Motivation Schmotivation

What Can We Do About Students’ Motivation?

Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon insisted that “learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” This is why motivation is essential for learning; it “influences the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which students engage” (Ambrose et al. 2010).

A student who is not motivated will do less to learn than a student who is motivated, and like us, students do not always feel motivated. (You may have many who are not feeling particularly motivated now.) It’s normal for motivation to ebb and flow, so it’s important for us to remind students (and ourselves, when we feel unmotivated) that just because they’re not feeling motivated at the moment, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them, or that they will never feel motivated again, or that they should give up.

Motivation can return when circumstances change. Whether a student (or any person) feels motivated actually depends a lot upon the environment in which they’re working. Although we might think of motivation as a character trait, or a static quality students do or don’t possess (e.g., “this student is motivated,” “this student is not motivated,” “this student needs to get motivated”), and a factor entirely beyond our control, we actually have quite a bit of influence over the conditions in which our students learn, so we can do quite a bit to motivate (or demotivate) them.

Three factors through which we can influence our students’ motivation include 1) whether they see value in the work they’re doing, 2) whether they feel like it will be possible to succeed if they put in the effort, and 3) whether they feel that the environment is supportive (Ambrose et al. 2010). Here is a brief summary of some of the ways we can influence these three factors:

  1. Establishing Value: We can help students to see value in the coursework by helping them to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They often don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to learn from their assignments, and how the knowledge and skills they develop in our courses will help them later in the course, in future courses, in a career, or in civic life. We can help students see value in the work they do by making the purpose more transparent ; by including authentic, real-world tasks in our courses; and by helping students connect the goals of the course with the goals they have for themselves. We can also show our own passion for our fields, because enthusiasm is contagious.
  2. Increasing Expectancies for Success: If students believe they’re going to fail no matter how hard they try, they’ll see little reason to make any effort. In fact, they might disengage from the course completely to save themselves from embarrassment. This is why we must avoid attempts to motivate students through “reverse psychology” (e.g., “most students will not pass this exam”). Instead, we want students to believe (and see evidence) that their hard work will result in learning and learning will result in success. So we need to design courses in which it’s possible to learn and succeed, including by giving students work that is level-appropriate and increasing the challenge at a reasonable pace. Early success builds confidence students can draw on as they stretch to achieve new goals. We can also help by giving them clear instructions and expectations, so that they understand what successful work does and doesn’t look like, and so that they have a clear picture in their minds of what they need to do and the process that will help them get there.
  3. Creating a Supportive Environment: When we think of creating a supportive environment, we often imagine warmth in communicating with students: expressing high expectations and confidence that students can meet them, expressing care and encouragement, and building relationships. Those things are important, but even faculty who are very reserved can build supportive environments: the course itself can be designed to be supportive, by including ample opportunities for practice and feedback, so that students can develop knowledge and skills over time, under the guidance of an expert who wants them to learn and succeed.
If you’d like to learn more about motivation and related topics, we encourage you to explore the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose and her colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University. It’s available as a free ebook through FSU’s libraries, and it’s a popular selection for our faculty reading groups. We also love talking with our colleagues about motivation, and helping them figure out course-appropriate ways to pull those three levers that influence what students are willing to do to learn, so please reach out and schedule a consultation by emailing us at We look forward to working with you!