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Motivating Students

As student-focused professors, we all chase after the illusive student motivation in an effort to improve their learning. There are many theories of motivation, but not a single model that holds up for all kinds of students. Therefore, we need to be fluent in different models of motivation. We need to use tools that will enable us to motivate most of the students most of the time. It will be a heavy toolbox, for there are many suggestions about methods for increasing students’ motivation.

Implicit & Explicit Motivation

One theory contrasts implicit and explicit motivation. When we are implicitly motivated, we learn because we find the subject fascinating, because we want to achieve mastery of the subject or because we are naturally curious about the subject. Implicit motivation is a personal, internal motivation. Explicit motivations are external. We want to achieve a structured goal or a prize for learning. We learn because we want good grades. We learn because it makes our professor happy. Indeed, one of the most powerful extrinsic motivators comes from others’ (professors, peers, parents) expectations. There are various arguments and a great deal of research investigating the nature of these opposing motivations, but there is no evidence that one type is better than the other. Perhaps best for our purposes is to know that these motivations exist and attempt to increase them whenever possible.

Performance & Learning Goal Orientations

We can also contrast different goal orientations. Performance goals are evaluative, such as wanting to score well on a test. Students with performance goals tend to be focused on earning a grade or competing with other students. They may put forth minimum effort and be unwilling to take risks to learn material. Learning goals are internal, such as wanting to master the material. Students with learning goals are interested in learning because they want to understand and utilize the material. They are not concerned with their relative performance and are willing to take risks in their learning. Both of these forms of motivation exist and can be manipulated for students’ benefits.

Goal Setting

Students’ goal setting also influences motivation. Simply setting a goal to achieve is sometimes enough to motivate students to try to attain that goal. It increases students’ persistence, energy, and willingness to work to achieve the learning goal. For goal setting to work, a few characteristics of the learning situation need to be in place. Students have to make a choice to create the goal themselves. The goal needs to be specific and measurable. They need to be given feedback about their progress toward meeting the goal. Finally, the goal needs to be challenging, but achievable.


We should focus on the value students place on their learning goals. The more value they see in achieving learning goals, the more motivated they will be. We can increase the value of learning goals by showing the relevance of the material to their current or future lives. We can increase value by giving students choices about how they learn and how they demonstrate their competencies. The more we can boost the value of what they are learning, the more motivated they will be to persist and invest energy in learning.


Another theory emphasizes the students’ expectancy for success. Students need to believe that their learning goals are achievable or they will not invest in learning. They need to believe they are capable of achieving goals. This requires making our learning activities just right, neither too difficult nor to easy. Challenge with achievable goals maximizes our students’ expectancies for success.

Deep & Surface Learners

We can mix motivation with different learning styles. Deep learners are motivated to master the material they are learning. They are not as focused on grades, but rather how well they can understand and use the material. Strategic learners are motivated by grades. They work hard to achieve the best grades and are fueled by competition to do better. However they are not motivated to go beyond the required amount for their grade. Surface learners are motivated to avoid failure. They often do enough work to pass, but don’t go beyond that. They have a fear of failure and aren’t willing to take risks in their learning.

Cognitive Perspective

A cognitive perspective on motivation focuses on the goals that drive the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of work towards different learning goals. There can be multiple goals coexisting in learners’ perspectives. Performance goals are those existing when a learner tries to measure up to some standard, not simply pursuing the goal for the love of learning itself. For example, the learner may be trying to achieve a certain grade or maintain a certain level of competence or self-efficacy. Performance goals can be separated into performance-approach goals, in which the learner attempts to master learning performance, or performance-avoidant, in which the learner attempts to avoid failure. In contrast, learning goals are active when the learner engages to master the material, for the love of learning, or because they value the activity of learning itself. According to this theory, the value places on the goal (e.g., this is something of value to one’s future or current success) and expectations for meeting the goal (e.g., this is something that is achievable given sufficient effort) both place constraints on the motivation toward attaining the goal. And finally, the instructional environment, to the extent that it is empowering or supportive, effects one’s motivation toward the goal. This theory intertwined the concepts of values, expectancies, and environments to paint different pictures of motivation. The bottom line is that we should keep all the variables in mind when working toward increasing students’ motivation.

                Thus, there are many ways to think about motivation. If we keep these disparate views in mind we can come up with ways to maximize motivation for most students, most of the time. This list is not meant to be a prescription, but more like a smorgasbord from which you select different motivators that work within your own approach. Nilson (2016) identifies the following strategies as simple ways to manipulate motivation:

Strategies for Maximizing Motivation (Nilson, 2016)
Your Persona
  • Deliver your presentations with enthusiasm and energy
  • Explain your reasons for being so interested in the material
  • Make the course personal
  • Get to know your students
  • Let your students get to know you
  • Learn your students’ names and help them learn one another’s names
  • Foster good lines of communication in both directions
  • Use humor where appropriate
  • Maintain classroom order and civility
Your Course and Subject Matter
  • Design and develop your course with care and explain your choices to students
  • Allow students some voice in choosing aspects of learning or performance
  • Build in readings and activities that will move students beyond their simplistic dualistic beliefs about your field
  • Highlight the occupational potential of your subject matter
  • Motivate students to do the readings or homework on time
  • Create a safe learning environment with room for failure
Your Teaching
  • Help students realize that they can transfer skills
  • Explain the value and personal meaning of your material and activities
  • Use examples, anecdotes, and realistic case studies freely
  • Provide models of major homework assignments
  • Ensure that students review the material at least two or three times in different modalities
  • Teach by inquiry when possible
  • Use a variety of student-active teaching formats and methods
  • Share strategies and tips for students to learn the material
  • Use group learning formats
  • Bring the arts into your teaching to stir student emotions
  • Make the material accessible
  • Hold students to high expectations
Your Assignments and Tests
  • Reinforce the idea that all students can improve their cognitive and other abilities with practice
  • Give students opportunities for success early in the term
  • Give frequent positive feedback early in the course
  • Provide many and varied opportunities for graded assessment
  • Give students plenty of opportunities to practice
  • Sequence your learning outcomes and assessments
  • Give students practice tests
  • Provide review sheets that tell students what cognitive operations they will have to perform with key concepts on the tests
  • Focus your tests and assignments on their conceptual understanding and ability to apply the material
  • Assign tasks that build in challenge and some desirable difficulty
  • Set realistic performance goals, and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals
  • Design assignments that are appropriately challenging
  • Assess students on how well they achieve the learning outcomes
  • Allow students options for demonstrating their learning
  • Design authentic, useful assignments and activities
  • Give assignments that have students reflect on their progress
  • Evaluate student-constructed work by an explicit rubric
  • Be fair
  • Give students prompt and constant feedback
  • Accentuate the positive in grading
  • Let students assess themselves
  • Inform students about your previous students who have succeeded
  • Give students second chances
  • Use criterion-referenced grading
  • Use specifications grading
  • Give extra credit only to students who have successfully completed their regular assigned work
  • Role model a learning orientation and encourage it


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C. & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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