Initial Publication Date: October 11, 2007

Motivating Students

This page was written and compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC, and contains a summary of motivation research and pertinent references.
A peer group of students

My students aren't motivated - how can I help them?

Teachers have a lot to do with their students' motivational level. A student may arrive in class with a certain degree of motivation. But the teacher's behavior and teaching style, the structure of the course, the nature of the assignments and informal interactions with students all have a large effect on student motivation. We may have heard the utterance, "my students are so unmotivated!" and the good news is that there's a lot that we can do to change that.
“Research has shown that good everyday teaching practices can do more to counter student apathy than special efforts to attack motivation directly .”

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Educational psychology has identified two basic classifications of motivation - intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation arises from a desire to learn a topic due to its inherent interests, for self-fulfillment, enjoyment and to achieve a mastery of the subject. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is motivation to perform and succeed for the sake of accomplishing a specific result or outcome. Students who are very grade-oriented are extrinsically motivated, whereas students who seem to truly embrace their work and take a genuine interest in it are intrinsically motivated.

This student is happy to be in the lab today.

Motivating Students

This chapter from the book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis (Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993) is a great place to start for ideas and tips about increasing student motivation in your classes. The author presents a handy distillation of research on motivation and uses examples and anecdotes that bring this material to life. In addition to general strategies, this chapter addresses successful instructional behaviors, how to structure a course to motivate students, de-emphasizing grades and responding with other types of feedback to students, and tips to encourage students to complete assigned readings. A reference list points the way to more specific information.

Excerpts from this chapter:

  • Give frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students' beliefs that they can do well.
  • Ensure opportunities for students' success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • Help students find personal meaning and value in the material.
  • Create an atmosphere that is open and positive.
  • Help students feel that they are valued members of a learning community.

Motivating Students - from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching (more info)

This website contains a quick and useful primer on many of the important topics in student motivation. Topics include intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the effect of learning style on motivation and strategies for motivating your students.

Here are some recurring themes about student motivation, drawn from the educational literature

“Empirical studies have shown that the quality of teacher-student relationships tend to decline after
  • Make it real

    In order to foster intrinsic motivation, try to create learning activities that are based on topics that are relevant to your students' lives. Strategies include using local examples, teaching with events in the news, using pop culture technology (iPods, cell phones, YouTube videos) to teach, or connecting the subject with your students' culture, outside interests or social lives. ([Brozo, 2005] ; McMahon and Kelly, 1996)
  • Provide choices

    Students can have increased motivation when they feel some sense of autonomy in the learning process, and that motivation declines when students have no voice in the class structure. Giving your students options can be as simple as letting them pick their lab partners or select from alternate assignments, or as complex as "contract teaching" wherein students can determine their own grading scale, due dates and assignments. Kurvink, 1993 Reeve and Hyungshim, 2006 (Perkins 2002, GSA Abstract)
  • Balance the challenge

    Students perform best when the level of difficulty is slightly above their current ability level. If the task is to easy, it promotes boredom and may communicate a message of low expectations or a sense that the teacher believes the student is not capable of better work. A task that is too difficult may be seen as unattainable, may undermine self-efficacy, and may create anxiety. Scaffolding is one instructional technique where the challenge level is gradually raised as students are capable of more complex tasks. (Wang and Han) (more info) , [Margolis and McCabe, 2006] [Adams, 1998]
  • Seek role models

    If students can identify with role models they may be more likely to see the relevance in the subject matter. For example, Weins et al (2003) found that female students were more likely to cite a positive influence with a teacher as a factor for becoming interested in science [Wiens et al, 2003] . In some cases, you can be a role model but it's unlikely that you will connect on that level with everyone in the class due to differences in gender, age and social circles. However there can be many sources of role models, such as invited guest speakers, fellow students or other peers.
    A peer helps a student with some calculations
  • Use peer models

    Students can learn by watching a peer succeed at a task. In this context, a peer means someone who the student identities with, not necessarily any other student. Peers may be drawn from groups as defined by gender, ethnicity, social circles, interests, achievement level, clothing, or age. [Margolis and McCabe, 2006]
  • Establish a sense of belonging

    People have a fundamental need to feel connected or related to other people. In an academic environment, research shows that students who feel they 'belong' have a higher degree of intrinsic motivation and academic confidence. According to students, their sense of belonging is fostered by an instructor that demonstrates warmth and openness, encourages student participation, is enthusiastic, friendly and helpful, and is organized and prepared for class. [Freeman, Anderman and Jensen, 2007] [Anderman and Leake, 2005]
  • Adopt a supportive style

