Teaching Today's Students, Tips on Teaching

Channeling Student Motivation

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Student motivation can be an elusive creature.  Many of us have come up with the perfect lesson plan to convey the most exciting subject matter that our discipline offers…only to look out upon a sea of lifeless faces.  Yet, when we step out into the sunshine and see students tossing Frisbees and exchanging ideas on the lawn, we know that they are full of energy.  How do we channel that energy into the classroom?

The authors of How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching take principles from the science of learning and distill them into practical strategies to help channel student motivation.   Here’s a glimpse of three of these learning principles and the practical strategies that flow from them.

1) Students are motivated by “personal investment” toward reaching a goal.

Students have many competing goals, often in competition with our goals for them.   At any given time in our classes, students may “seek to acquire knowledge and skills, make new friends, demonstrate to others that they are intelligent, gain a sense of independence, and have fun.”  Our goals for our students are focused around their learning.  We may aim for them to gain understanding that comes from “intellectual risk-taking,” or see connections between the subject matter and everyday life. By getting to know our students, and learning what they value, we can connect the learning goals we have for them with the areas they are already invested in.

2) “When confronted by multiple goals,” students will pursue that which they most value.   

We can use this commonsense reality in our classrooms by connecting for students the intrinsic value of our subject matter—those inherently pleasurable habits of thinking and questioning in our disciplines—with the extrinsic value of a college education—the good grades, the path to a profession, the ability to connect with others, which students often focus on.  The authors suggest these strategies to connect the intrinsic value of our subject matter with what students value:

  • Connect material to student interest.  How is the material you are teaching relevant to them?  How can you bring that relevance into the classroom?
  • Provide authentic, real-world tasks.  Can you create assignments that require students to use the knowledge of the course to solve or enter into real-world problems?  Engaging in these assignments will build their understanding of the material as intrinsically important to them.  Connecting them with real-life situations can also connect with their other values, such as making professional connections.
  • Show how your course is relevant to other academic experiences.  While you may see the connections between your course and other courses students may take, they may not be making those connections.
  • Demonstrate the relevance of the skills they are learning to their future professional lives.   What are they learning that they will carry away with them?  How can you show them that these skills are important for their future careers?

3) Students are most “motivated to pursue goals and outcomes that they believe that can successfully achieve.” 

In order for students to believe that they can achieve the goal of doing well in a course, they need to believe a) that doing the work will result in doing well in the course, b) that doing the work will require substantial, challenging effort, c) that they are “capable of doing that work,” and d) that they are supported in their efforts.  This principle calls for teachers to achieve the tricky balance of helping students expect that they have the capacity to do well, while at the same time challenging them enough so that they need to really put themselves into the work.  Challenging but attainable is a difficult balance to strike.  Too challenging may tip them into discouragement; too easy to attain may let them slip into apathy.   The authors suggest the following strategies to help students build “positive expectancy”:

  • Align your learning objectives, assessments, and “instructional strategies,” and be transparent about what these are.  Let students clearly know what the goals of the course are, and how those align with what you are doing on a daily basis.
  • “Identify an appropriate level of challenge.”  In order for students to feel challenged, you need to know what their prior knowledge and capabilities are.  Give early, informal diagnostics to assess the level of knowledge and skill of the class.  Talk to colleagues about what their students have been able to do in similar courses.
  • “Provide early success opportunities.”  Student expectations that they will succeed are based on doing well in the past.  Short, early assignments—with feedback from you—can show students the level of effort they need to put forth in order to succeed.
  • Provide Rubrics.  Explicitly represent your expectations for any given assignment.  Rubrics show visually what characterizes work of a given quality.  They also may help you to establish for yourself what you are looking for—what are the components of the task, what are the expectations for performance.
  • Provide “targeted feedback.”  Feedback is most useful when timely and constructive.  Give feedback as soon as possible to the performance/task, so that it is fresh in their minds.  Provide students an opportunity to do something with the feedback—revise or reflect.  Giving them the option (or mandate) to revise a paper or a providing a structured reflection on exam performance, such as an exam wrapper, can help students to process feedback.

Tap into your students’ energy by showing them how your course is relevant to their academic, professional, and personal lives.  Motivate students to rise to the challenge of your course by showing them clearly what your objectives are, making it clear what they need to do to meet those objectives, and giving them support along the way.


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. John Wiley & Sons.

See also the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation webpage on learning and teaching principles:  http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/principles/index.html.