Professor giving speech.


About 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material. Then the other 1 percent has to do with your methods. And that’s not just true of languages. It’s true of every subject.

Noam Chomsky Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988)

Motivation plays a significant role in how we learn. Regrettably, many students, particularly the passive individuals, arrive with little to no motivation. While some are motivated to achieve a high grade, motivation to learn is not often a high priority. What many ‘successful’ students have learned over the years is the importance of playing the grades game – “Will this be on the final exam?” Instructors recognize this external source of motivation – high grades – and may point to grades as a reason why students should study, participate, and complete assignments and tests – “Pay attention, this will be on the final exam!” For the students, focusing on the grade as the end goal, instead of actual learning, is understandable. Our students have a reasonable obsession with grades given the value they are attributed. As instructors, we often place the grade up on a pedestal and then in the same breath blame the students for their fixation on marks. A vicious cycle results. It is reminiscent of Milton’s famous quote, “They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.”

The sea change that is required involves a shift from extrinsic motivation (working for the grade) to intrinsic motivation in which there is an inner desire to learn something (perhaps because it has been shown to be genuinely interesting, intellectually stimulating, or useful). As Chomsky observes in the opening quote, “About 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material.” Sparking intrinsic motivation is no easy task, to be sure. Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of research providing useful information for instructors wishing to motivate their students.

What influences participation?

According to an extensive review of the literature (Roccas, 2010), there are five factors that influence student participation: logistics, confidence and classroom apprehension, personality traits, instructor and classroom climate, and gender differences.

Logistics here refers primarily to class size. Students are more apt to participate in smaller classes because they feel less intimidated and it is more difficult to be anonymous. If you are teaching a large class, see the Teaching in Large Classes page for strategies that address feelings of intimidation and the desire for anonymity.

Confidence and classroom apprehension is tied to a feeling of intimidation towards the instructor and the student’s peers, especially in classrooms where a small group of students are doing most of the contributing – which empirically describes most classroom dynamics. If students are made to feel comfortable with their peers, participation will sometimes increase. Well-prepared students are also more likely to participate. Personality traits such as low self-esteem and timidity will naturally have a negative effect on the likelihood of participation. Strategies in the following paragraph may help to mitigate these traits. However, instructors will have the least amount of control in significantly influencing this particular factor and its effect on motivation.

Instructor and classroom climate may be positively influenced through the instructor’s cultivation of mutual respect and by the instructor sending a message that they actually care and are concerned about their students. This helps the students feel comfortable and in turn feel confident in actively participating in activities and discussions. A few general strategies that may be helpful include, learning names, providing helpful feedback, and carefully listening to and respecting student input and responses.

Gender differences in the not-too-distant past represented a significant factor influencing participation. The latest research describes a more equitable distribution of participation among female and male students. That being said, instructors committed to creating a climate that is fair to all students may wish to reflect on any biases regarding gender, race, sexuality, social class, and ability that may influence their interactions with their students.

Strategies for motivating students

Your Persona

  • Deliver your presentations with enthusiasm and energy. Strive for vocal variety and constant eye contact. Vary your speaking pace, and add dramatic pauses after major points. Gesture and move around the class. Be expressive. To your students, be they right or wrong, your dynamism signifies your passion for the material and for teaching it. As a display of your motivation, it motivates them.
  • Explain your reasons for being so interested in the material, and make it relevant to your students’ concerns. Show how your field fits into the big picture and how it contributes to society. In so doing, you also become a role model for student interest and involvement.
  • Make the course personal. Find out your students’ birthdays, and when one comes along, put up a slide with “Happy Birthday!” on it. Email students with your concern if they haven’t been in class for a couple of days. Write students congratulatory letters when they do well on a test.
  • Get to know your students. Ask them about their majors, interests, and backgrounds. This information will help you tailor the material to their concerns, and your personal interest in them will inspire their personal loyalty to you.
  • Foster good lines of communication in both directions. Convey your expectations and assessments, but also invite your students’ feedback in the form of classroom assessment exercises and some form of midterm evaluation (for example, your own questionnaire or some type of class interview conducted by your institution’s teaching center).
  • Use humor where appropriate. A joke or humorous anecdote lightens the mood and has the synapse-building benefits of emotional intensity and tell them they have to do the assignment again at a high level of quality to get credit.

