Motivation plays a significant role in how we learn.
Motivation plays a key role in how we learn. Unfortunately, some students arrive at university with little motivation to learn. The energy on campus in September is electric – campus buildings and open spaces are full of noisy, excited, energetic students, but some of them seem primarily motivated by the university experience, not by an intrinsic desire to learn. And, to be fair, the reasons why students come to university are complex: some feel it is the natural next step after high school; some are pressured by family to attend; some see university as a necessary means to finding a good job; some are keen to have the aforementioned ‘university experience’ (which may or may not have much to do with attending classes); some are generally excited to learn; and some come for a variety of these reasons. Regardless of what brought students to our classes, we often expect of students a certain level of motivation to learn – to attend classes, to do the homework and assignments, and to engage with the materials, their peers and us – and not just the motivation to get good grades.
What many ‘successful’ students have learned over the years is the importance of playing the grades game, asking 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, warning students, Pay attention! This will be on the final exam! For students, focusing on the grade as the end goal (instead of on actual learning) is understandable. Our students have a reasonable obsession with grades given the value grades are attributed (e.g., good grades are needed to get into certain degree programs and graduate school, to receive and keep bursaries and scholarships, etc.) As instructors, we often (and sometimes unintentionally) emphasize the importance of grades while still feeling frustrated with students for their fixation on marks. The change that is required involves a shift from extrinsic motivation (e.g., working for the grade) to intrinsic motivation, in which there is an inner desire to learn the course content (perhaps because it has been shown to be genuinely interesting, intellectually stimulating and/or relevant). So how can we shift the focus to a motivation to learn?
There is an incredibly vast body of literature on motivation, particularly in the fields of psychology and educational psychology, but we still have a lot to learn about how to influence the motivation of others. And yet, many of us feel that motivating students is our responsibility – and, at times, we worry that we are not succeeding at this key task. Sparking intrinsic motivation is no easy task, to be sure. We want students to be genuinely interested in our course content – to find it interesting and relevant – and to develop a sense of accomplishment for having worked at mastering it. Fortunately, there are several strategies instructors can easily adopt to help increase the appeal of their course content and to help better motivate their students.
General strategies for increasing student motivation
Make the course content as engaging as possible
The first step is to ensure that the course – content, resources, activities and assessments – is as interesting, stimulating and engaging as possible. The aim is to show students how intrinsically interesting your course is, so students are motivated to attend, participate and learn. For strategies to engage students in their learning, visit The Centre’s Active learning page.
Articulate rationale and relevance
Students tend to be better motivated when they understand why they are being asked to do something. Let students know the rationale behind the selection of certain topics, activities and assessments. Explain the benefits of these course elements to student learning, particularly when the benefits may not be obvious to students. You may wish to engage in a discussion of how learning works as you explain your choices for the course. Students who can see the relevance of what they are being asked to learn are better motivated, so make explicit the importance and relevance of course topics, resources and activities. Explain how this learning will help them in their careers and how it is applicable to the real world.
Allow for student agency and voice
Students are likely to be better motivated (and engaged) when they feel that they are heard and their voices matter. Throughout the course, give students opportunities share their insights and experiences on various course topics. Whenever possible, allow students some choice. For example, give students a couple of options in how they create the final project (e.g., report, PowerPoint presentation, personal reflection etc.). Students feel motivated when they can exercise some control and make choices.
In addition, ask students to provide feedback about course content, activities, technology, etc., through various means (e.g., on exit slips, muddiest point questions, feedback slips at the end of modules and/or in the middle of the term). Incorporate their suggestions when feasible and, when not, let students know why. Students get motivated when they are able to contribute to the course design.
Create tasks (activities and assessments) that increase students’ sense of accomplishment
Ensure that the level of difficulty of the tasks you assign students is such that students feel they can succeed. Students need to find tasks challenging but doable. To avoid losing the attention and motivation of advanced students, consider including additional, optional tasks for them to complete. These can be for bonus marks. For example, if you have students work in groups on a series of questions, include a couple of bonus questions for student groups to attempt only if they have time.
Create opportunities for collaboration
Many students will willingly admit that what they value about university is the chance to meet new people and connect with their peers. In class, include opportunities for collaborative learning. When possible, give students time to work in pairs or groups to work through problems, exercises, discussion questions, case studies, etc. During the pandemic, students reported feeling very isolated from their peers and longed for opportunities to connect. Providing these opportunities in class will help with overall student motivation.
Share instructor motivation
Students report that the instructor’s genuine passion for the course content is very motivating, so share what it is that excites you about the content. Excitement is infectious, so share the passion for the content, subject and field that drive you. An instructor’s genuine love of the course material is the spark that can ignite the fire of motivation and desire to learn in students.
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. Jossey-Bass.
Bain, K. (2011). What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press.
Svinicki, M.D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Jossey Bass.
Magna Campus Resources
The Magna Campus Resources website can be accessed via The Centre - Magna Campus Resources self-registered course available via UM Learn. If you have already self-registered for this course, click on the link(s) above (you may be prompted to login to UM Learn if not already signed in).
To self-register in this course to access the Magna Campus Resources website and the specific resources listed above:
- Sign in to UM Learn
- Select "Self-Registration" in the navigation bar at the top of the screen
- Scroll down to locate the following course from those listed:
- Course offering code: CATL_MAGNA_EVAL_CO
- Course offering name: The Centre - Magna Campus Resources
- Click on the course offering name (i.e., The Centre - Magna Campus Resources)
- Click "Register" below the course offering description
- Click "Submit" below your registration information
- Click "Finish" below the confirmation provided
- Select "Go to course offering The Centre - Magna Campus Resources" when prompted
- Once in the UM Learn course, click on "Magna Campus" [External Learning Tool] under 'Content'
- Select "Continue"
Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge. The MIT Press.
Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th Ed.). Jossey-Bass.