How can we “motivate” students?

In a recent* post I drew attention to a fantastic graphic I’d discovered illustrating the idea that for “student engagement” to occur, two main things were needed: student motivation, and active learning.

Although the “active learning” bit remains fascinating to me (and the description found in Barkley’s 2010 text of the neuroscience underlying it absolutely filled the neuroscientist in me with delight for its accessibility! In fact, I think I might just swipe quote her paragraph [on p.17] on how neurons work for my class next week…), what I’ve been finding more interesting right now is the ‘motivation’ bit.  Not that motivation is required for engagement, although articulating that is great, and not how we might understand what a student’s personal motivation might be, although asking students about that is probably a good idea. What fascinates me right now is trying to figure out what we as instructors can do to enhance motivation in our students.  

As I work my way through professional courses designed to help instructors learn to better ‘instruct’, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of activities that we can use to encourage ‘active learning’.  I’ve noticed there’s often a sidenote accompanying these activities along the line of “…plus, it’s fun for students!”, which hints at motivation but doesn’t necessarily make it an explicit goal of instruction.  When I talk with colleagues about ‘motivating’ students, I’ve noticed the conversation inevitably turns to manipulating grades, in terms of either ‘bonus marks’ or docking of marks. There seems to be a little niggle in the back of my brain that’s been suggesting that might not be as helpful as I’ve been thinking, and may even be counterproductive…

Can we as instructors hope to influence what seems to be, as Barkley suggests, “an internal state” that “differs considerably from the external manipulation of rewards and punishment”.  “Rewards” as in, for example, offering bonus marks?  “Punishment” as in, for example, docking marks?  I think we might have to look at this a bit differently, because it sounds like the good old standbys of using the promise and/or threat of grades to motivate students might not be accomplishing what we’d like.

Luckily for me, Barkley synthesizes a lovely framework to help instructors figure out how to enhance student motivation.  The first piece to this framework is expressing an”expectancy × value model” of motivation.  This model suggests that a person’s motivation to complete a task is a combination of their expectation of success in the task, how much value they place on the opportunity to do the task itself, and how much they value the rewards of successful task completion.  Makes some sense intuitively – would you be willing to attempt a task that you knew you’d never succeed in, or attempt a task you knew you could succeed in but offered no joy in the attempt and no reward after completion? – but is also backed up by research (summarized in Brophy, 1987 and Cross, 2001).

The second piece addresses what instructors can do to influence student expectations and the value they place on tasks.  Barkley has lovely explanations of things that influence both expectancy and value that I won’t repeat in full here, but wanted to mention a couple things that really stood out for me.

One is that students who don’t succeed at a task “would prefer to question – and have others question – their effort (they’re lazy) rather than their ability (they’re dumb)”.  This comment stood out for me in part because one of my colleagues has taken to including self-assessment questions on our weekly quizzes.  At the start of each quiz is a question along the lines of ‘On a scale of 1-5, where 1 is not at all prepared and 5 is totally prepared, how well do you think you prepared for this quiz?’.  At the end of each quiz is a question along the lines of ‘What will you do to help you prepare better for your next quiz?’  They’ve noticed a reduction in student complaints about their grades… and what seems to be an increased willingness to engage with the material, to do homework and prepare in advance for class.  Hardly scientific evidence, granted, and in part could be attributed to the self-reflection and meta-cognition that’s often referenced as a way to improve learning, but now I’m wondering if it doesn’t also help students shift their focus from their ability to their effort!  There might be a way to capitalize further on that, perhaps by incorporating questions that redirect students’ attention away from the idea that they can’t learn something just because they’ve “never been good at it”…

The other idea that stood out for me is that offering external rewards for something that had already been intrinsically rewarding actually diminishes intrinsic motivation as well as quality of performance.  By trying to reward students with grades, bonus marks, praise, or incentives, it seems that we’re reducing students’ intrinsic motivation, which could then reduce their overall motivation and thereby reduce student engagement. What at first blush looks like an easy way for instructors to motivate students actually seems to be counterproductive :-/ Thankfully, Wlodkowski (2008) offers some suggestions for instructors to increase intrinsic motivation without relying on a simple ‘rewards’ model that can be summarized as (1) make the goals of an activity clear, (2) provide immediate, continuous, and relevant feedback during the activity, and (3) challenge students to both use and extend their existing skills and knowledge.

Barkley (2010) expands on those ideas by providing some more specific tips & strategies to foster student motivation, along with criticisms where applicable; I won’t get into the details here other than to point out two that any instructor should be able to incorporate immediately and with relatively little time investment, and which I see as the most fundamental of all the ‘tips & strategies’ offered:

Expect engagement.


Expect students to succeed.

I’d add to those a note to decide in advance to not beat yourself up if those expectations aren’t met!  We’re none of us perfect either.  But motivation and by extension engagement can be contagious… in my experience having even a few engaged students in a class can make all the difference in the world to the apparent overall engagement level of a class. Starting off by assuming that students will be engaged and successful will avoid inadvertently stifling those who are already highly motivated, and give us a head start with any additional ‘enhancement’ we might wish to do.


*OK fine, so I’m cutting myself some slack here.  Let’s face it, by the time this post is published any self-respecting frequent-user-of-the-internet wouldn’t be using the term “recent” 😉


Barkley, E. F. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brophy, J. E. (1987) Synthesis of research on strategies for motivating students to learn.  Educational Leadership, 5(2) 40-48.

Cross, K. P. (2001, February) Motivation: Er… will that be on the test?  Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008) Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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