Assignments and Tests

  • Reinforce the idea that all students can improve their cognitive and other abilities with practice and are in control of their academic fates. In other words, build up their sense of self-efficacy and their belief in an internal locus of control.
  • Provide many and varied opportunities for graded assessment so that no single assessment counts too much toward the final grade.
  • How well does that conclusion handle the complexities of the problem?
  • Give students plenty of opportunity to practice performing your learning outcomes before you grade them on the quality of their performance.
  • Sequence your learning outcomes and assessments to foster student success.
  • Give students practice tests.
  • Provide review sheets that tell students what cognitive operations they will have to perform with key concepts on the tests. In other words, write out the learning outcomes you will be testing them on.
  • While students must acquire some facts and terminology to master the basics of any discipline, focus your tests and assignments on their conceptual understanding and ability to apply the material, and prepare them for the task accordingly. Facts are only tools with which to construct broader concepts and are thus means to a goal, not goals in themselves.
  • Set realistic performance goals, and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals. Striving to exceed a personal best is a mighty motivator.
  • Design assignments that are appropriately challenging given the experience and aptitude of the class. Those that are either too easy or stressfully difficult are counterproductive.
  • Assess students on how well they achieve the learning outcomes you set for them, and remind them that this is what you are doing.
  • Allow students options for demonstrating their learning, such as choices in projects and other major assignments.
  • Design authentic assignments and activities—those that give students practice in their future occupational and citizenship activities.
  • Give assignments that have students reflect on their progress. For example, have students write a learning analysis of their first test in which they appraise how they studied and how they can improve their studying.
  • Evaluate work by an explicit rubric (a specific set of criteria with descriptions of performance standards) that students can study and ask questions about before they tackle an assignment.
  • Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. Make tests fair, which means consonant with your learning outcomes, topical emphases, and previous quizzes and assignments. Tests should be a means of showing students what they have mastered, not what they haven’t.
  • Give students prompt and constant feedback on their performance, as well as early feedback on stages and drafts of major assignments.
  • Accentuate the positive in grading. Be free with praise and constructive in criticism and suggestions for improvement. Acknowledge improvements made. Confine negative comments to the particular performance, not the performer.
  • Let students assess themselves. Of course, you must teach them how to do this first.
  • Show your students instances of peers who have succeeded.
  • Reduce the stress level of tests by lowering the stakes—for example: Test early and often. Drop the lowest quiz or test score. Let students write explanations for their multiple-choice and true-false item answers. Provide chances for them to earn back some of their lost points.
  • Use criterion-referenced grading instead of norm-referenced grading. The former system allows all the students in a class to get high grades.
  • Use contract grading for some of your assignments or your entire course. Contract grading (or contract learning) means assigning grades according to how well students fulfill certain work requirements (as specified in the syllabus or an appendix to it)—not according to what grade they aspire to earn. To get higher grades, they have to successfully complete either more work that shows evidence of more learning or more challenging work that shows evidence of more advanced learning. Under these conditions, students are often more motivated to learn because they have a greater sense of choice of assignments, self-determination, and responsibility for their grade, as well as less fear about creative risk taking and grade anxiety.
  • Give extra credit or bonus points (or the chance to earn back lost points) only for work that depends on students’ having done their regular assigned work.

Source: Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (pp. 99-102)

Strategies for participation

Opinion Line-Up


  1. The instructor introduces an issue or scenario such as the following: while buying groceries, a dermatologist notices that an elderly man standing next to her seems to have a cancerous mole on the back of his neck; should she inform him of this concern?
  2. The instructor then asks the students to line up according to where they stand on the issue: one end of the classroom represents “Yes, she should absolutely tell him,” the opposite end represents “No, she absolutely should not tell him,” and the space in between represents positions such as “I’m not sure,” “It depends,” “probably yes, “probably no,” and so on.
  3. Once the students have finished lining up, the instructor asks them to discuss their opinion with those around them. Or, alternatively, the instructor asks each student to pair up with a student who is “far away” to discuss their diverging opinions with each other.


  • Getting students to discern their position on an issue in relation to their peers encourages them to think about and clarify their reasons for holding that position.

Other thoughts

  • For more complex issues, all four corners of a room can be used to represent varying opinions.

Sticky-Note Clustering


  1. The instructor provides the students with a question or problem, and then gives each of them three or four sticky notes.
  2. On each of their sticky notes, students write down one idea.
  3. Students stick their notes onto a wall or whiteboard, and then collaborate on moving them around in order to sort the ideas into categories.


  • This activity combines brainstorming (jotting down the ideas) with critical thinking (organizing the ideas into categories).

