Best Practices, Collaboration, Pedagogy

Pedagogy Pointer – Student Motivation

Motivation is defined as the “general desire or willingness of someone to do something” and it’s what we are all after –

Motivated Students

Motivation can be divided into three types:

  • Amotivation – lack of any motivation; going through the motions.
  • Intrinsic motivation – for self enjoyment or interest; because the individual wants to for their own betterment.
  • Extrinsic motivation – to obtain an outcome; avoid feelings of guilt; to benefit someone else.

Our current educational system relies on extrinsic motivation by introducing “external controls, close supervision and monitoring, and evaluations accompanied by rewards or punishments (grades) into learning climates to ensure that learning occurs.”(Ryan and Brown, 2005)   However, Deci and Ryan (2000) posit that the best type of motivation is intrinsic and they tie motivation to three basic psychological needs, for competenceautonomy, and relatedness.

Let’s take a look at how you can use these three needs to motivate students in your own classes! 


This is the feeling that they are not completely over their head.  CAN I DO THE WORK?

  • Hold high but realistic expectations for your students and make these expectations very clear to your students.  When instructors expect the best work from their students, research has shown that students generally rise to the task.(1)
  • In addition to setting high expectations, make it clear that you believe they CAN meet the expectations. (2)
  • Encourage students to focus on their continued improvement, not just on their grade on any one test or assignment.(2)  To do this, you may need to restructure your assessments.  Allow for low-stakes rote learning assessments to be done multiple times until they “master” the material.  Or allow large projects to be done in pieces where you give feedback on the pieces but not a lot of feedback on the final project.  This gives the students the opportunity to learn and develop before turning in the final project.
  • Communicate clear expectations for each assignment (e.g., use rubrics). (2)
  • Provide lots of early feedback to students but only if giving them an opportunity to resubmit and learn from the feedback. (2)
  • Have students provide peer feedback. (2)
  • Scaffold assignments. (2)
  • Praise student effort and hard work (2). This doesn’t mean that you don’t give them a grade eventually or praise poor work. It just means that you acknowledge when a student is learning from their mistakes.  It’s all part of making learning the focus and not making it all about grades.
  • Provide a safe environment for students to fail and then learn from their mistakes (2).  As I said before, this needs to be reiterated at the beginning of the semester and often throughout the term.  This expectation of improvement and moving toward mastery needs to be the mantra of you and your students.


Autonomy allows students to express themselves and their learning in different ways.  These suggestions come from Yarborough, C. B., & Fedesco, H. N. (2020) out of Vanderbilt University.

  • When possible, allow students to choose assignments.  For large assignments or high-stakes assessments offer two or three assignment alternatives.  They should all accomplish the same learning outcomes.
  • Have students choose the medium with which they will present their work.  For example, all students may do the same assignment with the same rubric, but how it looks may be different for each student.   It may be a video, a presentation, a paper, a flyer, etc. When you can give this type of freedom you should.
  • Co-create assessment rubrics with students (e.g., participation rubrics, assignment rubrics).
  • Have students choose the topics you will cover in a particular unit.  Not for every unit but you could leave one or two classes where the students can vote on what’s covered.
  • Drop the lowest assessment or two (e.g., quizzes, exams, homework).
  • Have students identify preferred assignment deadlines within reason.  This flexibility could be as simple as something being due on a Mon, Wed, or Fri of a week.
  • Gather mid-semester feedback and make changes based on student suggestions.
  • Provide meaningful rationales for learning activities.  All assessments should have a “why” with them.  This why will also blend into making class items relatable.
  • Acknowledge students’ feelings about the learning process or learning activities throughout the course.


Relatedness revolves around where or not the student sees value or importance in what they are learning.  DO I WANT TO DO THE WORK?  However, it can also relate to how the student feels supported within the class and by faculty and peers.

The University of Wisconsin guide on student motivation states that “students usually direct their behavior toward activities that they value and in which they have some expectancy of success.” (1). Therefore, providing this relatedness or relevance is critical to student motivation.  Below are a few suggestions to increase this relevance.

  • Be enthusiastic about your subject. (1) This enthusiasm will not only be contagious but it will show the students why this subject matters to you and it may begin to matter to them.
  • Design tests that encourage the kind of learning you want students to achieve. (1) Add application questions or use case studies so that your students see the application and relevance.
  • Share personal anecdotes. (2)
  • Get to know students via small talk before/after class and during breaks. (2) Establishing this relationship may help you tailor content to meet students’ expectations.
  • Have students complete a survey where they share information about themselves and how this information relates to the subject.  Again so you can relate it back in lectures and personalize the subject.
  • Require students to come to office hours (individually or in small groups). (2) Again, gives you a chance to get to know them and it shows you care about their success in your class and you can offer the support they may not feel comfortable asking for.
  • Use students’ names (perhaps with the help of name tents). (2)
  • Have students incorporate personal interests into their assignments. (2)
  • Incorporate group activities during class, and allow students to work with a variety of peers.(2)
  • Convey warmth, caring, and respect to students.(2)

Want to know what motivates your students?


Make it their first homework assignment to reflect on what motivates the to attempt to do well in a class.


Remember – Students are more willing to challenge themselves when they engage in meaningful work. 



(1) Motivating Students, University of Wisconsin Whitewater, Retrieved June 13, 2021 from

(2) Yarborough, C. B., & Fedesco, H. N. (2020). Motivating students. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved July 6, 2021 from

(3) Lonsdale, C., Hodge, K., & Rose, E. (2009). Athlete burnout in elite sport: A self-determination perspective. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27, 785-795.

(4) Deci, E.L. and Ryan, R.M. 2000. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11: 227–268.

(5) Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7, 133-144.

(6) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford