators need to give students choices to meet the needs and norms of different cultures and learning styles.

Crow’s research on intrinsic motivation also continues. In June, she repeated her 2008 study with a very different student population – Ugandan orphans. She visited a Kampala school where her daughter had just finished a teaching job.

Crow said she picked Uganda for its collectivist culture, which values the group over individualism. The students were likely a bit older than her Colorado subjects, and farther behind academically because of their circumstances, but she suspects the study results will reveal many similarities.

“What I really hope is that I find they have the same motivators,” she said, as that would be strong evidence there are universal factors librarians can focus on to spark that love of learning. That finding, in turn, could foster greater acceptance and implementation of intrinsic motivation principles.

One experience she’s already found to be universal.

In January, Crow collected about 500 books for her daughter’s Ugandan students. When she delivered them, her daughter warned her that the children might not open up easily. They didn’t trust people easily, and they weren’t used to having books.

“Teachers won’t let them get into books, because they’re precious,” Crow said. But just like the young students she used to watch burst through the library doors, the Ugandan students couldn’t wait to get their hands on that treasure. “We just put them all out on a table and they just dove in.”

As for getting them to warm up personally, well that was simple.

Crow just told them a story.

Title: Associate Professor of School Library Science, Coordinator of School Librarian Endorsement
College: College of Education
Education: Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, Fort Hays State University, 1977; Master of Library Science, Brigham Young University, 1983; Ph.D., Emporia State University, 2009
Years at UNK: Eight
Career: Lecturer, assistant professor and associate professor, UNK, 2006-present; Adjunct professor, children’s literature/adolescent literature/information literacy, University of Colorado at Denver, 2004-07; Adjunct professor, Information Resources and Programs for Children, Emporia State University, 2005; Library Technology Educator, Colorado Springs School District 11, 1999-2006; Library Media Specialist, Hawthorn (Illinois) School District, 1992-1999; Crow also held positions as children’s librarian, literature specialist, senior librarian and department head at libraries in Kansas, New Jersey and Colorado.
Family: Husband, Steve; daughter, Sarah Eiden (husband, Nick, and children Andy and Bethany); daughter, Stacia Brandenburg (husband Tristan).
Hobbies/Interests: Snorkeling, singing and playing flute for church Praise Team, storytelling, hot air ballooning, hang gliding, sky diving, reading.
Areas of research/specialization: Fostering intrinsic motivation for information seeking and reading in children and young adults; information literacy instruction; storytelling; literature for children and young adults.
Honors/Awards: UNK School Librarian Graduate Program Nationally Recognized by AASL/NCATE, 2013; UNK College of Education Outstanding Teaching Award, 2010-11; Nebraska Educational Media Association Presidential Award, 2010; UNK College of Education Outstanding Scholarship Award, 2009-10; Emporia State University Beta Phi Mu Achievement Award, 2009; Colorado Association of Libraries Colorado Librarian of the Year, 2004; Colorado Association of Libraries Harold Hill Leadership Award, 2002.
Courses taught: Motivating the 21st Century Learner, Storytelling in the School Library and Classroom, Introduction to the School Library Program, Collection Development and Management, Reference Services and Resources, Administration of the School Library Program, Field Experiences in the School Library.
Recent Published Articles:
• “Researching Stuff Is The Best! Designing Assignments That Foster Intrinsic Motivation,” 2013
• “Play In The Library: Primordial Learning,” 2012
• “Exploring The Experiences Of Upper Elementary School Children Who Are Intrinsically Motivated To Seek Information,” 2011
• “Developing The Motivation Within: Using Praise And Rewards Effectively,” 2011
• “Fostering The Curiosity Spark,” 2010
• “Relationships That Foster Intrinsic Motivation For Information Seeking,” 2009


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