Feed on

Instructors commonly value deep learning, in which students are authentically engaged in the course material, have natural curiosity, and possess intrinsic motivation for the work.  Some of our students bring this intrinsic motivation and associated tendency toward deep learning with them to the classroom.  Other students find more motivation in external factors, such as grades or the approval of other people. As people passionate about our disciplines, we hope that all students—regardless of where they begin our class—will leave with a greater interest and enjoyment in the subject.  What can we do to promote and preserve the motivation of all students who enter our classrooms?

Here are several tips, targeted especially for the early weeks of the semester, to start off on the right foot:

Target the appropriate challenge level.  Students respond best to tasks slightly above their current skill level.

  • Assess students current knowledge during the first week (or two) of the semester to help you construct assignments at the appropriate level. You might survey students about their past experiences, reasons for taking the course, and concerns about the subject.  Another option is to give a diagnostic pre-test at the beginning of the semester to gauge students’ knowledge and abilities in course topics.
  • Be flexible during the course to respond to students’ growth as well as their challenges. Varied assignments help maintain interest and target different skills.

Be accessible and enthusiastic in your teaching style.

Begin the semester with low-stakes assignments.

  • Early, encouraging feedback supports students’ beliefs that they can do well and offers them opportunities for improvement.
  • Begin scaffolding larger assignments now to reduce anxiety and build new skills over the course of the semester.

Build in choice to increase intrinsic motivation.

  • Students who are allowed some degree of control in their learning tend to be more self-directed, take greater ownership of the work, and devote more effort to the learning.
  • Allowing students to exercise some personal choice in designing their assignments enables them to connect the course to their interests and concerns.
  • Smaller ways to incorporate choices into the classroom include: allowing students to select partners for labs or activities, soliciting student feedback on which topics or questions they want to focus on (especially in review, tutorial or discussion sections), and offering options between different assignments or exam questions.

Connect the course material to the real world.

  • It can be tempting to begin a course with a theoretical approach before moving to applications, but this approach can lose students’ interest and make it more difficult for them to understand the information.
  • Use real-world examples in your teaching to demonstrate the value of the knowledge and help make the information stick.

Provide support outside the classroom.

  • Offer recommendations and information about appropriate academic, professional, and wellness support services on campus.
  • If your class sizes allow, consider requiring all students to visit office hours early in the semester. You will get the opportunity to know your student and their motivators better, and the student will find it easier to seek your help or advice in the future.
  • Treat your students like individuals outside the classroom. Say hello when you see them around campus.  Encourage them to join a broader intellectual community by inviting them to relevant department lectures and events.


Additional reading and sources on motivation:

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Kirk, Karin. “Motivating Students.”   On the Cutting Edge: Strong Undergraduate Geoscience Teaching.  http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/affective/motivation.html

Kyndt, Eva et. al. “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 & Development, 30, no. 2 (2011), 135-150.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. “Motivating Students.” https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/.

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