Other thoughts

  • The instructor might consider taking a picture of the categorized sticky notes and posting it the course’s discussion forum so that students can refer to it later.



  1. The instructor discusses an issue or case study with students until they have generated a handful of different perspectives.
  2. The instructor writes each perspective onto a large sheet of paper, and hangs each sheet in a different part of the classroom.
  3. The instructor gives each student five (or so) sticky dots and the students walk to each sheet to allocate their dots according to how strongly they support a given perspective: if they totally support one perspective, they can put all of their dots on that sheet; if they support several perspectives, they can place two sticky dots on one sheet and three on another, or even one sticky dot on each sheet.
  4. Students visually assess the distribution of sticky dots.


The distribution of sticky dots represents the opinion of the class as a whole and can be used as a prompt to further discussion, or as a way of narrowing down which perspectives will receive further attention in class.

Other thoughts

Instead of sticky dots, students can simply be told that they have five checkmarks to allocate as they wish, using markers located beside each sheet of paper.



  1. The instructor asks for four or five volunteers from the class to step forward to perform a given task. The task might be a physical procedure such as preparing a specimen slide for a microscope, or an analytic activity such as debating the pros and cons of an issue.
  2. As the group of volunteers engage in the task (in a virtual “fishbowl”), the other students observe, taking notes or assessing their performance. The instructor can ask the observing students to focus on specific aspects – for example, if the students in the fishbowl are engaging in a debate, the instructor might ask the other students to jot down the assumptions that those students are tacitly making. Or, if the task is a physical procedure, the instructor might ask the observing students to identify ways that the task could be performed more effectively, or simply differently.
  3. After the students in the fishbowl have completed their task, the other students report on what they observed or what they learned from watching.


The fishbowl activity works well in large classes where it might not be possible for everyone to engage in the same task: the students in the fishbowl act as proxy learners for their peers. The observing students learn not by doing the task but by reflecting on how the task is being done.

Other thoughts

  •  Instead of reporting on what they observed immediately after the fishbowl task has been completed, students could do so at a later time in an online discussion group.

Mitten Discussion


  1. The instructor tells the students they are about to begin a discussion of a specific issue or problem, but they are allowed to contribute only if they are holding the “discussion mitten” (or a similar item such as a stuffed toy).
  2. The instructor begins the discussion by tossing the mitten to one of the students. After contributing to the discussion, that student throws the mitten to another student, who also contributes. That student then throws the mitten to yet another student, and the discussion continues in this way until the issue or problem has been sufficiently explored.


  • Gamifying the discussion in this way encourages reticent students to contribute to the discussion.
  • This activity prevents one or two students from dominating the discussion.

Other thoughts

  • If a student catches the mitten but has nothing to contribute, he or she can toss the mitten to someone else but then has to post a relevant contribution the course’s online discussion forum at a later time.
  • At the end of the mitten throwing, the instructor can ask if there is anyone who didn’t catch the mitten who would still like to speak.

Cumulative Brainstorming


  • The instructor writes a different issue, question, or problem onto four or five large sheets of paper, and then hangs those sheets around the classroom.
  • The instructor asks the students to form groups of about five members each.
  • Each group goes to a different sheet of paper and for three or four minutes they jot down some ideas pertaining to the issue that is written on it.
  • Each group then rotates around to the next sheet of paper and they jot down their ideas pertaining to that issue. They can add new ideas, they can propose counterpoints to the ideas written by the previous group, or they can endorse an idea written down by the previous group by putting a check mark beside it.
  • The groups keep rotating from sheet to sheet until each group has commented on all the issues. Each group then returns to its original sheet and assesses or synthesizes what has been written there.
  • A member from each group reports back to the class as a whole.


This collaborative activity promotes deep learning by encouraging students to build on or critique each other’s ideas.

Other thoughts

Cumulative brainstorming can also be done in a small group: each student in the group jots down an idea pertaining to a different problem or issue. Each student then hands their sheet of paper to the student on the left (clockwise), who adds an idea or comment to the sheet of paper they have just received. This continues until all the students have commented on all the sheets.