    A supportive teaching style that allows for student autonomy can foster increased student interest, enjoyment, engagement and performance. Supportive teacher behaviors include listening, giving hints and encouragement, being responsive to student questions and showing empathy for students. Reeve and Hyungshim, 2006 Also see how immediacy in the classroom can be part of a supportive style of teaching.
  • Strategize with struggling students

    When students are struggling with poor academic performance, low self-efficacy or low motivation, one strategy that may help is to teach them how to learn. That is, to outline specific strategies for completing an assignment, note-taking or reviewing for an exam. [Tuckerman 2003] [Margolis and McCabe, 2006] Specific learning strategies:

    Pre-action phase (preparing for task) -take a reasonable risk, work toward goals that are challenging but attainable, work in manageable, bite-size pieces, take responsibility for your actions, believe in your own effort and capability, set a plan and work from it.

    Action phase - search the environment, ask questions, visualize it (?)

    Reaction phase (after one task, preparing for the next one) - use feedback from prior tasks, monitor your own actions, give yourself instructions (see also Tuckerman, 2003 )

Further Information

Presentations from the 2007 workshop on student motivations and attitudes

Title slide from Eric Pyle's presentation, Internal and External Aspects of Motivation
Internal and External Aspects of Motivation (PowerPoint 332kB Feb20 07)
Eric Pyle, Department of Geology & Environmental Science, James Madison University
Title slide from Jenefer Husman's presentation, Thinking About Motivation
Thinking About Motivation (PowerPoint 139kB Feb20 07)
Jenefer Husman
, Psychology in Education, Arizona State University
Title Slide from Karl Wirth's presentation, Thinking About Learning: Motivating Students to Develop Into Intentional Learners
Thinking About Learning: Motivating Students to Become Intentional Learners (PowerPoint 720kB Feb20 07)
Karl Wirth
, Department of Geology, Macalester College

Read and respond to classroom dilemmas about student motivation written by workshop participants.

Web Sites

Motivation: A General Overview of Theories (more info)
This chapter in an e-book provides a brief summary of motivational theories that is written for educators. Topics include goals, self-efficacy, attribution theory, self-regulation and volition, and intrinsic motivation.

Six C's of motivation (more info)
This website describes a scenario in a geography classroom where the teacher uses instructional strategies to promote motivation amongst her students. The tactics are to give students choices in their assignments, to challenge them, to allow the class some extent of control over the learning environment, to promote collaboration between students, to construct meaning in the material and to establish positive consequences for students' achievement. The author concludes that when students engage in meaningful open-ended tasks, their motivation increases and the effect of learning is more powerful.

Motivation: What does the Research Say? (more info)
This website is written in the context of high school or middle school students, but is easily applied to the undergraduate learning experience. The site provides definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, strategies for increasing motivation, and suggestions to motivate students to engage in class activities.

How Can Teachers Develop Students' Motivation -- and Success? (more info)
This interview with Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Columbia University, answers questions about types of motivation, with emphasis on performance (extrinsic) motivation vs. mastery (intrinsic) motivation. Questions address topics such as what teachers can do to help develop students who will work to overcome challenges rather than be overwhelmed by them, the challenge of the "gifted" label, and if self-esteem something that teachers can or should "give" to students. The site is easy reading, yet provides many useful insights.

Books and Journal Articles

Motivation from Within: Approaches for Encouraging Faculty and Students to Excel
Michael Theall, editor
citation and bibliographic information
The dozen authors of this book describe how motivational efforts involve adapting one's personal strengths to accommodate unique situations. Motivation is not something one "does to" others. Rather, efforts to motivate students and professors involve first connecting with their interests and their concerns, then broadening these with expanded significant choices, and gradually increasing participants' empowerment to meet these new aspirations.

Improving Self-Efficacy and Motivation: What to Do, What to Say
Howard Margolis and Patrick P McCabe
citation and bibliographic information
This article suggests practical solutions to improve the motivation of struggling learners. Specifically, the authors present strategies such as using peers as role models, teaching specific learning strategies, presenting the students with options and choices, communicating recent success, and more. These tactics can strengthen struggling learners' beliefs in their academic abilities and increase their willingness to engage in academic tasks.

The Effect of Learning and Motivation Strategies Training on College Students' Achievement
Bruce W. Tuckerman, the Ohio State University
citation and bibliographic information
The general purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of teaching students the use of specific learning and motivation strategies to meet the cognitive and motivational demands of college. A group of college students went through a course that was specifically designed to teach them learning strategies and give them an opportunity to practice the techniques and transfer these skills to other learning situations. The results showed that this method improved the GPA of the students who went through the program.

Who Does Extra-Credit Work in Introductory Science Courses?
Randy Moore
citation and bibliographic information
This study measured how many introductory biology students took advantage of extra-credit opportunities, the grades they earned, and reasons they gave for not completing extra credit work. The study found that high-achieving students pursued the extra credit work, while students who were earning poor grades did not. The author asserts that this behavior is tied to student motivation. Students who were motivated to succeed in the course made the choice to do the extra credit work, which is consistent with the other choices they had made, such as to attend lectures and help sessions. Similarly, students who earned poor grades typically demonstrated a low commitment to several components of the course, including the extra credit work.

Sense of Belonging in College Freshman at the Classroom and Campus Levels
Tierra M. Freeman, Lynley Anderman and Jane M. Jensen
citation and bibliographic information
This study examines how students' sense of belonging is related to academic motivation, and which type of teacher behaviors is correlated with developing a sense of belonging in students. The paper presents some useful background information on the topics of belonging, motivation and academic self-efficacy. In their experiments, the authors found that students' sense of belonging is fostered by an instructor that demonstrates warmth and openness, encourages student participation, is enthusiastic, friendly and helpful, and is organized and prepared for class.

What Teachers Say and Do to Support Students' Autonomy During a Learning Activity
Johnmarshall Reeve and Hyungshim Jang
citation and bibliographic information
This research paper presents the results of an educational experiment to measure the effects of different instructional behaviors. The experiment investigated a controlling style of teaching compared to an autonomy supportive style, and found that the supportive style resulted in increased student interest, enjoyment, engagement and performance. Autonomy-supportive teacher behavior can be effective in fostering intrinsic motivation in students. The paper provides useful background information on the topics of motivation, intentionality and autonomy, and also gives examples of controlling vs. supportive teacher behaviors.

The ABCs of Motivation
Lynley H. Anderman and Valerie S. Leake
citation and bibliographic information
Although this paper is written for faculty of educational psychology, the information is useful for any teacher who is interested in learning about some of the theory behind motivation. The purpose of this paper is to distill the numerous theories and frameworks for motivational principles into a simpler format. The authors offer that motivation is based on three fundamental needs: the need for autonomy, the need for belonging and the need for competence. An understanding of these concepts can help teachers provide a learning environment that increases motivation in their students.

Gender matters
Darrell J Wiens, Dayna J Depping, Stacey R Wallerich, Emily S Van Laar, Angela L Juhl
citation and bibliographic information
Do females and males choose science for different reasons? In this study 271 college biology students were surveyed to learn when they became interested and what factors determined their origin and maintenance of interest in biology. One finding was that females were more likely to cite a positive influence with a teacher as a factor for becoming interested in science, which has implications for teacher behavior in fostering an interest in science among female students.

"Contracting" as a motivational teaching tool
Karen Kurvink
citation and bibliographic information
The concept behind contracting, a motivational tool for stimulating learning, is discussed. Contracting involves a learning agreement between students and teachers, and it offers the opportunity for independent thinking.

What works in the nonmajors' science laboratory
David L. Adams
citation and bibliographic information
This paper offers practical advice on building a workable and meaningful introductory science laboratory for non-science majors. These students usually lack experience in and motivation for the laboratory, so a balanced use of "cookbook" and discovery-based approaches is recommended.

Connecting with students who are disinterested and inexperienced
William G Brozo
citation and bibliographic information
This article was written in the context of middle school education, but is still relevant for undergraduate students who are hard to reach. The author states that when students claim they are not interested in anything, educators must help them discover what actually does interest them. Furthermore, another way to help youth expand their repertoire of interests is by arranging systematic opportunities for them to interact with community members who are engaged citizens and have a wide variety of life experiences.

A Candle Lights the Way to Scientific Discourse
Li-hsuan Yang
citation and bibliographic information
This short article describes a simple and thought-provoking teaching strategy, burning a candle in the classroom and asking students to observe it and try to explain the processes they observe. The result is that students are able to engage in scientific discourse, hold competing hypotheses, looking for supporting evidence, communicating their ideas with supportive arguments, and proposing possible empirical studies to further their understanding. This technique could be applied to a geoscience classroom via simple demonstrations with physical models, videos or rock samples.

To learn more, read about how self-efficacy is related to student motivation and academic performance.