Engaging All Learners

Strategies for Student Motivation

by Sandy Gambill, Instructional Designer, CTTL

It’s high summer and I’m thinking about the course I’ll be teaching this fall. Maybe it’s just the time of the year where my own attention wanders, but I’m spending more time than usual thinking about student motivation. What is the secret to getting students engaged with the course material so that they are as excited as I am?

Researchers on learning theory have a lot to say about student motivation. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching devotes an entire chapter to the factors that motivate students to learn.

Some of the strategies that motivate students to learn identified by HLW echo what you probably hear from your own students: connect the material to the their interests, provide authentic real-world tasks, and demonstrate a relevance to students’ future professional lives. After all, as much as we wish we had unlimited time to spend pursing knowledge just for the sheer pleasure of learning something new, we know our students don’t usually have that kind of time as undergrads.

Another category of strategies deal with helping students stay motivated by making sure the course is well organized so everyone knows what the expectations are.  Making sure objectives, assessment methods and instructional strategies are in alignment so students know exactly what’s expected of them. Pegging your course so that it is challenging enough but your expectations of what students can do at a particular level is realistic. Perhaps the most interesting strategy is “providing early success opportunities” which the authors suggest is especially important in “high risk or gateway” courses that students stress about. The idea is that by providing less challenging assignments that students are likely to succeed at early on in the semester, you will motivate students by building their confidence before they encounter more difficult work.

If you are teaching online or flipped courses, you may need to build in some additional structure to encourage student motivation.  We’ll address that in a post later this month.

What techniques work to motivate your students? We’d love to see your comments below.


How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, and Richard E. Mayer


2 thoughts on “Strategies for Student Motivation”

  1. One important thing I think we can do is to ask students to reflect – in class, explicitly – on what’s transferable in the skills, concepts, and content we’re teaching. Too often, students leave with their diplomas in hand having no idea why they took a particular assortment of classes (thinking here of gen ed or core curricula, but it can be true of majors, as well). It isn’t a panacea, but it can help if they can identify, for themselves, what is worth learning in my class. What I think is “worth learning” may be different, but I cannot ever get them there if they dismiss it as NOT worth learning in the first place!


  2. I also love low-stakes assignments (aka, “early success opportunities” in the language of How Learning Works) and their role in motivating students. Peter Elbow, professor emeritus at U. Mass-Amherst, is a huge and well-known proponent of this practice in his book, Writing Without Teachers. Great blog, Sandy!


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