Student Motivation and Learning

As we near midterm season, and the wildly-fluctuating attendance patterns that go with it, student motivation becomes more and more of a salient issue for us—in particular, how our students’ motivation levels ebb and flow throughout a given semester, and ways in which we might successfully improve motivation for our students in and out of class.

We’ve all experienced the soul-crushing effects of a class full of unmotivated students: the awkward silences where we expected robust discussion, the blank stares when we ask about the simplest part of the assigned reading. Why don’t they care about this stuff, we keep asking ourselves, and how can I get them to care? Student motivation is one of the primary factors influencing academic performance and retention of course material. So we often face a dilemma: how can students succeed in our courses if they lack one of the essential ingredients of that success? Doesn’t motivation have to come from within? Why should I have to turn into a cheerleader, doing some rah-rah routine or dog and pony show, just to get my students to care?

The good news is, however, that the research shows us that as faculty, we can actually have a quite significant impact on students’ motivation to learn—and it doesn’t involve us waving pom-poms in front of them. There are two basic types of student motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsically motivated students are the easy ones; they come to our class with an interest in the subject already, and they tend to have self-efficacy when it comes to coursework and academic success. Extrinsically motivated students are a bit different—for some, a letter grade is the motivating factor. For others, though, what instructors do, and how they do it, can make all the difference in the world.

The links for this week will take you to some good general resources on academic motivation, and how we as instructors can use particular strategies to enhance it within our students. Start here, at this page from Carleton College’s Science Education Research Center, which has great introductions, summaries, and links to further research. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has a good overview and some basic strategies for motivating students. as does this page from the University of Texas’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence also has a set of ideas geared specifically toward increasing student participation that you may find useful. Research on student motivation has shown that for certain subjects, student motivation levels can be more problematic. 

Moreover, we are beginning to realize just how much of an impact students’ emotions–and their regulation–have on motivation, and thus their learning. Our Summer Institute speaker this year, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, has done extensive research in this area, and her findings can offer a lot of food for thought when it comes to our own classroom practice. She recently appeared on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and wrote an essay in Vitae that points to the importance of emotions for students’ deeper learning. Make plans now to attend the Summer Institute on May 23 and 24 to hear more about Cavanagh’s fascinating work and its application to our own classroom practice.

Need help with a teaching and learning question? Want to dive deeper into any of these topics? Email or come by the CETL to schedule a consultation!

Finally, may all of your students be as motivated as this persistent pup:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.