Motivating Students

Strategies, Ideas, and Recommendations from the faculty Development Literature

General Strategies

  • Motivation Theory
    There are three general indices of motivation: choice, effort, and persistence. Recognize students' needs for self-determination and autonomy, and provide opportunities for choice and control. Understand that students may be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to learn. While it may be ideal to have a room full of intrinsically motivated students, it is understandable that students are also driven by the desire for grades, approval and other rewards. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist not a single continuum, but on two separate ones, and students may often have multiple goals for the same course. Students usually direct their behavior toward activities that they value and in which they have some expectancy of success.
  • Capitalize on students' existing needs
    Use student's interest and natural curiosity appeal aid in motivation. Students will be motivated to learn when the course is structured in a way that students learn best when incentives for learning in a classroom satisfy their own motives for enrolling in the course. Some of the needs your students may bring to the classroom are the need to learn something in order to complete a particular task or activity, the need to seek new experiences, the need to perfect skills, the need to overcome challenges, the need to become competent, the need to succeed and do well, the need to feel involved and to interact with other people. Satisfying such needs is rewarding in itself, and such rewards sustain learning more effectively than do grades. Design assignments, in-class activities, and discussion questions to address these kinds of needs.
  • Make students active participants in learning
    Students learn by doing, making, writing, designing, creating, and solving. Passivity dampens students' motivation and curiosity. Pose questions. Encourage students to suggest approaches to a problem or to guess the results of an experiment. As Confucius said, "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; but directly involve me, and I'll make it my own" (quoted in Kegan & Lahey, 2000, p. 10).
  • Ask students to analyze what makes their classes more or less "motivating."
    One way to measure what motivates students is to ask them. Survey what type of lecture has been the most motivating and what type of class has been the least. Appeal to students' interests and curiosity. To build intrinsic motivation, we must build a climate of understanding and trust.

Incorporating Instructional Behaviors that Motivate Students

  • Hold high but realistic expectations for your students.*
    Program students for success. While exams and assignments should still be challenging, they should also offer students a reasonable chance for success. When instructors expect the best work from their students, research has shown that students generally rise to the task.
  • Help students set achievable goals for themselves.
    Failure to attain unrealistic goals can disappoint and frustrate students. Encourage students to focus on their continued improvement, not just on their grade on any one test or assignment. Help students evaluate their progress by encouraging them to critique their own work, analyze their strengths, and work on their weaknesses. For example, consider asking students to submit self-evaluation forms with one or two assignments.
  • Tell students what they need to do to succeed in your course.
    Don't let your students struggle to figure out what is expected of them. Reassure students that they can do well in your course, and tell them exactly what thy must do to succeed. Say something to the effect that "If you can handle the examples on these problem sheets, you can pass the exam. People who have trouble with these examples can ask me for extra help." Or instead of saying "You're way behind," tell the student, "Here is one way you could go about learning the material. How can I help you?"
  • Strengthen students' self-motivation.
    Avoid messages that reinforce your power as an instructor or that emphasize extrinsic rewards. Instead of saying "I require," "you must," or "you should," stress "I think you will find…," or "I will be interested in your reaction."
  • Avoid creating intense competition among students.
    Bligh (1971) reports that students are more attentive, display better comprehension, produce more work, and are more favorable to the teaching method when they work cooperatively in groups rather than compete as individuals. Refrain from public criticisms of students' performance and from comments or activities that pit students against one another.
  • Be enthusiastic about your subject.
    An instructor's enthusiasm is a crucial factor in student motivation. If you become bored or apathetic, students will too. Typically, an instructor's enthusiasm comes from confidence, excitement about the content, and genuine pleasure in teaching. If you find yourself uninterested in the material, think back to what attracted you to the field and bring those aspects of the subject matter to life for your students. Or challenge yourself to devise the most exciting way to present the material, however dull the material itself may seem to you.

Structuring the Course to Motivate Students

  • Work from students' interests.*
    An instructor should be sure not the focus on what they want to teach or on what they are required to teach, but concentrate more on teaching what the students might find interesting. What do the students find intrinsically motivating? What are their wants or needs? By avoiding work in which students will be criticized or punished, the students' intrinsic motivation will be ignited.
  • When possible, let students have some say in choosing what will be studied.
    Give students options on term papers or other assignments (but not on tests). Let students decide between two locations for the field trip, or have them select which topics to explore in greater depth. If possible, include optional or alternative units in the course.
  • Get to know your students.
    Whenever possible, share something about yourself with your students. Look for opportunities to let them know who you are and what you stand for.
  • Vary your teaching methods.*
    Instructors who teach in a variety of ways are able to meet the diverse learning of all of their students. Variety reawakens students' involvement in the course and their motivation. Break the routine by incorporating a variety of teaching activities and methods in your course: role playing, debates, brainstorming, discussion, demonstrations, case studies, audiovisual presentations, guest speakers, or small group work.

De-emphasizing Grades

  • Emphasize mastery and learning rather than grades
    Ames and Ames (1990) report on two secondary school math teachers. One teacher graded every homework assignment and counted homework as 30 percent of a student's final grade. The second teacher told students to spend a fixed amount of time on their homework (thirty minutes a night) and to bring questions to class about problems they could not complete. This teacher graded homework as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, gave students the opportunity to redo their assignments, and counted homework as 10 percent of their final grade. Although homework was a smaller part of the course grade, this second teacher was more successful in motivating students to turn in their homework. In the first class, some students gave up rather than risk low evaluations of their abilities. In the second class, students were not risking their self-worth each time they did their homework but rather were attempting to learn. Mistakes were viewed as acceptable and something to learn from.
    Researchers recommend de-emphasizing grading by eliminating systems of credit points; they also advise against trying to use grades to control nonacademic behavior (for example, lowering grades for missed classes). Instead, assign ungraded written work, stress the personal satisfaction of doing assignments, and help students measure their progress.
  • Design tests that encourage the kind of learning you want students to achieve.
    Many students will learn whatever is necessary to get the grades they desire. If you base your tests on memorizing details, students will focus on memorizing facts. If your tests stress the synthesis and evaluation of information, students will be motivated to practice those skills when they study.
  • Avoid using grades as threats.
    As McKeachie (1986) points out, the threat of low grades may prompt some students to work hard, but other students resort to academic dishonesty, excuses for late work, and other counterproductive behavior.

Motivating Students by Responding to Their Work

  • Give students feedback as quickly as possible.
    Return tests and papers promptly, and reward success publicly and immediately. Give students some indication of how well they have done and how to improve. Rewards can be as simple as saying a student's response was good, with an indication of why it was good, or mention the names of contributors.
  • Reward success.
    Both positive and negative comments influence motivation, but research consistently indicates that students are more affected by positive feedback and success. Praise builds students' self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem. Recognize sincere efforts even if the product is less than stellar. If a student's performance is weak, let the student know that you believe he or she can improve and succeed over time.
  • Give students specific information about how their work will be graded. *
    Give rubrics with specific information about how their work will be graded. Let them know what should be included in work of the highest quality. If possible, give examples on the good work of other students from past years. If students know what is expected of their work and have in mind what high quality work looks like, they will be more motivated to try their best.
  • Be specific when giving negative feedback.
    Negative feedback is very powerful and can lead to a negative class atmosphere. Whenever you identify a student's weakness, make it clear that your comments relate to a particular task or performance, not to the student as a person. Don't make negative comments nebulous. Try to cushion negative comments with a compliment about the aspects of the task in which the student succeeded.
  • Avoid demeaning comments.
    Many students in your class may be anxious about their performance and abilities. Be sensitive to how you phrase your comments and avoid offhand remarks that might prick their feelings of inadequacy.
  • Avoid giving in to students' pleas for "the answer" to homework problems.
    When you simply give struggling students the solution, you rob them of the chance to think for themselves. Use a more productive approach (adapted from Fiore, 1985).
    • Ask the students for one possible approach to the problem.
    • Gently brush aside students' anxiety about not getting the answer by refocusing their attention on the problem at hand.
    • Ask the students to build on what they do know about the problem.
    • Resist answering the question "Is this right?" Suggest to the students a way to check the answer for themselves.
    • Praise the students for small, independent steps.
    If you follow these steps, your students will learn that it is all right not to have an instant answer. They will also learn to develop greater patience and to work at their own pace. And by working through the problem, students will experience a sense of achievement and confidence that will increase their motivation to learn.

Motivating Students to Do the Reading

  • Assign the reading at least two sessions before it will be discussed.
    Give students ample time to prepare and try to pique their curiosity about the reading: "This article is one of my favorites, and I'll be interested to see what you think about it."
  • Assign study questions.
    Hand out study questions that alert students to the key points of the reading assignment. To provide extra incentive for students, tell them you will base exam questions on the study questions.
  • Ask nonthreatening questions about reading.
    Initially pose general questions that do not create tension or feelings of resistance: "Can you give me one or two items from the chapter that seem important?" "What section of the reading do you think we should review?" "What item in the reading surprised you?" "What topics in the chapter can you apply to your own experience?"
  • Prepare an exam question on undiscussed readings.
    If students have not done the reading, tell them that there will be at least one question taken directly from what they were to have read. The next time the reading is discussed, remind about what happened last time and that if they come to class prepared, there won't be any surprises on the exam.


The Strategies, Ideas and Recommendations Here Come Primarily From:

Gross Davis, B. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1993.

And These Additional Sources...

Hansen, A. J. "Establishing a Teaching/Learning Contract."

In C. R. Christensen, D. A. Garvin, and A. Sweet (eds.), Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991.

McMillan, J. H. and Forsyth, D. R. "What Theories of Motivation Say About Why Learners Learn."

In R. J. Menges and M. D. Svinicki (eds.), College Teaching: From Theory to Practice, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no.45. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Tiberius, R. G. Small Group Teaching: A Trouble-Shooting Guide. Toronto:

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press, 1990.