  1. Tell your students that you will write onto the whiteboard everything they know, or think they know, about a given topic. You can have them call out the information or, for a more orderly approach, have them raise their hands before speaking (or use the mitten discussion activity described above).
  2. For example, on the first day of Shakespeare course, the instructor might ask students to share everything they know about that author. One student might comment that he was born in the sixteenth century. Another student might say that he lived at the same time as Queen Elizabeth I. Another might add that he wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. Even if a student contributes something that’s incorrect – such as, “Shakespeare visited North America” – the instructor writes it down on the whiteboard.
  3. The activity continues until the students can’t think of anything further, or until the topic is sufficiently explored for the time being.
  4. The instructor then asks the students to organize the information into categories – such as Shakespeare’s life, his plays, sixteenth century politics, and so on.
  5. The instructor then comments on the various pieces of information that students have contributed, making connections, elaborating, and correcting any errors.


This activity helps students feel involved and engaged in the process of accumulating and then synthesizing information.

Other thoughts

This activity could be done online by means of a wiki (such as a Google document): many students can add information to the document at the same time.



  1. The instructor projects a multiple-choice question onto the classroom’s screen.
  2. Without consulting a peer, students use their clickers to respond to the question.
  3. The clicker system turns the responses into a bar graph: how many chose “A,” how many chose “B,” and so on. The instructor projects the bar chart onto the screen for the students to consider.
  4. The instructor projects the same question, but this time asks students to discuss it in small groups for a few minutes.
  5. The students use their clickers to again respond to the question.
  6. The instructor projects the new bar graph and explains what the correct response is and why.


This activity leverages peer instruction: students explain their reasoning to each other, and learn from each other (studies have shown that peer instruction does help students learn). The clickers help to “gamify” the activity, making it more enjoyable to students.

Other notes

The results of the second bar graph can help the instructor decide what to do next: if most of the students chose the correct response, then the instructor can briefly explain why it is correct; but if most of the students still chose the incorrect response, then the instructor will probably spend more time reviewing the material before proceeding. This activity works best when it’s done recurrently in a class: the instructor briefly explains a concept, then does the clicker activity as described above, then briefly explains the next concept, then does another clicker activity, and so on. Typically, in an hour-long class, an instructor might ask three to five clicker questions.



  1. Pose a question, problem, or scenario to your students and ask them to think about it individually for a few minutes.
  2. Next, have your students form pairs in which they discuss their respective ideas.
  3. Invite students to share the results of their paired thinking with the entire class.


Having students explain their ideas to a peer helps them clarify their own thinking. Students are more willing to share an idea with the whole class after first sharing it with a peer.

Other thoughts

You can take the activity further: after the students have finished their paired discussion, each pair can join with another pair of students to further discuss their ideas.

One-Minute Reflections


  1. Give your students one minute to jot down a response to a question such as “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?”, “What is still unclear?”, or “Summarize the unit we just completed in one sentence.”
  2. Invite (but don’t require) your students to leave their responses with you as they leave the class.


Getting students to distill a presentation or unit of learning into a single statement or question helps them deepen their learning. The one-minute reflections, if students share them with the instructor, can give that instructor a “snapshot” of what they are thinking, what they have learned, and what aspects of the topic are still unclear.

Other thoughts

One-minute reflections tend to be conducted at the end of a class, but they are also effective at other times, such as when a unit of material has been completed and another one is about to be undertaken.

Structured Debates


  1. The instructor selects four students to represent the pro side of an issue and four for the con side. The remaining students serve as the audience or “judges” of the debate.
  2. The two teams take turns putting forth arguments, making rebuttals, and summarizing, as in any standard debate format.
  3. After the debate is over, the students who are acting as judges report on their assessment of the debate.


A structured debate gives the debaters practice in finding evidence and devising arguments; it also gives the students who are watching the debate practice in critically assessing evidence and arguments.

Other thoughts

It’s a good idea to provide the students who are acting as judges with a rubric that will help them identify and assess the various aspects of the debate.

Resources and references

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C. & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2011). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kyndt, E., Dochy, F., Struyven, K., & Cascallar, E. (2011). The direct and indirect effect of motivation for learning on students’ approaches to learning through the perceptions of workload and task complexity. Higher Education Research and Development, 30(2), 135-150.

Petty, G. (2002). 25 ways for teaching without talking (DOC). Sutton Coldfield College.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.

Roccas, K. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education, 59(2), 185-213.

Schunk, D.H., Pintrich, P.R., & Meece, J.L. (2008). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Svinicki, M.D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering. (2017). MIT OpenCourseWare. This playlist of brief YouTube videos provides an overview of active learning as well as specific examples of active learning activities.

Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource

How Can I Reduce Student Apathy and Increase Motivation?


  1. Log on to UM Learn
  2. Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
  3. Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
  4. Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > 20 Minute Mentors
  5. In the search box, type in “motivation”