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Motivating Students

Few teachers would disagree with the view that motivated students are easier to teach and that they learn more. As teachers, we hope that all of our students come to the classroom excited to learn for the sake of learning and that our teaching will inspire them to great heights of achievement. We are then disappointed if our students seem more interested in knowing what is on the test or argue for an extra point or two. In reality, our students bring to the classroom a variety of motivational drives and a wide range of demands on their attention, commitment, and time. Our students today face the challenge of prioritizing and being self-disciplined when family, friends, extracurricular activities, and work all vie for their attention.

Effective teachers know their students come with a natural desire to learn. They also realize that students come with a belief that the teacher is responsible for tapping into that natural desire by providing a classroom environment that fosters a motivation to learn and an excitement that continues from the first day of the semester to the last.

Many students believe that good teachers do “motivate” them (Svinicki, 2004) and these teachers tend to receive high student ratings on items such as: the instructor motivated me to do my best work; stimulated my intellectual curiosity; encouraged me to express my opinion or experience; and emphasized learning rather than tests or grades. The following are some strategies “good teachers” use to motivate their students.

Planning factors

Determine course goals and learning objectives

Spend the time to identify course goals that will promote significant and enduring learning. Discuss these goals with your students so they understand them, appreciate their importance, and know ways in which to succeed.

Plan three important task dimensions

Difficulty: More difficult tasks are achievable with specific short-term goals. Determine the range of what students can do independently vs. with help or guidance from their teacher or peers. It is important to provide support; e.g., breaking down the tasks into steps, modeling, coaching, and prompting.

Relevance: Help students find personal meaning and value in the material.

  • Find ways to help students put the material to use.
  • Capitalize on students' existing needs.
  • Find and use examples that are meaningful, interesting, and relevant to students' lives and/or future professions.
Curiosity/Incongruity/Novelty: What makes your field exciting? How do experts in your field think and approach problems?
  • Discuss or demonstrate interesting “big problems” or current issues that specialists in your field find challenging.
  • Plan special field trips, guest speakers, and other events that promote a natural interest in the material.

Student interaction factors

Know your students

In addition to their names and experiences, determine their skills and knowledge. One way is through the Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) Background Knowledge Probe (Cross and Angelo, 1993). This strategy uses short simple pretests to determine students' prior subject knowledge and their readiness to proceed to the next level.

Create a welcoming learning environment

Make students feel comfortable and important. Identify specific ways to let your professional enthusiasm show through. For example, explain your research to students or describe ways in which your field is relevant to recent news.

Set and communicate expectations

“Research has shown that a teacher's expectations have a powerful effect on a student's performance” (Davis, 1993). Be enthusiastic, set realistic and appropriate goals, and provide adequate challenges. Inform your students of these goals and strategies for success in your course.

Encourage students to interact positively with one another

A classroom should be open, positive, and receptive to discussion and disagreements. Cooperative learning fosters intrinsic motivation and plays a role in developing critical thinking skills when students are required to explain and teach each other. In addition, students develop a sense of community and commitment to each other.

Student assessment/feedback factors

Provide feedback

Feedback must be frequent, early, constructive, explicit, and tied to effort. The feedback must provide information about where students did well as well as ways to improve. Make comments about the task or performance, not about the individual learner.

Increase the probability of success

Reduce test anxiety using strategies such as dropping the lowest test score, providing practice exams, and aligning homework, assignments, and exams on difficulty and content levels. In addition, provide help through review sessions and study guides.

Use appropriate grading

Utilize an absolute or mastery standard of grading rather than a relative scale (“grading on the curve”), which tends to foster competition and low self-efficacy. Using grades to punish students reduces intrinsic motivation, such as taking away points for missed or late papers.

Provide some choice and control

Allow students the opportunity to make choices and experience the consequences of those choices. Let them have options on class projects and in choosing some topics for the course. Provide them with a sense of autonomy.


  • Cross, K. P., & Steadman, M. H. (1996). Classroom research: Implementing the scholarship of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cross, P., & Angelo, T. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Salisbury-Glennon, J. D., Young, A. J., & Stefanou, C. R. (2001). Creating contexts for motivation and self-regulated learning in the college classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 12(2), 19-35.
  • Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker.