It’s an age-old problem faced by teachers: how to motivate students. While research has found a correlation between motivation and academic achievement, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to inspiring your students to engage in course material. But, with a bit of effort, you can effectively motivate different types of learners and, ultimately, improve student outcomes.
How to motivate students: Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation
Students are motivated by either intrinsic or extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation means they’re genuinely interested in the subject matter and feel it’s relevant to their lives. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is driven by external factors such as grades, parental expectations or future earning potential.
Each has its pros and cons. Intrinsic learners are self-motivated to master the subject matter; they’re also more likely to retain information. But for instructors, efforts to foster this take time. It requires getting to know individual students, learning what interests them and tweaking the curriculum to reflect that.
It’s easier to motivate extrinsic learners — they might be seeking a certain grade to get into a field of study or keep a scholarship (or avoid the wrath of angry parents). But it’s not the most effective approach for lifelong learning.
“Often, one needs to escalate the rewards and punishments over time to maintain a certain effect level. Also, extrinsic motivators typically do not work over the long term. Once the rewards or punishments are removed, students lose their motivation,” according to Matt DeLong and Dale Winter in Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Mathematics.1
But rarely do students fall into one of those two buckets. Even intrinsically motivated students can be driven by “the desire for grades, approval and other rewards. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist not on a single continuum, but on two separate ones, and students may often have multiple goals for the same course,” says the University of Wisconsin Whitewater’s center for teaching and learning.2
Deep, strategic and surface learners
It’s also important to recognize different learning styles when considering how to motivate students. Some students are deep learners who thrive when mastering a complex subject. Strategic learners, however, are motivated by rewards, while surface learners are basically trying to avoid failure.
While deep learners are generally self-motivated, engaging strategic learners means getting them interested in the subject matter and designing assignments around meaningful learning (versus rote learning). Otherwise, they’ll simply memorize facts to pass the class.
Motivating surface learners is different: If they’re afraid of failure, they need to gain confidence in their ability to learn and succeed. This can be accomplished by scaffolding course material, so they see incremental improvements—and so they’re motivated to move beyond doing only what’s necessary to pass the class.
While there are different types of motivation—and different types of learners—educators can ‘fuel’ that motivation in the classroom through teaching strategies.
The self-determination theory, or SDT, states that students are more likely to become self-motivated when three needs are met: autonomy, competence and relatedness. What instructors are striving for is autonomous motivation, when students are motivated to study and engage because they enjoy the subject matter or feel it has value.
When they feel external pressure to do so (such as studying to get a certain grade or to please their parents), that’s controlled motivation, and it’s far less effective.
“The SDT shifts from the traditional distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to a distinction between autonomous and controlled motivation,” according to the Center for Education and Learning, a group of three Dutch universities. “Autonomous motivation is desirable in students, because it positively relates to effective study outcomes, such as deeper learning and better time-management. Controlled motivation, on the other hand, hampers learning.”3
Some tips on how to motivate students
One method that could solve the problem of how to motivate students is to increase feelings of autonomy in the learning environment, namely by providing them with choices and responsibilities. For example, let them choose essay or project topics that interest them, and assess them in a variety of ways—not just exams, but projects, presentations and group work—so they have different ways of showcasing their understanding of a topic.
Getting to know your students will help tailor instruction and inspire loyalty. But it’s also important to show them the importance of what they’re learning. If students don’t see the relevance of what they’re being asked to do, they won’t be motivated.
Since students are motivated differently (and in multiple ways), use a variety of teaching methods to engage students, particularly those that involve student participation and active learning. Role-playing, debates, discussions, presentations and group work, for example, will motivate students beyond intrinsic or extrinsic goals.
In research on how to motivate students in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Paul Pintrich finds that students aren’t motivated solely by academic goals. They’re also motivated by ‘social’ goals, which highlights “the importance of peer groups and interactions with other students as important contexts for the shaping and development of motivation, a context that has tended to be ignored.”
Ensure assignments, projects and exams are challenging, but not impossibly hard; tasks that are too hard or too easy are equally de-motivating. Set expectations by telling students exactly what they need to do to succeed in your class. Offer encouragement, make note of a job well done and ensure any negative feedback is constructive and nonjudgmental.
We know, anecdotally, that enthusiasm is infectious. “Students can catch motivation from a teacher who is obviously, unabashedly in love with the content and teaching,” according to Faculty Focus.4 When it comes to motivating students in your classroom, nothing can beat your own unabashed passion.